When asked to picture the typical alcoholic, many people will think back to portrayals of alcoholism they have seen in forms of media – TV dramas, films, and descriptions in books. However, what this often fails to capture is the reality that there is no single set of characteristics that can accurately describe every alcoholic.
Some of the most common and misleading ideas about alcoholism are those that concern what alcoholism looks like, and who it can affect. Despite widespread depictions of alcoholics as severely disheveled or constantly drunk, nearly 20 percent of alcoholics in the U.S. are believed to be what experts call high-functioning.
What Is Functional Alcoholism?
Functional alcoholism – also referred to as ‘high-functioning’ – is a subtype of alcoholism that describes people who on the outside can appear to be functioning normally while abusing alcohol in private.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), common characteristics of a functioning alcoholic include:
- have a steady job
- often have families or are in a steady relationship
- family history of alcoholism
As a result of these high-functioning characteristics, many functioning alcoholics can have their drinking fly under the radar until it becomes more of a significant problem in their day-to-day lives.
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Regardless of how severe a person’s drinking can seem on the surface, alcoholism is a serious disease that can have both short and long-term consequences in all areas of a person’s life. If you suspect someone in your life is a functioning alcoholic, professional alcohol abuse treatment may be needed to address the extent of their drinking.
Below are five common signs of a high-functioning alcoholic:
1. Drinking To Cope With Stress
There are many types of stress that adults face in their everyday lives, from stress related to work, to caring for a family, or more specific forms of stress such as that related to relationship problems, divoce, or sudden job loss. It’s not uncommon for an adult to have a drink at the end of the work week, but using alcohol as your sole means of stress relief can indicate a problem.
Drinking to relieve major or minor stress can very quickly lead to habit of frequent and heavy drinking. Although alcohol may initially provide relief, drinking on a frequent basis to relieve stress can lead to higher tolerance and alcohol dependence. This can result in cravings, concentration difficulties, and alcohol withdrawal.
Alcohol can also have the negative effect of worsening stress-related problems such as depression, anxiety, and trouble sleeping.
2. Drinking During The Day
When someone has developed a dependence on alcohol, for many the only way to prevent withdrawal symptoms throughout the day is to drink more alcohol. This can lead to behaviors such as hiding alcohol at work, sneaking drinks on work breaks, or drinking upon waking in the morning to feel ‘normal’.
One occasion of day-drinking does not confirm that a person is an alcoholic, but paired with some of the following behavioral signs, it may be a cause for concern:
- day-drinking on a frequent basis
- trying to hide their day-drinking
- making jokes about how often they drink
- minimizing the problems drinking has on their health or other areas of their lives
- shows signs of withdrawal (e.g. headache, anxiety, fatigue, sweating, nausea, foggy thinking)
Early alcohol withdrawal symptoms can begin within six to 24 hours after a person’s last drink. For a functional alcoholic, day-drinking can be a way to prevent these withdrawal symptoms. It may also be a way for people to relieve cravings for alcohol throughout the day, which can be a sign of psychological addiction.
3. Frequently Drinking Alone
People who develop an addiction to alcohol may often drink alone, as a way to either avoid detection from others or due to feelings of shame or embarrassment. This can present a stark difference from people who drink in times of celebration, at parties, or other events where drinking is considered an accepted social pastime.
Alcoholics can also attend these festivities, and may still drink with others. However, if the person continues to go home and drink, or even avoids these outings in order to drink heavily alone without judgement, this can indicate a problem.
In these instances, it may be useful to ask yourself – or your loved one who drinks alone – why they choose to do so. Are they embarrassed to drink around others? Are they drinking because they are depressed, or because they feel they need more alcohol? What purpose does their drinking alone serve?
4. Heavy And Frequent Drinking
The drinking habits of a functioning alcoholic can vary from person to person, but will most likely lead to an increase in amount and frequency over time. Moderate drinking is defined as drinking up to one drink a day for women, and up to two drinks for men – a limit that alcoholics are likely to surpass once their tolerance increases.
Based on the type of alcohol, a standard drink looks like:
- wine: 5 oz
- beer: 12 oz (about 5% alcohol) or 8-9 oz malt liquor (7%)
- hard liquor/spirits: 1.5 oz
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), drinking more than three drinks a day for women, or four for men, can increase a person’s risk for developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD).
If a person is regularly drinking heavy amounts of alcohol, or is unable to go a day without drinking, this may indicate that they have developed a dependence on alcohol. This can be both physical and psychological – or one or the other, early on.
5. Denial Or Avoidance
Alcoholics are unlikely to admit to someone upfront that they have a drinking problem, and may not even recognize their drinking as a problem themselves.
Denial is one of the most common traits found in functioning alcoholics, and may be maintained by an alcoholic for as long as they can point to some example of their being able to function normally in their normal routine.
While a functioning alcoholic may experience less consequences of their drinking compared to some others, they can also be in denial about the ways in which their drinking does impact their life. What fuels this kind of thinking for many functioning alcoholics is holding onto a sense of control. If they feel they can control just how far-reaching the effects of their drinking is on their lives, then they can still tell themselves – and others that they don’t have a problem.
Time, however, tends to show that this is not sustainable. Without seeking help, functional alcoholics will eventually begin to feel the greater wear of their drinking on their physical and mental health.
Consequences Of Functional Alcoholism
Any form of alcohol abuse, even in its stealthier forms, can become serious and have damaging effects on both physical and mental health. In time, functioning alcoholism can develop into more severe forms of alcoholism, leading to problems such as: liver damage, mental fogginess, and severe dependence.
Functioning alcoholics can also still experience problems in other areas of their life due to their alcohol use. Many alcoholics experience problems socially, financially, and can have a difficult time maintaining healthy relationships with loved ones as their drinking increases.
Additional health problems and dangers that can occur with functioning alcoholism include:
- difficulty sleeping
- violent or aggressive behavior
- drinking while driving
- alcohol poisoning
Regardless of how mild or severe you may suspect a person’s alcoholism is, it’s worthwhile to seek a professional opinion. Most addiction specialists have a sharp eye when it comes to the different signs of an alcoholic, and will be able to recommend a course of treatment based on the person’s needs.
If you or someone you know identifies with the signs of a functioning alcoholic, treatment within an alcohol rehab program may be helpful to address the extent of the person’s drinking.
Alcohol addiction can be a difficult problem for any person to face in themselves or a loved one, but with the number of treatment services available, it’s not a problem that has to be faced alone.
Our residential drug and alcohol treatment center in Scurry offers an effective and restorative program in Texas for alcoholics to detox and overcome addiction. Treatment at Vertava Health Texas offers an individualized approach capable of personalizing each patient’s treatment in a way that best suits their personal needs, based on the severity of their alcoholism, any previous treatment experiences, and other factors.
To learn more about alcohol rehab at Vertava Health Texas, formerly The Treehouse, for yourself or a loved one, contact one of our treatment specialists today.