A fully functioning alcoholic could be damaging their own physical and mental health. Their drinking could be putting a strain on relationships and adding extra pressure at work. It could lead to poor decisions, criminal behaviour and abuse. Even if they seem to be holding everything together, they could be one session or incident from falling apart.
For many people in the UK and beyond, alcohol is a normal part of everyday life. Because it is legal, easily accessible and largely socially acceptable, alcohol tends to be viewed very differently than other, illegal drugs. Despite this, alcohol can be extremely harmful, both to individuals and society as a whole. Charity Alcohol Change UK says that alcohol misuse is the single biggest risk factor for ill-health, disability and premature death amongst 15-49 year olds in the UK, although it can also affect other age groups. A quarter of adults regularly drink more than the low-risk guidelines set by the Chief Medical Officer and there are an estimated 586,780 dependant drinkers in England alone. Less than a fifth of these are receiving any kind of treatment for their addiction.
There’s a view of alcoholics as dishevelled people living a chaotic lifestyle, who may be homeless or drinking on the streets. This description does fit many alcoholics but there is another subset of people with serious drinking problems. The definition of a high functioning alcoholic is someone who may present a ‘normal’ face to the world. They might be holding down a job or even succeeding in a high-pressure career. They might be well turned out and appear to be in a perfectly happy relationship, meeting their responsibilities. Behind the scenes though, they may are drinking heavily and are not in control. This is often done in secret but family members and other people close to them are often aware.
It isn’t only the alcoholic themselves who are damaged by their drinking and behaviour. Their loved ones and others around them are also affected.
Signs of a functioning alcoholic
Addictions of all kinds go hand in hand with dishonesty and self-denial. The high functioning alcoholic may convince themselves that their drinking is normal or nothing to be concerned about. Even if they sometimes drink too much or get out of hand, that doesn’t mean they are an alcoholic, right. It can be difficult to admit that you are an alcoholic as there is still a lot of stigma attached in some people’s eyes. Functional alcoholic denial is common but recognising that you have a problem is very important and a big positive step however.
Here are some signs to look for in yourself if you think your drinking may be a problem:
- Your alcohol consumption has gone up
- You drink every day
- You crave a drink when you do not have one
- You experience temporary blackouts or short-term memory loss
- You drink alone or in secret
- You justify drinking with reasons or excuses such as stress or ‘as a reward’ after work
- You avoid activities and situations where you cannot drink
- You feel hungover when you do not drink
How to know if someone is a functioning alcoholic
But how do you know if you are married to a functioning alcoholic, for example, or whether a friend, colleague or family member is a fully functioning alcoholic? Some of the signs above may apply and other things to look out for could include:
- They lie to you or underplay their drinking
- Finding empty bottles and cans
- They experience mood swings
- Their personality changes
- They are more aggressive or behave differently when drunk
- Their social circle changes or revolves around drinking
- They have difficulty controlling their consumption, even after saying they will stop (‘Just one more’)
Living with a functioning alcoholic
Whether you are dating a functional alcoholic, living together or married with kids, a partner’s heavy drinking can put a severe strain on any relationship. Your spouse or partner may be a caring and loving individual when sober but could turn into a different person when drinking. Not every functional alcoholic parent or partner is abusive but drinking is often a factor in domestic abuse and other cases involving violence.
Even if they are not being physically or mentally abusive, alcoholism can damage relationships in other ways. Chronic heavy drinking can put a strain on finances and may affect the drinker’s work-life or career, even if they are a functioning alcoholic. They might spend the majority of their spare time at the pub or drunk at home. They might neglect other responsibilities to do with family, friends and home life. Living with a functioning alcoholic when you have children can be particularly problematic. Even if they are not abusive or short-tempered they might not take their share of parental responsibility.
Helping a functioning alcoholic
Functional alcoholic denial is common but before they can access the help they need it is vital for the individual to admit that they do have a problem. Try to avoid an angry confrontation, as this can be counter-productive.
You can seek advice on how to best approach the subject with a functioning alcoholic from numerous charities and helplines that are available, or from independent experts in alcohol recovery like those at leading drug and alcohol rehab centre Cassiobury Court. The best approach might be a quiet but firm word while some alcoholics benefit from a full-blown intervention to emphasise the affect they are having not only on themselves but the people around them. We can offer help and advice in complete confidence.
And always remember that abuse should not be tolerated in any situation. You might want to help your loved one but if you are in a dangerous or unhealthy situation, the best thing you can do for yourself, your family and the alcoholic themselves is often to remove yourself from the situation. Hopefully this might only be on a temporary basis while they seek the help they need.