What Is a Functional Alcoholic?

Written by Chloe Nicosia

So, what is a functioning alcoholic? Let’s find out!

If you’re asking ‘what is a functional alcoholic?’ chances are you or someone you know is living in deep denial about the extent of a drinking problem. After all, if you maintain a job, keep up with family responsibilities, enjoy a healthy social life, you can’t possibly be an alcoholic. Right?

When most people hear the word ‘alcoholic’, they immediately picture a stereotyped image of a person who drinks uncontrollably all day and whose life is falling apart. What those people don’t realize is that it’s very possible for someone to live with a full-blown alcohol addiction and not be anything like that stereotypical drunk on the street.

The reality is that many people can maintain the appearance of living a regular lifestyle while displaying high-functioning alcoholic symptoms at the same time.  In fact, many functioning alcoholics fool themselves into believing they have their drinking behaviors under control based on their ability to be successful at work or in their career path, and maintain good family and social relationships.

What Is a Functional Alcoholic and How Do You Spot One?

So, what is a functional alcoholic and what does it really mean? High-functioning alcoholics can be difficult to recognize. The person may have a steady job, a successful career, a mortgage, a family, and may not even drink every day.

However, a functional alcoholic may go to work each day, go to the gym, and then go home to drink a bottle or two of wine or excessive amounts of beer or liquor. As the person is then able to get up as normal and go about their usual work obligations without any problems, it’s common to assume the level of drinking is somehow okay.

Just because a person seems to live his or her life in order on the surface doesn’t mean they can’t also be a high-functioning alcoholic as well. In fact, a large number of people living with functional alcoholism are enabled by loved ones who either don’t see their drinking as a problem or don’t do anything to address the issue.

The drinker may also strongly deny they have a problem and insist they always have their drinking under control. In an effort to avoid others finding out exactly how much they drink, it’s common for many functioning alcoholics to hide the true extent of their drinking. Some will drink alone, or sneak extra drinks when no one is watching, or planning ways to drink.

However, no matter how much the person denies it or how well they cover their behaviors, there are some tell-tale symptoms to look for that could indicate you’re living with a functioning alcoholic.

Symptoms of a Functional Alcoholic

If you suspect you’re living with a functioning alcoholic, here are some common symptoms to look for:

Denial: The vast majority of people struggling with an alcohol abuse disorder will deny the extent of their problem. They will strongly argue that they have their drinking under control, or claim that they don’t drink everyday so there can’t be a problem.

Using alcohol to cope: One of the more common high-functioning alcoholic symptoms is using alcohol to relieve stress, to relax after a long day, or to drown sorrows after hearing bad news. Some may even use alcohol as a ways to build artificial confidence before a social event, or to give them courage before a speech. No matter what the reason might be, using alcohol to cope with emotional issues or triggers is an unhealthy sign of alcohol abuse disorder.

Loss of control: A reasonably accurate sign of what is a functional alcoholic is losing control over the amount being consumed. It’s common for alcoholics to drink more than they intended or lose control over how much they drink during each sitting.

Drinking alone: A person who drinks alone or in secret could be attempting to self-medicate, but may also be hiding how much they’re really drinking.

Isolation: It’s common for many functional alcoholics to be very social and outgoing at work or at parties, but may tend to isolate themselves in their private time. They prefer to spend their private time drinking, so they’ll begin to decline invitations to go out and increasingly become isolated.

Tolerance: A heavy drinker develops tolerance to alcohol over time, so they need to drink more in order to achieve the same effects. To an outside observer, it may appear that the person can drink a lot of alcohol without seeming to get drunk.

Not experiencing hangovers: A functioning alcoholic may be able to drink heavily the night before and then wake up the following day without obvious signs of a hangover. As the body’s tolerance levels increase a functioning alcoholic will train themselves to continue to get up and keep functioning just as they always would.

Mental health disorders: Many high-functioning alcoholics may have undiagnosed or improperly treated mental health problems, such as depression, social phobias, or anxiety. It’s estimated (1) that around 25% of functional alcoholics also had symptoms of depression at some point in their lives. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) (2) also reports that up to 33% of people who abuse alcohol also suffer from a mental illness.

Repeated failed attempts to quit: There are times when a functional alcoholic will realize that they have overdone it. They feel ashamed and guilty about their actions and vow they’ll never drink again. Of course, the behavior continues and the same self-destructive drinking patterns reemerge within days.

Does a Functional Alcoholic Need Rehab?

What is a functional alcoholic likely to do if a loved on suggests the idea of entering into a rehab treatment facility? The vast majority of people dealing with high-functioning alcoholism will strongly deny they have a problem, which leads them to refuse the idea of entering into rehab treatments.

In reality, anyone struggling with a drinking problem should seek specialized treatment from an alcohol rehab facility. While the person may be able to drink heavily and continue to function, it’s only a matter of time before those functional levels begin to falter and eventually suffer. After all, a functioning alcoholic is still an alcoholic.