For many years, when I thought of a person struggling with alcohol addiction a few stereotypical images came to mind.
- The homeless, disheveled and unshaven man in the alleyway with a brown bag of liquor
- The former child-star actress who just had her 4th DUI arrest
- The college frat boy who got kicked out of school for partying too hard
Often times, we think of alcoholics as people who have suffered great consequences, lost their jobs, lost their homes or vehicles, lost money, or lost the help or support from their family or friends. While there are plenty of people who are actively addicted to alcohol and facing tremendous losses and consequences, there are also people who meet the criteria for a medical diagnosis of alcohol dependence – who are not experiencing the same repercussions of their drinking.
People who have not yet faced the fallout from alcohol addiction are often described as “functional alcoholics” or “high-functioning alcoholics.”
The High-Functioning Alcoholic.
If you know someone on a casual basis who is a high-functioning alcoholic, you may not even realize that he or she is struggling with addiction, or in what we call the ‘4 Stages of Alcoholism for the Functional Alcoholic.’ People with functional alcoholism rarely miss work – and often excel at their jobs and on their career paths. They get the kids to school on time, they attend obligations, fulfill responsibilities and are often very successful in many areas of life.
From the outside, so-called functioning alcoholics seem to have their lives together. To all but their family members or close friends – they give the outward appearance of living a normal, healthy life.
However, just because they’re functioning at a high level, doesn’t mean the consequences to their drinking won’t catch up with them.
Denial in Alcoholism.
Addiction of any sort often relies heavily on denial. If a person doesn’t believe that his or her substance abuse is a problem, he or she won’t have motivation to get the necessary help to quit. Denial is a refusal to admit the truth or the reality of the situation – and in addiction, it’s a strong defense mechanism. Those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol often become masters at using denial in order to protect their addictions.
In alcoholism, denial often appears in various forms:
- “The REAL problem is other people judging me and wanting me to fail”
- “My job is stressful and my boss makes me miserable”
- “My family stresses me out – I just need to let loose and relax”
- “You can’t trust a person who doesn’t drink!”
In high-functioning alcoholism, denial can be even more dangerous – because the person hasn’t faced the outward negative consequences of alcohol consumption. Denial may look more like this:
- “I go to work everyday – and I just got promoted”
- “I’m not spending all my money on alcohol”
- “I get my kids to school everyday and have never missed a soccer game”
- “I’ve never gotten a DUI”
Denial Doesn’t Offer Protection.
Despite having few negative consequences and stronger lines of denial to hide behind, those who are high-functioning alcoholics are not immune to the effects of alcohol. Denial doesn’t offer protection from fallout. Those who are drinking at an alcoholic level are still doing tremendous damage to their brains and bodies – and putting others in harms way.
Similar to some of the classic signs of addiction and alcoholism, those with high-functioning alcoholism have distinct symptoms:
- Drinking is a Big Part of Life.
They’re highly functioning at work – but as soon as the day is done, he’s ready to grab a 12-pack of beer on the way home, head to the nearest bar, or pour a stiff drink to unwind, as soon as she walks in the door. The first few drinks usually go down quickly. This isn’t just a once-in-awhile occasion – it happens several days per week, if not daily.
- Not Drinking Makes them Nervous, Irritable, or Uncomfortable.
If for some reason he or she has to stay late at work, is caught up at a non-drinking event, or runs out of alcohol – they don’t handle it well. If he’s forced to abstain from drinking, his body reacts negatively and he becomes anxious, moody, angry or upset.
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- They Can Hold Their Liquor.
He can drink as much as anyone – and usually more – but rarely becomes visibly drunk. Perhaps her speech isn’t affected and she doesn’t slur her words, and carries on relevant conversations. He doesn’t stumble or become belligerent. It’s almost as if he or she wasn’t drinking at all.
- They Drink Instead of Eat.
People who struggle with alcohol addiction are likely to replace food with a few drinks. He’ll choose beers over dinner. She’ll drink vodka without balancing her drinks with water and food. He’ll use mealtime as an excuse to start drinking.
- They Can’t Just Have One – Or Two.
If one is good, two is better. If two is good, five, seven, or ten is better. People who struggle with alcohol addiction can’t drink moderately. It’s all or nothing. An alcoholic can’t have “just one drink” – and there will always be an excuse for “one more round.”
- They Can Wake Up Without a Hangover.
Whether it be beer, wine or liquor, when a person drinks alcohol of any type on a regular basis over a long period of time – it can cause their body to become physically dependent on alcohol. Tolerance level is increased over time, making it possible to drink more without the same kind of effects that non-alcoholics experience. Keep in mind, lack of a hangover means one less consequence.
- They Always have an Explanation.
As mentioned above, those in active addiction resort to excuses and denial in order to protect their drinking or drug use. In order to avoid the issues – and reality – high-functioning alcoholics will have a seemingly rational explanation for their drinking patterns and behavior. For example, marital or family problems, stress at work, of social engagements. Some high-functioning alcoholics will laugh off their alcohol consumption and drinking episodes to validate that their drinking is a choice.
Functioning Alcoholism is Still Alcoholism.
Although from the outside, it may appear that a person with high-functioning alcoholism is fine – they are not. Functioning alcoholics are still alcoholics, addicted to alcohol. Often times, they may try to quit on their own, but unpleasant and dangerous withdrawal conditions put them back on the cycle to continue drinking.
Alcoholism is a progressive disease, but it doesn’t have to get worse before it gets better. Even if you or the person you know who is functioning with alcoholism hasn’t yet faced a DUI, isolation, or medical problems – it is never too soon to ask for help and receive the proper treatment.