What is a High-Functioning Alcoholic? – A high-functioning alcoholic is someone who can attend to many societal obligations and maintain a livelihood despite the regular overuse of alcohol. This behavior may sound like a conflict of interests, but the truth is, many alcoholics can be considered “functional” in one way or another.
In fact, one of the many stigmas surrounding alcohol addiction is steeped in how well the alcoholic can manage responsibilities in his or her life. For example, compare the “gutter” alcoholic to an upper-middle-class family man in the suburbs – they appear very different on the outside, despite having one very defining characteristic in common.
Another common difference between the functional alcoholic and other sufferers is the level of acceptance. At some point, many severe alcohol abusers who have suffered great loss acknowledge the fact that they have a problem – and mainly because they have no choice. Moreover, they are forced to sit by and watch, seemingly hopeless, as their lives and relationships crumble around them.
High-functioning alcoholics, however, may be the last ones to know. As long as the bills are getting paid and the user feels as if he/she is in relative control of things, it’s easy to remain in denial. If you ever hear someone use the phrase “I work hard and play hard” consider that an indicator that the person may be a high-functioning alcoholic or drug abuser.
Who is an Alcoholic?
According to experts, alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction (commonly known as alcoholism) now both fall under the classification of “alcohol use disorder.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, alcohol use disorder (AUD) “…is a pattern of alcohol use that involves problems controlling your drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol, continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems, having to drink more to get the same effect, or having withdrawal symptoms when you rapidly decrease or stop drinking.”
Unhealthy alcohol use is further defined as such that “includes any alcohol use that puts your health or safety at risk or causes other alcohol-related problems.”
This also includes binge drinking, which is “a pattern of drinking where a male consumes five or more drinks within two hours or a female downs at least four drinks within two hours.”
Functional Alcoholism – Signs and Symptoms
A functional alcoholic is someone who…
…regularly engages in life-sustaining employment or ongoing education.
…typically affords food, shelter, and the necessities of living.
…may financially support a family, at least in part.
…may be well-educated and a high-achiever.
…may hold a position of power or authority.
…drinks to excess on a regular basis and often can’t control their drinking once started.
…minimizes and/or conceals the severity of his or her problem, and reassures others that’s everything is okay.
…may be quick to point out others whom he/she deems to be a more severe and less-functional alcoholic.
…occasionally fails to meet critical responsibilities as a result of drinking.
…may have encountered legal problems or family conflict as a result of drinking.
…may have been hospitalized for excessive alcohol use and/or is experiencing health-related conditions such as liver disease.
…others have recognized there is a problem but are afraid to address it.
The Case of Stephen
Example: Stephen, 35, is an assistant manager at a high-tech firm and has a bachelor’s degree in computer networking. He shares a suburban home with his wife and toddler son.
Stephen has been drinking excessively since college, including both daily and binge-style alcohol consumption. He rarely misses work due to his drinking patterns, however, despite regular late-night binges after his son has been put to bed.
Stephen’s wife knows that he is an alcoholic, but rarely confronts him.
She has talked to his family, who continue to insist that his heavy alcohol use can’t be a problem and that she should appreciate the long hours he works and the things he can provide.
Still, Stephen had a DUI five years ago, but he still regularly engages in drinking and driving, however, and occasionally comes home from after-work gatherings completely intoxicated. Stephen has no plans on quitting drinking or seeking help for his problem despite escalating issues with his wife and ongoing risky behavior.
All Alcoholics Need Help
High-functioning alcoholics, despite an outward appearance of relative normality, still face the same risks as anyone who engages in alcohol abuse, such as damage to relationships, loss of employment, and threats to security.
Also, they continually endanger themselves and others when intoxicated, possibly just one DUI away from long-term incarceration due to vehicular homicide.
Finally, they incur the same increased risks for liver cirrhosis, pancreatitis, and cancers of the throat, esophagus, liver, colon, and breast.
Moreover, high-functioning alcoholics are by no means immune to the effects of alcoholism, and should immediately seek help in the form of detox and long-term inpatient or outpatient addiction treatment.