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What is a functional alcoholic?
In this article table of contents a "functional alcoholic" (or "high functioning alcoholic") is not a formal medical diagnosis, but a slang term
Content:In this article Table of Contents
What is a functional alcoholic?
A "functional alcoholic" (or "high functioning alcoholic") is not a formal medical diagnosis, but a slang term used to describe a person who is addicted to alcohol but can still function in society. The term "currently functional" can be used as they are unlikely to remain functional (and not abuse alcohol) indefinitely.
Drinking rarely results in them missing out on work and other commitments (although this does happen occasionally). They are usually able to manage areas of life such as jobs, homes, and families.
They often appear healthy physically and mentally. However, you are likely to struggle with uncontrollable cravings, unsuccessful attempts to quit, and obsessive thoughts about your next alcohol consumption indicators.
While the term "alcoholic" was used in the past, it is now viewed as obsolete and stigmatizing. Today, health professionals would say that a person has an alcohol use disorder (AUD).
According to the National Institutes of Health, functional alcoholics are typically "middle-aged, well-educated, with stable jobs and families." Although the causes are unknown, there are risk factors that increase your chances of developing a problem with alcohol, including:
- Excess alcohol (more than 5 drinks per day)
- Experience stress
- Exposure to peer pressure to drink
- Having a parent or close relative with an alcohol use disorder
- Have a mental health problem such as anxiety, depression, or schizophrenia
- Low self-esteem
- More than seven drinks (for women) or more than 14 drinks per week (for men)
Signs of a functional alcoholic
Could you have an alcohol use disorder even though you continue to function well in society? Could your alcohol consumption have increased so much that you became addicted to alcohol without even knowing it?
Here are some red flags signaling that you need help:
- Are you the first at the bar after work or do you pour yourself a drink as soon as you get home from work?
- Do you get excited, irritable, or nervous when a meeting or other event prevents you from having a drink?
- Are there often times when you drink more or for longer than you intended?
- Do you tend to joke about alcoholism? For example: "I'm drunk, alcoholics go to meetings."
- Do you talk about drinking all the time or brag about storing alcohol so that there is "enough" alcohol available?
- Do you drink your meals or do you use mealtime as an excuse to start drinking?
- Have you engaged in risky behaviors (even if you've never been caught), including binge drinking, driving under the influence, drinking while caring for your children, or practicing unsafe sex?
- Has a loved one ever confronted you about drinking alcohol? Did you feel angry or irritable?
- Have you ever experienced an alcohol-related power outage where you couldn't remember parts of the night or how you got home?
- Has your drinking caused relationship problems?
- Have you ever hidden your alcohol consumption?
- Do you have withdrawal symptoms when you can't drink alcohol?
One of the main reasons people who abuse alcohol seek help is because of the potential negative effects of their alcohol use. When the pain or embarrassment gets bad enough, they can no longer deny that their drinking needs addressing.
For the functional alcoholic, rejection is profound as it does not yet have any significant negative consequences. You go to work every day. You haven't suffered financially. You were never arrested.
They tell themselves that they have no problem. Stop making excuses:
- "I do a great job paying my bills so I don't have a problem with alcohol."
- "I only drink expensive wine."
A functional alcoholic often consumes as much alcohol as someone with an alcohol use disorder. However, they do not show any external symptoms of intoxication.
This is because they have developed a tolerance to alcohol so it will take more for them to feel the effects (including hangovers). As a result, they have to drink larger and larger amounts to get the same "buzz" that they want.
This slow build-up of alcohol tolerance means the functional alcoholic is drinking dangerous amounts, which can lead to:
- Alcohol addiction
- Organ damage caused by alcohol
- Cognitive impairment
Chronic heavy drinkers may have functional tolerance to the point where, even with high blood alcohol levels, they show few obvious signs of intoxication, which would otherwise be incapable.
Unfortunately, even when functioning alcoholics realize they have a drinking problem, they still resist seeking help. When they admit the problem, their withdrawal symptoms, which can appear within a few hours of their last drink, can become progressively more severe.
Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:
- Anxiety or nervousness
- Loss of appetite
- Difficult sleep
- Dilated pupils
- Faster heart rate
- Tiredness or exhaustion
- a headache
- Mood swings
- Nausea and / or vomiting
- Can't think clearly
- Pale skin
You can try to quit yourself but the withdrawals are too uncomfortable or serious. Therefore, to keep the withdrawals in check, they keep drinking and the cycle continues.
Usually, they will not seek help until their continued drinking becomes more painful than the prospect of enduring the pain of alcohol withdrawal. But it doesn't have to be that way. Help is available.
If you have mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms, your doctor may recommend outpatient treatment, including medical detox with medication, vitamins, and diet to make the withdrawal process easier.
Your provider can also run tests to see if you've developed medical concerns from alcohol abuse and recommend counseling, rehabilitation, and support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery.
If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Authority's National Helpline (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-4357 Information about support and treatment facilities in your area.
You can find additional mental health resources in our National Helpline Database.
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