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The Illusion of Functional Alcoholism

Alcoholics in the media are often portrayed in one of two ways: They either appear grizzled, unwashed, and borderline homeless (or actually homeless) in an effort to show that their alcoholism has destroyed their entire lives, or they hold everything together with such charm and finesse — like Don Draper in Mad Men — that you could be forgiven for thinking that alcoholism is no big deal at all. Both stereotypes are dangerous, and both offer a portrayal of alcoholism that is not quite the truth. “Functional” alcoholics are generally thought of as people who can hold down a normal life while nursing a massive addiction on the side.

The illusion here is that these men, women, and even teens are actually functioning. Sure, they’re walking around, working, and possibly pretending to be sober at work when they aren’t, but they are not “functioning” in the true sense. Something in their lives will have to give eventually, and sooner or later, the addiction will win. Read on for more information about how slippery and dangerous the idea of functional alcoholism can be — and why you shouldn’t buy into the idea that you can live a fulfilling life in the shadow of addiction.

What Is Alcohol Addiction?

The CDC defines “heavy drinking” as having more than 15 drinks a week for men and 8 a week for women. Unfortunately, being male greatly increases your chance of being a binge drinker or an alcoholic in general. Someone can drink heavily without being an alcoholic, and another person may not drink as much but he or she may be under the influence of his or her addiction. Heavy drinking can cause numerous health effects.

Many functional alcoholics truly don’t think they have a drinking problem, and if this describes you, you may want to go through this checklist to better understand whether you are displaying signs of addiction. It’s possible that you are a relatively happy, stable person, but you always drink — and you can’t stop yourself from drinking too much — to relieve stress. In general, the warning signs of alcohol addiction can be physical, mental, and emotional. They may include the following:

    • Drinking more than what the CDC defines as heavy drinking on a regular basis
    • Using alcohol to self-medicate symptoms of a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder
    • Using alcohol to numb feelings like sadness, loneliness, and anger
    • Experiencing physical symptoms such as shaking or needing a drink in the morning to quell hangover symptoms
    • Saying no to activities you enjoy because you won’t be able to drink
    • Building up a tolerance to alcohol so that you need more to feel buzzed or drunk


What Is a “Functional” Alcoholic?

Despite the fact that the term is common, there is no such thing as having a case of “functional alcoholism.” It’s not a medical diagnosis, but it is very useful in the sense that it describes a subset of alcoholics who manage to hold down a job, raise kids, and act as members of their community while having one foot in the world of alcoholism. They may not drink every day, but when they do, they might seriously overdo it. They may use alcohol to reward themselves at the end of the day, and on occasion, and you may find them drinking secretly.

Their family and friends may not even be aware of their alcohol abuse, but this doesn’t mean the disease is invisible: Those around them may notice rapid mood swings, weight changes, physical shaking, sweating, and insomnia. Some may guess why, and others will remain perplexed as to why their boss’s hands start to shake at the end of every workday, or why a roommate frequently complains of headaches or displays rapidly shifting moods. Functional alcoholism can be nearly invisible, but it can also be scary and confusing for those around the person in question.


Myths You May Believe About Functional Alcoholism

If you’re wondering what the difference between a functional alcoholic and a non-functional alcoholic is, you may be thinking that functional alcoholism sounds like the best of both worlds. Coincidentally, it’s the worst of both worlds: Functional alcoholics have to pull double duty to keep up with their body and brain’s demand for alcohol while maintaining a sense of normality in the rest of their lives. They often end up faking it through the day only to get home and drink at nighttime, and they sacrifice real relationships, friendships, and a full life in the process. A few common myths you may believe about functional alcoholics are that their problem isn’t significant, nobody can see their alcoholism, and that they live in poverty.

1. They Don’t Really Have a Problem

Alcoholism is a problem regardless of whether it destroys someone’s life or not. If you are using alcohol to drown out uncomfortable feelings, self-medicate your stress, or numb a painful childhood, this is a serious issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible. Everyone has a bad day now and then when they may drink too much, but if you find yourself living in that space, it’s time to get help.

2. Their Alcoholism Is Invisible

Some functional alcoholics become very, very good at acting like they aren’t alcoholics. Some don’t do as well, and they end up losing jobs, being estranged from family and living in poverty due to their addiction. For many, it’s just a matter of time before their disease catches up to them. The people in the first category may think they’ve completely hidden their alcoholism — or maybe they’re in denial of it themselves — but it’s more likely that those close to them notice idiosyncratic behavior, mood swings, or the disconnectedness from family life they display. Even if no one knows what’s wrong, their alcoholism grows in the background of their lives, taking its toll.

3. They Live on The Brink of Poverty

While alcohol can definitely cost a lot of money, functional alcoholics can belong to any financial demographic. Wealthy alcoholics who are the CEOs of big-name companies may get away with drinking simply because they’re in charge and they aren’t questioned, while those with a lower-level job in the company may be able to hide functional alcoholism because they work alone for most of the day. Addiction can affect everyone, and unfortunately, functional alcoholism simply describes how well someone can hide their disease.


Can Functional Alcoholism Turn Into Traditional Alcoholism?

Absolutely. One of the biggest myths of functional alcoholism is that the alcoholic will be able to sustain their functionality forever! All it takes is one bad week, a breakup, a job loss, or the death of a friend or family member to trigger the functional alcoholic’s spiral downwards. Though some people never feel out of control, this is yet another illusion of functional alcoholism: There is no control with addiction.

If you find yourself thinking this way — that you are able to “handle it” or that you have managed excessive drinking so long that you know what you’re doing — please consider having a talk with a licensed counselor about addiction treatment or speaking to a trusted friend confidentially. You may not realize the extent of your drinking, or you may be embarrassed or ashamed to talk to anyone about how it’s affecting your life. Remember that you did not cause your addiction and that there is help available should you choose to seek it.


How To Get Help

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcoholism — whether it can be called “functional” or not — you need help to recover and begin a sober life. Hopefully, you realize that functional alcoholism is just as serious as traditional alcoholism. At times, this hidden disease can be deadlier because those around the functional alcoholic may ignore the signs until it is too late if he or she appears to be living well. Contact Clean Recovery Centers to talk to someone today about taking the first steps to attaining sobriety.

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