We probably all have an image of an alcoholic in our mind. Media representations of a typical alcoholic generally feature a person who can barely handle day-to-day life. Perhaps their hygiene has suffered or their finances are in disarray. Maybe they’ve been arrested for drunk driving. Maybe their marriage has fallen apart or they have lost their job after reporting to work under the influence one too many times.
The Functioning Alcoholic
While some combination of those things happens to many alcoholics, there is another kind of alcoholic—often called a functioning (or high-functioning) alcoholic—who may not fit the mold. A functioning alcoholic does just that: functions in the world. They go to school or to work, participate in their community, have robust social lives, and seemingly intact relationships. They may even seem sober when they’re not.
Nevertheless, these people have developed a dependence on alcohol—and likely a tolerance to it. They may drink heavily or experience ongoing and intense cravings for alcohol. Left untreated, their alcoholism will eventually get the better of them.
Denial, Tolerance, and Eventual—and Inevitable—Problems
Functioning alcoholics are likely to be in denial about their substance use disorder. After all, they are getting by just fine. They might not even experience hangovers as their tolerance for alcohol increases.
That increased tolerance is a problem in and of itself because it generally leads to increased consumption. As consumption goes up, the dependency on alcohol becomes stronger.
No matter how well they have been able to hide the problem or for how long, the fact is that excessive drinking will inevitably take its toll—and the price can be high, indeed. A person’s health may deteriorate. Their cognitive function may be impaired. At some point, the ability to work or maintain relationships will start to crumble. The only good news in this situation is that these drastic consequences may be enough to cut through the denial and lead a person to seek the help they truly need.
Spotting the Warning Signs of Functional Alcoholics
A variety of signs and symptoms may reveal that a person is struggling with alcoholism—even if they are functioning at a high level. These signs and symptoms include:
- Preferring to drink rather than eat at traditional meal times—perhaps foregoing food altogether
- Irritability, restlessness, and/or mood swings if they haven’t had a drink recently
- Sweating, shaking, and/or experiencing palpitations in the absence of alcohol
- Feeling depressed, anxious, or uncomfortable when unable to access alcohol
- Concealing alcohol in various places for easy access
- A preference for drinking alone rather than in a social setting
- Turning to alcohol as the only way to relax or feel in control of life
- Experiencing cognitive decline, memory lapses, and/or blackouts
- Taking risks—possibly including driving under the influence, risky sexual behavior, and more—as a result of drinking
- Binge drinking or failing to stick to self-imposed consumption limits
- Planning the day’s schedule around drinking or using drinking as a reward system
Alcoholics, including functioning alcoholics, may have a co-occurring disorder that they are attempting to manage through drinking. Perhaps they suffer from depression or social anxiety or are battling an eating disorder. These co-occurring disorders often contribute to—and worsen—a substance use disorder, and as a result, it is important that they are addressed during the rehab and treatment process. Family history may also contribute to a person’s likelihood of developing a substance use disorder and should also be considered as part of treatment.
Our Function Is to Provide the Help You Need
If you are a functioning alcoholic—or you suspect that someone you love may be—it is better to get help before things completely fall apart. Getting help sooner rather than later can make all the difference in terms of maintaining your relationships, keeping your job, and more. At The Aviary Recovery Center, we have the expertise, resources, and compassion necessary to help ensure you can function at the highest possible level—without relying on alcohol to keep you going. When you’re ready to make a change, we’re ready to help.