When someone thinks of an alcoholic, certain stereotypes may come to mind – someone who doesn’t work or can’t hold down a job, drinks heavily or continuously, and is unable to maintain a home or any personal relationships. The truth is, some alcoholics can function in many areas of their lives and these people are known as functioning alcoholics – this is not a medical diagnosis and is only a colloquialism.

What is a functioning alcoholic?

Functioning alcoholics are people who have an alcohol addiction but are able to perform the usual tasks most adults do: personal hygiene, childcare, working, socialising and paying bills. Functioning alcoholics are also known as high-functioning alcoholics and, more recently, people who experience Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).

Alcohol Use Disorder is a chronic medical disorder and it is treatable. It is not just about the amount of alcohol consumed but rather the behaviours around alcohol and the effects that drinking has.

What are the signs of a functioning alcoholic?

A person may have AUD if they relate to two or more of the following:

  • Struggle to control alcohol intake (e.g. saying “I’ll only have one”, but being unable to stop)
  • Experience strong cravings for alcohol
  • Want to stop drinking alcohol but being unable to
  • Continue to drink even when it makes you feel anxious or depressed
  • Continue to drink despite alcohol causing problems in your relationships
  • Feel that drinking stops you from engaging properly at home, work or in your education
  • Suffer from withdrawal symptoms when you’ve not consumed alcohol, such as shaking, headaches, nausea or a high pulse rate
  • Need to drink more and more to feel drunk, because you’ve developed a tolerance to alcohol
  • Choose to get drunk instead of doing important or enjoyable activities
  • Forget what you did while intoxicated
  • Have alcohol-related legal problems, such as being charged for driving under the influence of alcohol
  • Drink first thing in the morning, or alone
  • Rely on alcohol to help you either relax or feel confident
  • Partake in dangerous activities while or after drinking alcohol, such as driving, swimming, or unprotected sex

An alcoholic may be determined as having mild AUD (2-3 symptoms), moderate AUD (4-5 symptoms) or severe AUD (6 or more symptoms).

A functioning alcoholic, along with the above signs, may also say they only drink expensive alcohol as a way to ‘prove’ they don’t have a drinking problem – this plays on the idea that alcoholics can’t be high earners and only drink cheap alcohol. They may also be aware of their heavy drinking but make jokes about it or be glib and dismissive of it

What are the risks for functioning alcoholics?

Aside from the difficulties that an untreated Alcohol Use Disorder can cause in your relationships and professional life, excessive consumption of alcohol will have a damaging impact on the drinker’s body:

  • Liver disease
  • Pancreatitis
  • Brain damage
  • Memory loss
  • High blood pressure
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding

What support is available for functioning alcoholics?

There are many avenues of support for functioning alcoholics:

Self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) are popular methods to help people begin their recovery journeys. AA is based on a 12-step process with support from other recovering alcoholics.

There are also charities such as SMART Recovery which takes a 4-step approach to identify the problem and encourage change.

Rehabilitation centres are also a popular option for recovering alcoholics; a range of treatments are used to help the person beat their addiction.

ANA Treatments uses three complementary strands to build a recovery programme: therapy & support, health & well-being, and life skills, over a 3-stage treatment.

If you, or someone you know, are struggling with alcohol addiction, get in touch to find out how ANA Treatment Centres can help.