How to Spot a Functional Alcoholic

How to Spot a Functional Alcoholic

The 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) says most Americans aged 12 and older currently consume alcohol, but many do so in unhealthy ways. Nearly half of the active drinkers binged in the previous 30 days, and one-third of the binge drinkers did so at least five times. This type of alcohol consumption suggests a possible drinking problem, but some people handle the alcohol abuse in ways that make them seem okay. The term for such an individual is functional alcoholic.

What Are Functional Alcoholics

Functional alcoholics are addicts who appear to keep their daily lives somewhat together. They might appear responsible, productive and even successful, and these accomplishments serve to reinforce denials that a problem exists. Addicts often seek help only after the embarrassment, suffering and damage become too much, but many functional alcoholics have yet to experience such consequences. Moreover, they tend to have higher tolerance levels that require more alcohol to feel the effects. The person is still intoxicated even if the alcohol buzz has yet to manifest, and the cognitive impairments and organ damage are more significant than the person might realize. Functional alcoholics who do not feel drunk are also more likely to drive or operate machinery, and the risk of car crashes and other accidents skyrocket. A study published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in 2007 classified 20% of alcoholics as functional and only 9% as chronic severe. In other words, functional alcoholics are twice as common as people who fit the classic stereotype of a bottomed-out drunk.

The Signs of a Functional Alcoholic

Drink counts might raise red flags, but they are not telltale signs of a functional alcoholic. Instead, loved ones should look for a series of signs, which potentially include the following:

  • Days missed at school or work following heavy nights of drinking
  • Relationships strained during times of alcohol consumption
  • Physical or verbal fights that only occur while drinking
  • Drove home drunk, left the keys in the car and forgot where it is parked
  • Heavy alcohol consumption when alone or in the morning
  • The person denies drinking when he or she obviously had
  • An extremely high tolerance for drinking large amounts of alcohol
  • Parties like a college student despite being an older adult
  • Makes jokes about having a drinking problem
  • Problems remembering what transpired when drunk
  • Becomes angry and defensive when confronted about drinking

Interestingly, a functional alcoholic might display certain signs, but friends and co-workers often ignore them because the person is a happy drunk that rarely slurs words or causes problems. In such cases, limited social pressure to get help can make the drinking that much more risky.

How to Help an Alcoholic

Whether an alcoholic is functional or not, withdrawal symptoms quickly emerge when the person stops drinking, and the denials often intensify in response to the discomfort. According to the 2012 National Survey on Substance Abuse Treatment Services (N-SSATS), nearly two-third of rehab admissions involve alcohol abuse, and rehab remains the most effective way to treat the problem. Friends and loved ones must often help an alcoholic. The family doctor, interventions, direct pleas and support groups are all tools for encouraging treatment.

If you or a loved one requires addiction help, speak with one of our admissions coordinators immediately. We can provide information and guidance, and if the addict has health insurance, we can even check the policy for rehab benefits. We are available 24 hours a day so please call our toll-free helpline now.