What is a Functioning Alcoholic?

Whilst not an official term of medical diagnosis, “functioning alcoholic” is an informal word used to describe someone who is dependent on alcohol in all the usual ways of a typical alcoholic, but is still able to function normally in life.

Also known as “high-functioning alcoholic”, this individual will appear to be mentally and physically healthy and their life will not be affected in a the same way as an alcoholic – for example they may still be fully functioning at work every day. However, in reality their dependency on and cravings for alcohol are just as strong and potentially damaging as any alcoholic.  

If you’re worried that someone you care about may be a functioning alcoholic, or you yourself may be, we have outlined the key signs of a functioning alcoholic to look out for, and provided information on the help that’s available.

How to Know Someone is a Functioning Alcoholic

Regular drinking

The first sign of a functioning alcoholic is drinking regularly. They may frequently drink to excess and as they have built a tolerance to alcohol over time, they may not necessarily appear drunk or suffer from an obvious hangover the next day.

It may seem as though they always have a drink in their hand and they may try to justify or find excuses to have a drink, such as saying that they’ve had a stressful day at work, they need it to unwind before bed or they want to celebrate that it’s finally the weekend.

Having a social life that revolves around alcohol

As well as drinking alcohol regularly at home or even alone, you may notice that the person’s social life tends to revolve around alcohol. For example, you may find that they only want to go to events where they are able to consume alcohol, such as weddings and parties, and they may be less enthusiastic to go to events where alcohol consumption isn’t seen as being the norm, such as days out with their children.

Another sign of a functioning alcoholic is that they may find it difficult to socialise with other people when they haven’t had a drink. They may need alcohol to feel confident or relaxed in front of others and may seem completely different when they are sober.

Secretive behaviour

You may also notice that the person is quite secretive about their whereabouts or drinking habits. They may try to conceal their drinking from you and lie about where they have been. They may also start storing alcohol in strange places, such as in their car or in the garden shed, in an attempt to prevent you from finding it and seeing how much they have.

Showing subtle withdrawal symptoms

You may notice that they display some withdrawal symptoms when they haven’t had a drink for a couple of days, but that the symptoms don’t really prevent them from completing their normal day-to-day tasks. You may find that they become irritable and restless, and may have random angry outbursts that seem out of character for them, and which only seem to happen behind closed doors. They may also seem to be quite ‘down’ or withdrawn when they haven’t had a drink, and need alcohol to ‘perk them up’ again. If they have ever promised to try and cut back on their drinking, you may have found that after a few days or weeks, they return to alcohol.

Being defensive or flippant about their alcohol consumption

Another sign of a functioning alcoholic is that they can become defensive about their drinking habits if you or other people mention it to them. They may try to downplay the amount and frequency of their drinking or blame external factors for them wanting to have a drink, such as “I’m under a lot of pressure at work”.

On the other hand, the person may appear to be flippant and unconcerned about their drinking behaviours and may even make jokes about how much they drink. They might mock you for being concerned about them and try to convince you that you’re getting worried over nothing.

Support for a Functioning Alcoholic

If you think that someone you know may be a functioning alcoholic, it’s important to talk to them about your concerns and encourage them to get help. Here are some tips for supporting them through their difficulties:

  • Choose a time and place that is private and where you’re unlikely to be interrupted. You could suggest going for a drive or a walk together, or just having a coffee at home when no-one else is around. It’s also important that you speak to the person when they’re not under the influence of alcohol, so they’re more likely to listen to you, remember what you say, and take you seriously
  • Focus the conversation on you instead of them by using phrases like “I am worried about you” instead of “you are drinking a lot lately.” By placing the emphasis on your own concerns, the person is less likely to feel ‘attacked’ or criticised and therefore may be more likely to open up to you
  • Make sure that you are compassionate, patient and non-judgemental, even if you’re met with denial. In reality, the person may already know that they drink too much and may have even tried and failed to stop drinking on their own. By approaching the subject gently, the person is more likely to want to talk to you and hear what you have to say
  • If you are met with denial, sensitively explain to the person the impact that their drinking is having on other people, to help to put this into perspective for them. They may not even realise that anyone else has noticed their behaviours and this could be the wake-up call that they need

Treatment for High Functioning Alcoholics at Manor Clinic, Southampton

The most crucial step that a functioning alcoholic can take is to get professional help, and it’s important that you are there to support them on this journey.

Offer to go with them to an appointment with their GP where they'll be able to discuss their concerns and worries. Alternatively, you can contact Manor Clinic directly to talk through the high quality treatment that we can offer to a high functioning alcoholic.

Our Addiction Treatment Programme provides:

  • A free, no obligation addiction assessment
  • Medically assisted withdrawal detoxification for your loved one’s alcohol addiction, if this is required
  • Structured group therapy
  • A high quality family programme
  • Access to 12-Step support groups
  • Free aftercare for life
  • Free family support for life

We are also able to provide advice and support on staging an intervention to help people enter treatment.

With evidence-based treatment at a specialist rehab centre, high functioning alcoholics can reduce their drinking, develop an understanding of the causes and triggers for their unhealthy behaviours, and take steps towards a healthy, fulfilling and sober future.

For more details please call 023 8046 4721 or click here to book a FREE CONFIDENTIAL ADDICTION ASSESSMENT. Alternatively, you can enquire online and one of our team will get back to you via your preferred contact method.  

This blog was reviewed by Jacqui Newbold, (FDAP Accredited, NVQ 2,3 & 4 in Care/Mental health, Level 3 counselling, Advance level 4 in counselling), Addictions and Aftercare Manager at Manor Clinic.

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