31 Jan Functioning, But Still an Alcoholic
It is common to think of alcoholics as people whose lives have fallen apart around them. They are often viewed as being unable to hold jobs, maintain relationships, care for their children or lead stable lives.
There are certainly alcoholics who fit this stereotype, even to the point of social isolation and homelessness. But a far greater number of alcoholics meet the characteristics of functioning or high-functioning alcoholics.
The exact percentage of alcoholics who are the high-functioning type remains difficult to pin down, but most experts agree that it is a large number. A 2007 study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism divided its subjects into five sub-categories of alcoholism, placing 20 percent of them into the “functional” sub category. Other studies have estimated that 50 percent to 90 percent of alcoholics meet the functional alcoholic criteria.
Characteristics of Functioning Alcoholics
A functioning alcoholic is defined as someone who is able to maintain the various aspects of his or her life – work, family, friends, hobbies – while still pursuing alcoholic behaviors. The term high-functioning alcoholic is sometimes used interchangeably, but is more often applied to alcoholics who appear to be leading not just functional lives, but exceptionally successful lives.
The more high-functioning the alcoholic, the more difficult it can be for the individual and the people around him to recognize the problem. While low-functioning alcoholics may exhibit signs that are blatantly obvious to family, friends and co-workers, functioning alcoholics conduct their lives normally while frequently hiding or camouflaging their drinking
Even when functioning alcoholics drink in public, they may appear to have a greater degree of control over their drinking than most people expect from an alcoholic. These individuals typically have a very high alcohol tolerance, and can remain relatively sober while consuming quantities of alcohol that would leave most people highly intoxicated. At social functions where most people are drinking, they may appear to be the most sober and in control.
Many functioning alcoholics have not developed a physical dependency on alcohol, and are able to go without drinking for significant periods of time without showing any of the negative physical effects of alcohol withdrawal. They may use this as a way to convince themselves or others that they do not have a problem with alcohol. However, they are still psychologically dependent on alcohol, and are often fixated on their next opportunity to drink.
Identifying a Functioning Alcoholic
Functioning alcoholics are generally in denial about their problem with alcohol. They may recognize the excessive drinking, but decide that it is not a problem since it has not noticeably affected their outward lives. Some high-functioning alcoholics in powerful or important positions may view drinking as their reward for hard work and stressful jobs. It often takes a serious event such as divorce, arrest for driving under the influence or accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior to convince them or those around them that they have a problem.
In spite of the many ways in which functioning alcoholics disguise their abuse, there are still behaviors than can help them or others to identify an alcohol problem.
Functioning alcoholics struggle to manage the amount of alcohol they consume, often drinking heavily even after they had decided to drink a small amount or not drink at all. They think about alcohol much of the time, and are constantly planning when and where they will get their next drink. Functioning alcoholics will often drink alone – sometimes before or after social gatherings to disguise how much they are really drinking. They do and say things when drunk that they would not do or say sober, and frequently experience blackouts after excessive drinking bouts.
Those around functioning alcoholics may notice that alcohol seems to be a large part of their lives. They may talk about drinking a lot, be the first person to suggest social activities that involve drinking, or be the person who always makes sure that there is enough to drink at social gatherings. The edges of their functional façades may also begin to fray, as they start to show up late for work on a regular basis, or miss family functions.
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