Is There Such a Thing as Being a Functioning Alcoholic?

September 19, 2022

Despite its frequent use, the term “functioning alcoholic” isn’t a medical diagnosis. It’s just something people say to describe someone who drinks far too much but doesn’t outwardly suffer as a result of their drinking.

Functioning alcoholics don’t exhibit some of the major signs of alcoholism. They aren’t constantly getting fired, getting arrested, or losing and alienating friends. They often look healthy, and by talking to them, you would never guess that they are binge drinking on a regular basis.

However, they are still dependent on alcohol. Just because someone is functioning now, that doesn’t mean they’ll still be able to function at that level in the future. Alcohol abuse simply isn’t sustainable, long-term. Ever.

Some people incorrectly believe that, just because someone is “high-functioning,” that intervening could upset the balance and do more harm than good. After all, they are paying their bills, holding down a job, and maintaining their relationships, so what’s the harm if they’re drinking a bit more?

But sooner or later, their bodies will begin to suffer, and the medical bills will start piling up. Not to mention that just one incident at home or at work can completely ruin their life.

The longer someone is dependent on alcohol, the harder it will be for them to quit. The first signs of abuse should be met with concern no matter how successful that person can outwardly seem.

Signs Someone Is a Functioning Alcoholic

There are a few signs that someone might be a functioning alcoholic.

Constantly Searching for Reasons to Drink

We’ve all met that person. The person who calls Thursday “mini Friday,” who says every paycheck is a reason to celebrate and get blackout drunk. Alcoholics will do or say almost anything to justify their drinking.

Pay attention to their relationship with alcohol. If they’re using every hangout, meal, or event as a reason to drink and a reason to drink excessively, that is a major sign of alcoholism.

Downplaying Alcohol Abuse

Functional alcoholics will often make jokes about their alcohol abuse in order to downplay its seriousness in the eyes of others. 

Making light of the issue by saying things like “Rehab is for quitters” or “I don’t have a drinking problem, people just have a problem with me drinking” are sure signs that they’re aware other people are concerned but would rather not address the issue.

They’ll also try to make it seem like everyone drinks as much as they do and that those who have a problem with their drinking actually drink far less than what’s normal or average.

Irritable After a Few Days of Not Drinking

Withdrawal symptoms aren’t always as noticeable as shaky hands or being so sick that you are stuck in bed for days at a time. Irritability and mood swings are also subtle indicators that withdrawal symptoms are kicking in.

People can become irritable for a number of reasons, but if you start connecting these behavioral changes to the few times they’re without alcohol, there’s a good chance that person is experiencing alcohol withdrawal. 

Not Exhibiting Normal Signs of Impairment

One of the main reasons functioning alcoholics are able to get away with so much drinking is by appearing sober even when they are experiencing a blackout. 

At a certain stage of alcoholism, the body can become so adapted to alcohol that people will never slur their speech or stumble, even with their blood alcohol content at dangerous levels.

Because of this, friends and family won’t think that they may have a problem. People will write it off by saying they are just “experienced” or “they can hold their liquor,” which may be true, but that doesn’t make it better, it just means they’ve been abusing alcohol for a long time.

However, the opposite may also be true. Although less common, some alcoholics may start slurring their words and have severely impaired motor skills after only one or two drinks. In these instances, people may assume they rarely drink due to how sensitive they are to it.

This sensitivity can either be caused by metabolic issues or just cognitive impairment from long-term abuse.

Reasons Why Being a Functioning Alcoholic is Dangerous

Functioning alcoholics are exposed to the same risks as other alcoholics and potentially even greater risks since their alcohol abuse is less likely to be addressed by loved ones.

All of the normal risks for alcoholics are still possible, and, to a certain extent, inevitable with functioning alcoholics since they are allowed to abuse alcohol for longer periods of time.

This means more wear and tear on the person’s brain and other organs than a person who might be considered just a “regular alcoholic.”

The longer loved ones wait to intervene with a functioning alcoholic, the more painful and dangerous the effects will be.

Here are some of the other long-term effects of alcohol abuse that functioning alcoholics may be at greater risk for:

IOP at ASIC Recovery

Are you looking for addiction treatment in Texas? At ASIC recovery, our Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) is dedicated to helping you develop healthier coping skills and build a supportive recovery network.

Click to learn more.

Get Help Today.
Start Now