What Is a Functional Alcoholic?

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What Is a Functional Alcoholic?

A "functional alcoholic" (or "high-functioning alcoholic") isn't a formal medical term or diagnosis, but a term used to describe a person who is dependent upon alcohol but who can still function in society. This type of drinker is also known as a “currently-functioning alcoholic,” since it’s not likely they will remain functional (and not misuse alcohol) indefinitely.

These are people who may meet the criteria for a mild alcohol use disorder (AUD) but who are generally functional in society and can successfully manage many areas of life, including their jobs, homes, and families. They rarely miss work and other obligations because of their drinking (although it does happen occasionally) and they usually do well at their jobs and careers.

To all but those who are closest to them, a "functional alcoholic" will appear physically and mentally healthy. Yet they are likely struggling with uncontrollable cravings, unsuccessful attempts at quitting, and obsessive thoughts about their next drink—all hallmarks of an alcohol use disorder.

Risk Factors

According to the National Institutes of Health, functional alcoholics are typically "middle-aged, well-educated, with stable jobs and families." While it’s unknown what causes someone to become a “high-functioning alcoholic,” there are risk factors that increase your chances of developing a problem with alcohol, including:

  • Having a parent or close relative with an alcohol use disorder
  • Having a mental health problem, such as anxiety, depression, or schizophrenia
  • Experiencing high levels of stress
  • Having low self-esteem
  • Having more than 7 drinks (for females) or more than 14 drinks per week (for males) 
  • Binge drinking (more than 5 drinks per day)
  • Exposure to peer pressure to drink

Signs of a Functional Alcoholic

Could it be that you have an alcohol use disorder even though you continue to function well in society? Could your drinking have slowly increased to the point that you have become alcohol dependent without even knowing it?

Here are some red flags that signal you need help:

  • Are you the first one at the bar after work or do you pour yourself a drink the moment you come home from work?
  • Do you get agitated, irritable, or nervous if a meeting or other occurrence prevents you from having a drink?
  • Are there often times when you drink more, or longer, than you intended?
  • Do you tend to joke about alcoholism? For example: "I'm a drunk, alcoholics go to meetings."
  • Do you constantly talk about drinking, or brag about stockpiling liquor so there's "enough" alcohol available?
  • Do you “drink” your meals or use mealtime as an excuse to start drinking? 
  • Have you engaged in any high-risk behaviors (even if you never got caught), including binge drinking, driving under the influence, drinking while caring for your children, or practicing unsafe sex?
  • Has a loved one ever confronted you about drinking? Did it make you feel angry or irritated?
  • Have you ever experienced an alcohol-related blackout, during which you could not remember parts from the night or how you got home?
  • Has your drinking caused any relationship problems?
  • Have you ever hid your alcohol consumption?
  • Do you experience symptoms of withdrawal when you're not able to drink alcohol?

Denial

One of the main reasons that people who misuse alcohol seek help is the eventual negative consequences of their alcohol consumption. When the pain or embarrassment gets bad enough, they can no longer deny that their drinking needs to be addressed.

For the functional alcoholic, the denial runs deep, because they have yet to encounter significant negative consequences. They go to work every day. They haven't suffered financially. They have never been arrested. They tell themselves that don't have a problem. Listen for excuses: “I have a great job and pay my bills, so I can’t have a problem with alcohol.” “I only drink expensive wine.”

Tolerance

The functional alcoholic may consume as much alcohol as any individual with an alcohol use disorder, however they may not exhibit the outward symptoms of intoxication. This is because they have developed a tolerance for alcohol to the point that it takes more for them to feel the effects (including hangovers). Consequently, they must drink increasingly larger amounts to get the same "buzz" they want.

This slow build-up of alcohol tolerance means the functional alcoholic is drinking at dangerous levels that can result in alcohol-related organ damage, cognitive impairment, and alcohol dependence.

Chronic heavy drinkers can display a functional tolerance to the point they show few obvious signs of intoxication even at high blood alcohol concentrations, which in others would be incapacitating.

Withdrawal

Unfortunately, even when functional alcoholics begin to recognize that they have a drinking problem, they still resist reaching out for help. By the time they admit the problem, their withdrawal symptoms—which can begin within a few hours after their last drink—can become more and more severe.

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Feeling anxious or nervous
  • Feeling irritable
  • Feeling depressed
  • Feeling wiped out and tired
  • Shakiness
  • Mood swings
  • Not being able to think clearly
  • Having nightmares
  • Dilated pupils
  • Sweating
  • Headache
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Appetite loss
  • Faster heart rate
  • Pale skin
  • Tremor

They may try to quit on their own, but the withdrawals are too unpleasant or severe. Therefore, they continue to drink to keep the withdrawals at bay and the cycle continues.

Usually, it is only when their continued drinking becomes more painful than the prospect of going through the pain of alcohol withdrawal, will they finally reach out for help. But it doesn't have to be that way. Help is available.

Getting Help

If you are having only mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms, your healthcare provider may recommend outpatient treatment, including medical detoxification that provides medication, vitamins, and diet to help ease the withdrawal process.

Your provider can also perform tests to see if you have developed any medical concerns from alcohol misuse and recommend counseling, rehabilitation, and support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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  1. National Institute of Health. Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes. 2007.

  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol and tolerance. 1995; 28:356. Updated 2000.