Oftentimes when we talk about the detriment of alcohol addiction, we speak to you about the vast toll that a lifestyle of drinking takes on a person’s life, including their career, finances, education, social commitments, relationship, and family obligations. In fact, it is when this detriment begins to appear, that it often becomes evident that a person has a problem. It isn’t always this way—in the case of a functional alcoholic, these cues may not be evident.
Functional Alcoholics: Defying Stereotypes
Some people may still go about their lives, maintaining their responsibilities and garnering success while they suffer from alcohol addiction. It is this very success and ambition that is often detrimental to their lives—this is because it fosters a false sense of security, creating an image of a person who is balanced and set upon the correct path.
This perception breeds denial, both in the individual and in their peers or loved ones. Denial is one of the most powerful obstacles in the way of help and treatment for any person who contends with an addiction.
Despite the lack of these clearly delineated outwards signs, make no mistake, there is still great cause for concern, as a problem is present and the damage is still occurring. Due to this discord, it can be hard to get a functional alcoholic help, however, it is possible, and still as important as it would be in any other circumstance.
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Understanding The Guise Of A Functional Alcoholic
If a person drinks heavily while working forty hours a week, pays their mortgage on time, and continues to invest time in meaningful relationships and family responsibilities, do they still have a problem? Yes. In order to determine if a person may be struggling with alcohol addiction, it can be helpful to understand the other signs and symptoms that may point to a closeted drinking problem. These may include:
- Finding that a person is hiding alcohol or drinking behind people’s backs.
- A person joking about their drinking, by making seemingly humorous references to the fact that they’re an alcoholic.
- Becoming overly emotional or angry if someone brings up their drinking.
- Making excuses for why they drink, in an example, citing that they deserve it after a hard day’s work or a certain success within their job.
- Acting in ways while they drink that is not common to their personality, and subsequently feeling ashamed about their actions.
- Noticing that a person has an inability to stop or moderate their drinking after they’ve had one drink.
- A person “blacks out” or has trouble remembering events while they were drinking.
- A person’s thoughts continuously revolve around drinking—specifically, when and how they will obtain their next drink.
- Noticing that a person exhibits withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking. This can be difficult, as you won’t necessarily know when they stopped drinking, however, if you are aware of the symptoms, you can be on guard to observe them if and when they happen.
- Always have an excuse on the ready—a person may be chronically late or absent, disorganized or irritable, and attribute it to something else.
- Being sick—a person may be sick, either from a hangover or withdrawals, and try to pin it on another illness.
Drinking heavily, in any capacity, especially that which is chronic as is a hallmark of addiction, is a worrisome and dangerous behavior. This harmful pattern of compulsive drinking can create vocational, educational, social, physical, mental and emotional ramifications. Despite the fact that a functional alcoholic may not completely manifest symptoms of the former three, damage may still occur in the remaining ways.
Alcohol abuse and addiction have been implicated in an increased risk of many illnesses and diseases, due to the toxins the alcohol exerts upon your system. Alcohol directly impacts your brain chemistry, altering the way critical neurotransmitters function. Due to this, a person may experience the mental or emotional vulnerability that they self-medicate by drinking, instead of asking for help.
Even Functional Alcoholics Need Help
Perhaps you’ve heard someone say “oh, but he’s a functional alcoholic,” spoken as if because of a person’s apparent ability to function, there isn’t a problem, or as much of one, in comparison to an individual who isn’t keeping it together as well. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and this is an excellent example of denial.
Eventually, a functioning alcohol’s facade will crack, their balancing act will falter, and they will stumble while their carefully constructed life begins to unravel around them. What is most dangerous about this, when it occurs, is that they already have a dangerous coping mechanism in place—their drinking behaviors. Oftentimes it is when these problems finally start to show that their addiction begins to accelerate even more, and a person may appear to go from zero to sixty, falling apart before people’s eyes, in a very short period of time.
It shouldn’t have to go this far.
Ideally, a person should receive help before it gets to this point. This may be difficult—as a person seems to have it all together, it can be hard to give them examples of why their lifestyle is detrimental. In the following section, we will help you to find effective ways that you can communicate the dire nature of the situation to your friend, coworker or loved one.
How To Help A Functional Alcoholic Understand The Necessity Of Treatment
Though it is true that it can be trickier to encourage a functional alcoholic to find help, it is not impossible. If you’re a loved one or coworker to functional alcohol, it may take a greater amount of patience or work on your part, however, it will pay off as you are directly investing in their life and future by your perseverance.
As they are managing to maintain the majority of their life’s responsibilities and relationships, it can be helpful to begin by outlining the ways their drinking behaviors impact you or other individuals within their life. In doing so, it is important to be mindful of regulating your tone and demeanor, taking care towards not being blameful, shameful or telling them how you think they should be living their lives. This could cause them to become defensive, effectively shutting down further discourse on the subject.
Within their denial, an individual may have not allowed themselves the opportunity to realize that some of their behaviors are in fact indicative of alcohol addiction. You can take this time to outline how, even despite their success, their life may still be affected by their drinking. Functional alcoholics often rely heavily on evidence because of the fact that they have such a large bounty of success as evidence that falsely perpetuates the notion that they do not have a problem.
Maybe you know that they have anxiety or depression, or perhaps they’ve begun to develop an unstable mood. Begin a conversation about this by asking how they’re feeling and how they’re managing their symptoms. Through the course of the conversation, they may begin to talk about or even see for themselves that they’re not in control as much as they think they are. They may even begin to see that they’re using alcohol as a coping tool.
Inquire about their physical health. As many functioning alcoholics are in denial, they may even ignore telltale signs that their drinking is damaging their body. Have they developed high blood pressure or other cardiac problems, liver problems, reduced functioning of their immune system, or found themselves engaging in activities that jeopardize their health, such as driving a vehicle while drinking or unsafe sexual practices? Talking about these things in the open may help them to begin connecting the dots to their harmful drinking practices.
Taking the time before this conversation to assemble resources on the subject, including information about our treatment options, may also be a valuable asset during this time. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has an excellent database of resources and self-assessments that might help to initiate further dialogue on the subject. You can find it here.
Leading By Example
As a further catalyst for change, it may be helpful to lead by creating your own initiative towards change. The detriment and damage of an alcohol-fueled lifestyle extend beyond the person who is holding the bottle. For that reason, you, as a family member or loved one, may likely experience emotional or mental turmoil as well.
It may be beneficial for you to seek help for yourself. This holds a benefit on several levels—foremost, it provides you with a venue by which to heal, learn coping skills and find accountability and support. Also, by seeking help you are acknowledging to them that their drinking causes actual harm and impact on your life. Beyond this, you are giving them an example of a mechanism for change, by illustrating the actual practice of reaching out and initiating contact with supportive entities. You may do this for yourself by seeking the support of a therapist, counselor or support group such as Al-Anon or Adult Children of Alcoholics.
Understanding The Role Of An Intervention
In certain cases, you may find that you do not have the skills or circumstances that are optimal towards helping convince a person that they need help. Perhaps you’ve tried to no avail. At this point, it may be wise to stage an intervention.
We strongly advise that you consider listing the aid of a professional that specializes in interventions, called an interventionist. Their role is to skillfully plan and orchestrate the entirety of the intervention.
There are many benefits to this, including the fact that there exists no biases or history between the parties, which may be immensely useful during the intervention. If someone close to the person needing help leads an intervention, personal histories, tensions, doubts, and blame may flare, which can hijack the session and make the person even less receptive towards help and change.
You will still have an opportunity to voice your concerns, however in this setting, you have the added benefit of having a moderator, should tensions arise. Sometimes, a person may be more apt to listen to the facts and reality if they are presented by a person who is an authority on the subject. An interventionist will also have arrangements in place to transport the individual to a rehab facility following the intervention, should it go well.
We Can Help You Provide Resources For A Person In Need
If someone close to you exhibits the signs of being a functional alcoholic, please don’t fall prey to denial. Even if the damage isn’t apparent, remember the alcohol is still hurting their body and mind, and it is only a matter of time before other aspects of their life follow suit and begin to crumble.
At TurningPointTreatment.org we understand how hard it can be to watch someone you care about suffer from alcohol addiction, especially when they are in denial. Our caring staff is standing by to offer you further resources, encouragement, and information about treatment options so that you can get your loved one the care they need. Contact us today.
- NIAAA — Alcohol's Effects on the Body