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What is a functioning alcoholic? – The signs and symptoms

Posted by Mandy Donnison
on 03 Feb 2021


A functioning alcoholic is a person who suffers from alcoholism but is still able to hold down a job, play a role within a family and to most people, appear to be coping.

functioning alcoholic sitting in front of a bottle and glass of whiskey

Alcoholism is a chronic and progressive disease of the brain and body, (1) not all alcoholics lose everything as a direct result of their drinking. Although for most, this is usually just a matter of time.

The body and mind of an alcoholic can only cope for so long before it reaches the stage of complete collapse. This time frame varies from person to person. For some who suffer from alcoholism they are able to function for many years, whilst others deteriorate very rapidly. 

Women in particular are more vulnerable to alcohol’s effects and tend to suffer the negative physical aspects of alcoholism at a faster pace than men (2) Even so many women can still work, look after family and enjoy activities despite suffering from alcoholism.

If you or a loved one are a functioning alcoholic, one thing we can guarantee is that your physical and mental well being will be suffering to some extent. The other thing we can guarantee is that overtime alcoholism only ever gets progressively worse without professional alcohol treatment.

The warning signs of a functioning alcoholic

A functioning alcoholic is not always easy to spot. Those that suffer from alcoholism are exceptionally good at hiding their condition. With few apparent negative consequences, a functioning alcoholic is unlikely to want to change whilst they feel they still have time.

Alcohol addiction is at the chronic end of the spectrum of alcohol use disorders for which there is no cure. It can however be successfully treated and the sooner treatment is undertaken the better for the individual concerned and their loved ones.

Signs and symptoms of a functioning alcoholic include:

  • Frequent intoxication and smelling of alcohol
  • Loss of control around alcohol use
  • Hiding alcohol in strange places such as their garage, at the office, in bushes or in their car
  • Drinking between work times or appointments, or drinking just enough to keep their alcohol levels topped up if they are alcohol dependent
  • Frequent binge drinking after daily responsibilities are taken care of
  • Justifying their drinking as a way of unwinding after work, a busy day with the kids or as a reward
  • Becoming irritable, anxious, restless and unable to sleep if they are unable to drink
  • Regularly drinking in the morning before going about their day, or at odd times of the day such as lunch time in order to avoid alcohol withdrawal symptoms
  • Always drinking at social events and ‘preloading’ prior to attending a social event
  • Avoiding social events or activities that do not involve alcohol
  • Alcohol has become a problem at home, with them either drinking excessively alone at home or disappearing to a pub or bar straight after work for hours
  • Becoming defensive or flippant when challenged over their drinking
  • Denying they are an alcoholic , reasoning that they still hold down a job or take the kids to school on time
  • Alternating alcohol and prescription pills in order that they can function
  • They may become erratic, spontaneous, angry or change their character completely whilst intoxicated
  • Difficulty in recalling events that took place whilst heavily intoxicated – experiencing alcoholic blackout
  • Risk taking, they may well drive to work or drive children to school whilst still over the limit from the previous night or from taking a morning drink (1)

If the person acknowledges that they drink too much and tries to reduce their drinking or stop altogether but find they are unable to, then this to is a further symptom of functioning alcoholism

It is fairly easy to self-diagnose alcoholism if a person is honest about their drinking and asks themselves the following questions:

– If when you drink are you able to stay in control of the amount of alcohol you consume and drink in moderation?

– If you want to stop or reduce your drinking are you able to, and able to maintain it ?

Answering ‘NO’ to both of these questions indicates that a person is suffering from an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), over which they have no control.

Why do functioning alcoholics deny their problem drinking?

Functioning alcoholics will often deny that they have a problem. They may reel off a list of how their drinking and life differs from what they perceive an alcoholic to be.  

Denial is a common symptom of alcoholism and not just in functioning alcoholics. 

An alcoholic may have lost everything, be living in their car, on the streets or have a criminal record directly linked to their drinking and still deny they have a problem. Why is this? Why is it so difficult for an alcoholic to admit they have a problem and accept help?

Denial a result of cognitive brain dysfunction due to excessive alcohol use. It is also an alcoholic brain’s way of protecting the disease of addiction and enabling it to continue and progress (3)

Someone who suffers from alcoholism will be compelled to drink alcohol. Alcohol quite literally hijacks their brain (4)

Quite often a person suffering from alcohol addiction will on some level know that they have a problem, but to admit it means that they will usually have to do something about it. 

A life without alcohol is a very scary prospect for an alcoholic. To a degree, alcohol enables them to deal with life on life’s terms. 

They imagine that life without alcohol will be miserable, meaningless, boring and painful. This could not be further from the truth IF they undergo the correct bespoke alcohol treatment programme.

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How to get a functioning alcoholic to accept help

When trying to get a functioning alcoholic to accept help, it is vital that you first of all get them to admit they have a problem that they cannot overcome on their own.

If you have previously tried to talk to them and they have become defensive, flippant or angry, you may want to try the following tips on how to get a functioning alcohol to accept help

Tips on helping a functioning alcoholic:

  • Set aside a time to talk to them when they have no plans, are not in a rush and are not too intoxicated to understand what you have to say. Preferably they will be sober but if they are alcohol dependent you will need to choose a time before they start drinking heavily.
  • It is often quite helpful to speak to a functioning alcoholic about their alcoholism after they have just suffered a negative consequence related to their drinking. They may be remorseful and less able to deny they have a problem.
  • Tell the person what you know of alcoholism, the signs and symptoms and that a person does not necessarily need to lose everything in order to be diagnosed as an alcoholic. Share the signs and symptoms of a functioning alcoholic with them from this page
  • Explain to them that alcoholism is medically recognised as both a mental and physiological disease that is progressive in nature. They should not feel ashamed that they suffer from an illness that requires treatment in order to overcome
  • Regardless of their emotional response, try to remain calm and not argue with them. Arguing will give them an excuse to leave the conversation and return to their drinking. Instead try an empathetic approach and one of showing concern and support.
  • Explain to them how their drinking is affecting you and other family members. Give clear examples of when their drinking has affected you and others or caused concern and how you feel about their drinking. 
  • Acknowledge to them that the condition they suffer from is probably more common than they think and that there are others who suffer just like them. Explain to them that people suffering from an alcohol use disorder are rarely able to get better of their own accord due to their brain compelling them to drink and alcoholism being heavily characterised by relapse.
  • Tell them that many negative consequences that non functioning alcoholics suffer such as loss of relationships, jobs, criminal prosecution, mental and physical deterioration, ect. are all just ‘Yets’ for anyone who suffers from alcohol addiction
  • Give them hope by explaining that alcoholism is treatable and that a professional detox and rehabilitation programme will give them the time and space to comfortably get well
  • If the conversation goes well, the functioning alcoholic admits they have a problem and they need help, it is important to act quickly and without hesitation. In the addiction treatment field we refer to this as a window of opportunity. It rarely lasts for very long before they shrink back into denial.
  • Acting swiftly and engaging professional help whilst they are receptive could well save their life. If they are not receptive and still deny they have a problem or become confrontational, drop the subject and try again a different day. 

If they are in a very bad way through their alcoholism and you fear time may not be on their side, please call us here at Delamere and ask about our alcohol intervention programmes. We may also be able to help break the denial by speaking to them over the phone. 

All of our colleagues are highly skilled and trained in diagnosing and treating alcoholism. Many of us are in recovery ourselves. This gives us the ability to reach a person suffering as we understand on an intimate level the inner workings of an alcoholics brain.

Treatment for functioning alcoholics

Here at Delamere’s first class purpose built addiction treatment and behavioural wellness centre we specialise in the treatment of alcoholism in all of its many forms.

No two people who suffer from alcohol addiction are the same. It therefore stands to reason that no two of our treatment programmes are the same. 

Our distinguished multidisciplinary team of psychiatrists, counsellors, doctors, qualified nursing staff and therapists intricately tailor each alcohol treatment programme we deliver. 

We ensure that each individual guest undergoes a unique programme consisting of evidence based treatments healing them physically, mentally, socially, emotionally and holistically. 

Any of our guests who have suffered trauma or who suffer from a dual diagnosis mental health illness also undergo specialised bespoke treatment to ensure a comprehensive healing experience.

At Delamere, we also place a great emphasis, planning and support into helping our guests reintegrate back into society once inpatient treatment has finished. We also provide free weekly aftercare sessions held here at Delamere by one of our professional colleagues. We also support the family and significant others.

For a free of charge and confidential professional alcohol assessment and advice on appropriate treatment call and speak to a member of our team today.

A rehab clinic with a difference Residential Rehab

References

  1. Alcohol dependence/Alcohol Abuse syndrome – Fact sheet
  2. Women and alcohol – NIAAA
  3. Addiction denial and cognitive dysfunction: a preliminary investigation – NIH
  4. Harvard Health – How addiction hijacks the brain



About the author: Mandy Donnison

Mandy manages our admin, HR and finance functions here at Delamere. Find out more about Mandy on our team page.



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