Signs and symptoms of a functioning alcoholic

If you find yourself becoming reliant on alcohol, counting down the hours until your next drink, or regularly showing up to work after having had a few drinks – you might be what is commonly referred to as a “functioning alcoholic”.

This is not a condition that can be medically diagnosed, rather, it is a term that is widely used to describe a person who has developed a dependency on alcohol but is still able to partake in their everyday activities.

A functioning alcoholic will still be able to attend work, take care of their family and socialise in situations that do not involve alcohol.

They will outwardly appear as healthy, fully functioning members of society. However, it is highly likely that they will be obsessively thinking about their next drink and privately dealing with intense cravings.

Signs of a functioning alcoholic

If you fear that you or someone you know maybe a functioning alcoholic, there are a few signs you can look out for to get a better idea if your suspicions are correct.

Some red flags of functioning alcoholism are:

  • Going straight to a bar after work
  • If you don’t go to a bar after work, you pour yourself a drink as soon as you get home
  • Getting irritated if something or someone prevents you from having a drink
  • Often drinking more than you originally intended
  • Making jokes about alcoholism, for example: “I don’t have a drinking problem, except when I can’t get a drink”
  • Going without meals in favour of drinking
  • Drinking in situations when you should be sober, for example, when you are taking care of children, or about to drive
  • Being angry or defensive if someone confronts you about the amount of alcohol you drink
  • Relationship problems directly related to your alcohol consumption
  • Drinking in secret or hiding the amount of alcohol you drink
  • Frequent black-outs due to excessive alcohol consumption
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms if you go without alcohol for a while
  • Drinking alone often, and at odd times of the day
  • Storing alcohol in places where other people wouldn’t look for it
  • Exclaiming that they only drink expensive alcohol

How to talk to a functioning alcoholic if they are in denial

Quite often, a functioning alcoholic will not be willing to admit that they have a drinking problem. They tend to rationalise their drinking with excuses and maintain that they can hold down a job, pay their bills on time and live a regular life so they cannot possibly have a problem.

However, not addressing this could cause the person to spiral out of control towards a full-blown addiction to alcohol.

It is important to have an open and honest discussion with them about your concerns with regard to their drinking.

There are a few ways to approach this sensitively. Some tips are:

  • Speak to them privately – they are more likely to deny their problem if there are other people around
  • Speak to them in a safe, comfortable, and familiar environment
  • Be prepared for a harsh reaction. They might not be ready to admit that they have a problem
  • Don’t be judgemental. Let them know that you are worried about them without making them feel that they have done something purposely wrong
  • Tell them the impact that their drinking is having on other people. Many times, functioning alcoholics do not realise that other people have noticed their drinking habits let alone been impacted negatively by them
  • Make sure they feel safe and supported and let them know that you have their best interests at heart. Even if they are not ready to admit to their problem at first, they will come to you when they are ready because they will feel that they can trust you

Functioning alcoholics can build up a tolerance to alcohol

A functioning alcoholic will often drink excessive amounts of alcohol without showing any typical signs of intoxication.

This is because they have built up a tolerance to alcohol, meaning that they will need to drink larger amounts of alcohol in order to feel drunk.

This tolerance means that a functional alcoholic is drinking dangerous amounts of alcohol that can not only result in a full-blown addiction to alcohol, but also organ damage caused by excessive alcohol.

Functioning alcoholics suffer from withdrawal symptoms

The longer an addiction continues, the worse the withdrawal symptoms will be. Many people believe that because a functional alcoholic can still have a normal life that they won’t necessarily suffer from withdrawal symptoms if they choose to quit.

However, this is untrue, and functioning alcoholics who decide to give up alcohol can also suffer from withdrawal symptoms that can temporarily affect their daily lives.

Some withdrawal symptoms from alcohol are:

  • Anxiety or depression
  • Loss of appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Palpitations
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Mood swings and irritability
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Cold sweats
  • Uncontrollable shakes

Many times, functioning alcoholics try to give up alcohol without any help, but the severity of the withdrawal symptoms make them turn to alcohol again as alcohol is the only thing that can make them feel better.

If you feel that someone you know may be going through this, offer them continued support so they know they are not alone. It is also advisable to convince them to seek professional help.

Treatment available for a functioning alcoholic

There are a number of treatments available to help functioning alcoholics which vary depending on the level of addiction.

The first thing a functioning alcoholic should do is visit their healthcare provider. They will be able to advise on which services are available to them in their area and refer them to the relevant treatment facilities if necessary.

They can also perform the required tests to see if prolonged and excessive alcohol use has caused any damage to internal organs.

Other treatments available are:

  • Medication to ease withdrawal symptoms
  • Outpatient rehab facilities – where you attend facilities as an outpatient, this could be daily or weekly depending on your level of addiction
  • Inpatient rehab facilities – where the person becomes a resident for an extended period of time agreed upon by the persons involved
  • Peer support groups such as 12 step programmes like alcoholics anonymous, or SMART recovery groups

If you or someone you know is a functioning alcoholic, there is plenty of help and resources available. Do not be afraid to reach out for help as things will only get worse if you continue down the path you are currently on. Overcoming your addiction will be easier on you and your body the sooner you give up alcohol.