What To Say And Do When Living With A Functioning Alcoholic

You may have seen the typical stereotype of an alcoholic portrayed in the media and popular culture – dishevelled, scruffy and incapable of leading a normal life.

Their addiction is physically apparent for all to see, and they have no way of hiding this from others.

However many alcoholics lead seemingly regular lives, holding down jobs and raising families while appearing put-together and groomed.

These people are known as functioning alcoholics and it can be extremely difficult to spot the signs of addiction, even to those who live with them.

What is a functioning alcoholic?

While they project an outwardly stable and healthy exterior to the world, functioning alcoholics are secretly struggling with intense cravings and constant thoughts about alcohol.

They may feel an immense amount of guilt and shame and have tried multiple times to reduce or completely stop their alcohol intake with little success.

Most people cannot remain functioning alcoholics forever. At some point, their addiction will begin to creep into their life uncontrollably and may cause them to miss work or family events along with other signs of their dependency.

While they may often slip through the cracks, functioning alcoholics need as much help and support as those who fit the stereotypical description of someone who is struggling with an alcohol use disorder.

What can cause someone to become a functioning alcoholic?

It’s possible for anyone to become an alcoholic, despite their background and personal circumstances. However, there are certain risk factors that may increase the chances of developing alcohol addiction. [1]

Common risk factors for alcohol addiction include:

  • A family history of alcohol addiction
  • A highly stressful career or lifestyle
  • A mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression
  • A traumatic experience earlier in life
  • A history of low self-esteem and self-confidence
  • A pattern of binge-drinking and regularly drinking over the recommended limit
  • A culture of drinking and peer pressure amongst colleagues, family and/or friends

As functioning alcoholics are less likely to seek treatment for their addiction, little is known about the causes and experiences that lead to a diagnosis as well as the circumstances that allow them to present a seemingly stable exterior.

It’s possible that they have a higher tolerance for alcohol which allows them to appear ‘normal’ while intoxicated and manage to complete daily tasks, as well as the ability to control their emotions and behaviour to an extent.

What are the signs that someone is a functioning alcoholic?

Studies have shown that a typical functioning alcoholic is well-educated and middle-aged, in a successful career and raising a family.

Around 30% had a family history of alcohol addiction and around 25% had suffered from depression at some point, resulting in a general profile that could fit the majority of people that we encounter every day of our lives. [2]

As a result, it can be extremely difficult to spot the warning signs that may point towards a functioning alcoholic, even if you are a close family member or partner who lives in the same household.

If you suspect that someone you live with is hiding an alcohol addiction, keep an eye out for the following symptoms that could potentially indicate a problem. [3]

Common signs of a functioning alcoholic include:

  • They can drink a large amount of alcohol and still appear to be sober
  • They frequently display dangerous behaviours such as driving under the influence of alcohol or looking after children while intoxicated
  • They use alcohol as a reward or a way to relax after a stressful day
  • They become defensive and angry when confronted about their behaviour around alcohol
  • They frequently experience mood changes, often switching from happy to sad or angry in a short period of time
  • They avoid family events and other functions if they will be unable to drink alcohol
  • They require larger and more frequent amounts of alcohol in order to experience the same effects
  • They have particular routines around alcohol, such as always drinking wine while watching TV
  • They will not attempt to entertain the possibility that they have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol

Over time you may begin to notice the tell-tale signs that your close friend or family member is attempting to hide.

While they may appear functional on the outside, they are likely to be struggling with poor emotional and mental health and require professional help and support.

How to speak to a functioning alcoholic about your concerns

If you are concerned that you are living with a functioning alcoholic, it’s natural to want to approach the person about their behaviour around alcohol.

Once you have established that they likely do have a problem, there are a number of things to keep in mind when planning the conversation in order to increase the chances of a successful outcome.

1. Choose an appropriate time

Make sure to have the conversation when the person is sober and clear-headed. If you attempt to speak to them about your concerns when they are intoxicated, they may become angry or even aggressive and refuse to listen to you.

The most effective time to speak to someone about their alcohol use is when they have already expressed that they would like to change their behaviour. If this is not possible, choose a time where you can clearly point to a recent negative consequence that directly occurred due to their drinking.

2. Keep the focus on how you feel

Instead of blaming the person and listing off all their flaws and mistakes, focus the conversation on how concerned you feel about them and how their behaviour around alcohol is impacting you.

Stating, ’You always do this. You’re ruining my life!’ may only serve to push them further away and cause them to withdraw further into their addiction. Instead, try saying, ‘I feel worried when you choose to drive after drinking alcohol, and I’ve noticed that it seems to be happening more frequently. What do you think we should do about it?’

3. Provide them with potential solutions

For many functioning alcoholics, the thought of organising treatment can seem so overwhelming that they may feel unable to take action.

They may feel concerned about their colleagues and friends discovering their secret, or worry about finding childcare or taking the time off work.

Finding solutions to these potential problems before the conversation takes place can ease their burden and make the idea of seeking help feel less intimidating. You could also research treatment programmes on their behalf and gather the relevant information to present to them at a later date.

4. Stay calm and in control

While it may be difficult to contain any feelings of frustration, anger and resentment, this conversation will be most effective if you stay calm and in control.

Make sure to allow time for the person to express their own opinion and feelings, and avoid shouting or insulting them as this could cause them to withdraw further into their addiction.

If they become angry and argumentative, remaining composed and refusing to be drawn into a verbal disagreement can help the conversation to stay on track.

5. Show your love and support

In many cases, the person simply wants to know that they have your love and support throughout their journey to recovery, even if they aren’t quite ready to seek treatment yet.

Although you can’t force them to get help, you can react with compassion and reassure them that your help will always be available. Make sure to give them space in order to think about what you’ve said and come to a decision on their own.

Other steps to take when living with a functional alcoholic

As well as speaking directly to them about your concerns, there are a number of additional steps that you can take to help them as much as possible with their future treatment and recovery as well as taking care of your own wellbeing.

1. Don’t enable them

If you suspect that someone you live with is a functioning alcoholic, it’s common to want to do anything you can to help them. However, allowing them to avoid facing repercussions for their behaviour can potentially worsen the addiction.

As difficult as it may be, it’s important to steer clear of enabling their actions.

This includes making excuses to other people about their behaviour, paying fines and debts that they incurred due to their alcohol use and calling in sick on their behalf if they are unable to attend work after drinking too much.

2. Encourage them to seek professional help

Many functioning alcoholics refuse to accept that they need professional help to overcome their addiction, believing that they have the willpower to reduce or completely stop their alcohol intake by themselves.

However, it is extremely difficult to recover from alcohol addiction without extensive counselling and a medically approved detoxification plan.

Attempting to stop drinking unsupervised can potentially result in dangerous withdrawal symptoms that may be life-threatening in severe cases, so do your best to encourage the person to seek professional help in order to move forward with their recovery.

3. Take care of your physical, mental and emotional health

It can be extremely stressful and draining to live with a person who is dealing with alcohol addiction, even when they appear to be functioning relatively normally. As a result, you may find that you spend a lot of time worrying about them and neglecting your own health in the process.

Make sure to eat a healthy and varied diet, get enough sleep and exercise regularly as well as making time for your own hobbies and activities.

It may also be helpful to speak to a therapist or someone that you trust, in order to unburden yourself and gain some clarity and guidance from a non-judgmental third party.


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5958183/

[2] https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/researchers-identify-alcoholism-subtypes

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3860472/