According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a person who engages in moderate drinking takes in up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. People who drink at this level might still be taking in more alcohol than their bodies can tolerate, but people who can meet this level of consumption might not be considered at risk for some of the serious consequences that come with hardcore alcohol use and abuse.
However, some people drink a lot more than this each and every day. Some of these people may not even be aware that their drinking choices put their health and happiness at risk. These people could be dealing with functional alcoholism, and they might need specialized approaches in order to get better.
What Is Functional Alcoholism?
A traditional person with alcoholism drinks a great deal of alcohol, and many people fit into this model. For example, a Washington Post analysis suggests that:
the top 10 percent of American drinkers take in about 10 drinks per day.
Someone who drinks to this degree can be expected to face all sorts of consequences, including:
- Arrests for drunk driving
- Job losses
- Marital difficulties
- Withdrawal symptoms between drinks
When experts define alcohol abuse or alcoholism, they often refer to these sorts of consequences as evidence of a problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests, for example, that alcohol abuse is a pattern of drinking that has the potential to harm a person’s relationships and the person’s ability to work. Here, the consequences of the drinking define the illness.
Some people do not face these consequences, at least not yet. These people may still be drinking to excess, and they may face very real consequences in time, but they may feel safe in the moment. They may head to work in the mornings with no issues, and drive home at night with a clear head. They may keep their drinking under wraps at parties and family functions, and they may never slip up in front of strangers. But these people might drink to excess in the privacy of their own homes every single night, and they may be unable to control how much they drink when they start drinking.
A person with functional alcoholism still has alcoholism. The same risks and dangers apply. But a person with functional alcoholism may not be aware of the dangers that are coming, because those issues just have not had time to appear yet.
What Are the Risks?
Someone who drinks to excess on a regular basis can face very real health problems due to ongoing alcohol abuse. The British website DrinkAware points out that people who drink heavily over a period of several weeks or months can develop very high levels of alcohol-related enzymes in the gut. That means people who drink heavily often need to keep drinking heavily to feel the impact of alcohol. The body has become accustomed to drink, so smaller sips do not have the same power.
Drinking heavily can put a great deal of strain on the body, as each sip requires intense liver and kidney work. Those organs move into overdrive to clear alcohol from the blood, and constant exposure to alcohol can cause cell death in these organs. In extreme cases, these organs can stop functioning, and a transplant might be required.
Someone with functional alcoholism might become aware of the issue when routine blood tests for other illnesses come back with abnormal or unusual results. That could indicate that the organs are under pressure from constant alcohol exposure, and that could prompt a person to get care.
But if people retain their health, or they do not disclose a health problem, there are other signs and symptoms of functional alcoholism families can look for. A person who continues to drink to excess every day, even when asked to stop, could be at risk. A person who spends a great deal of money on alcohol every week and works to hide the evidence may be at risk. And a person who cannot cut back on alcohol, even when that person tries to do so, may be at risk.
In addition to kidney and liver damage, Mayo Clinic suggests that heavy drinking can cause:
- Certain types of cancer
- High blood pressure
- Sudden death for people who already have cardiovascular disease
- Heart damage
Starting the Healing
Families that suspect a functional alcoholism problem need to take action, and they can do that in several ways.
Some families start the healing by holding informal talks about the alcoholism issue. One person in the family (such as a partner or a parent) meets with the person who has alcoholism, and that person discusses the dangers and concerns openly, and asks the person with alcoholism to cut back.
The family might help by removing alcohol from the home and looking for ways to make family celebrations free of drink temptations. Sometimes, people who are provided with this sort of friendly front can cut back on the amount they drink, and some can cut back altogether. This one little talk can make all the difference.
But alcoholism can be a dangerous foe, and the changes alcohol exposure can cause in the cells of the brain can make clear thinking difficult or impossible. As a result, some people with alcoholism may not be able to cut back with a family’s encouragement. For them, a simple talk is not enough.
A formal intervention may be a better idea for people like this. Here, the family sits down as a group to discuss the alcoholism issue. Every member of the family prepares a short speech about the alcoholism signs seen, and the worries that person has about continued drinking. Each person has an opportunity to share his/her thoughts, and at the end of this conversation, the person with alcoholism may be compelled to enter care.
People with functional alcoholism may be harder to persuade, when compared to people with straightforward alcoholism, as families may not have real consequences to point to.
They cannot discuss job losses, pending litigation, or loss of parental rights, as those things have not happened yet. But the family can discuss the real changes they have seen, even if they seem small, and they can point out how those changes are worrisome.
For example, a family of a person with a high-powered job and functional alcoholism might discuss how the person no longer stays awake in the evenings to help with a child’s homework. The child might be able to remember how much the parent once helped, and how close the child felt to that parent, and the child might ask the parent to stop drinking to help again.
This is not a textbook consequence of alcoholism, but it is still a compelling moment in a family’s narrative. Finding those key moments could help a person to understand why alcoholism help is required.
Someone with functional alcoholism who cannot cut back alone will need the help of a treatment program. According to the journal Alcohol Research and Health, some 700,000 people get help for alcoholism every day in the United States. There is no shame in getting help for this very real problem. For people with functional alcoholism, that help could prevent a spectacular and very public blowout fueled by alcohol.
Families that speak up are doing good work, and they could help to turn the tide of alcoholism in their families. The more they say, the better things will get, especially for the person with functional alcoholism.