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Functional Alcoholism: What It Is, Why It Matters

Most people think of alcoholism or addiction as a devastating disease that tears the bottom out of life – and it is. But not everyone who is living with the disease of addiction to any substance wears their addiction externally.

That is, there is something called “functional alcoholism,” in which someone may hold a job or be enrolled in school and appear to be at the top of their game. They may have a family at home and people around them, and look like they have everything under control. Only those who are closest to them may realize that they are teetering on the edge of falling apart.

In every industry, functional alcoholism is a big deal. When a a politician is driving while under the influence or a manager is making poor choices due to being hungover or drunk on the job, it impacts everyone they work with, the clients they serve, and the products/legislation they produce – and that’s in addition to the impact their use of substances has on them personally, their close friends, and their family members.

The damage done by addiction has the potential to be even more far-reaching when someone manages to hide their use and “maintain” on the surface.

So how can you tell when someone is really living with an addiction if the typical signs of alcoholism are not visible?

Signs of Functional Alcoholism

  • Doctors say that the drinking has to stop due to increasing health problems.
  • An exorbitant amount of money is spent at bars or on alcohol, or disappears.
  • Bottles of alcohol are hidden in the car, around the house, and at the office.
  • Almost nothing is done without a drink in hand. If alcohol is not allowed or nowhere to be found, then the person may refuse to attend, leave in the middle, or sneak alcohol in.
  • People joke about the person’s drinking or otherwise view it as a natural extension of who they are and what they do.
  • There is denial that there is a problem despite clear evidence of negative consequences directly caused by drinking.
  • Holding It Together on the Outside, Falling Apart on the Inside

    The very fact that the person is still employed and still “functional” in terms of managing bills and keeping up appearances to family and friends may be the worst part of functional alcoholism. These external characteristics are often used by them to justify that they are “just fine” and they “don’t really have a problem.”

    While someone who was fired due to their drinking, who lost their home, or who otherwise more vividly exhibits the symptoms of serious alcohol use will clearly be identified as someone in need of treatment by their loved ones, a functional alcoholic may make their concerned family members question themselves and not push for treatment that is so desperately needed.

    It is important to remember that if there are clear issues associated with drinking – including problems in relationships, health issues, mood and mental health difficulties, financial struggles, etc. – today’s functionality may be fleeting. That is, the job, the respect of the community, and the support of friends and loved ones can all disappear in an instant if drinking continues. The saying goes that everyone is “fine” until they aren’t. If your hope is to help your loved one avoid the terrible fall you see coming, then you do not have to give up on helping them to get the treatment they need.

    A Formal Discussion

    Staging an intervention for someone who is functioning in active addiction is often a necessary step. Though you may have had informal discussions with them in the past about the nature of their drinking, this more formal discussion is just as much about you setting clear boundaries as it is about helping them understand that change is necessary.

    Here’s what you need to know:

  • You can hire a professional interventionist to assist you, providing you with guidance throughout the process.
  • Identifying alcoholism as a medical disorder logically leads to the identification of the need for medical and therapeutic treatment.
  • It is important to highlight the things that will change going forward, whether or not the person chooses treatment (e.g., you will not be giving them money, lying for them, or otherwise helping to shield them from the consequences of drinking).
  • Agreeing that treatment is necessary is not an admission of failure or guilt. If your loved one views the situation in that light, it is important to spend some time addressing the issue and clarifying that healing is the focus, not blame of any kind.
  • Is your loved one ready to talk about the need for alcohol abuse treatment?