What is a Functional Alcoholic?

Posted on July 16th, 2012

When most of us think of an alcoholic, we tend to envision a person who is unable to hold down a job, is perhaps homeless and generally speaking, dysfunctional in all areas of his or her life. Fluctuating between a constant state of drunkenness and one mother of a hangover, all that loved ones see is someone who is in desperate need of help but have no way to offer it. Perpetually one drink away from losing everything, most alcoholics teeter totter on a seesaw, always hovering dangerously close to hitting rock bottom. And of course bottoming out is what most loved ones, and even alcoholics themselves, hope for. A turning point reached where the chaos of their lives collides with the consequences of their actions, the only thing left is to is admit powerlessness and ask for help. This person, whether you are an alcoholic or the loved one who suffers alongside one, is the image we can all identify with when asked to describe an alcoholic.

Two Different People in the Same Body

But what about the alcoholic many of us do not know? He could be the one you see climbing the corporate ladder, making a huge success of himself. She may even be a pillar of her community, on the school board, or just someone nobody would ever suspect is an alcoholic. By day he does what most functional people in society do. He goes to work, is never late, is very productive and although he may complain of frequent headaches, nobody is the wiser. She may be your physician; your attorney or she teaches at your daughter’s school and apart from the occasional bout with the stomach flu, she is otherwise extremely successful.

When he or she isn’t forced to perform at work or engage with people when out in public, this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde can fool the keenest observer. Often affable, jovial and even considered popular and captivating to most who know them, the home life for the functional alcoholic might be an entirely different story. Just ask their spouse, kids or parents. Once home, it is a no holds barred for the functional alcoholic who downs one shot, one beer, one whatever they can get their hands on, after the other.

Denial is Not a River in Egypt

Unlike an alcoholic who has suffered many a consequence from their drinking, the functional alcoholic lives in a constant state of denial. Pointing to his many successes, perhaps even awards and accolades, he can show proof that he isn’t one of those alcoholics. Outraged at the suggesting that her drinking is every bit as destructive as the long suffering drunk who has lost everything, she quickly points out the enormous respect she commands from her colleagues and peers.

Expressions of concerns by those who know the functional alcoholic are often met with either an outburst of laughter, or hostility. Able to wake up, and despite the hangover, make it to work, the bender from the night before was just something to take the edge off, they reason with themselves and others. Never missing an important family milestone and never, ever offering even so much as a hint that something is amiss, the functional alcoholic can fool both themselves and those around them.

Having the ability to counter the ever-growing concerns by loved ones with mounting evidence that there is no problem, it is easy to see how denial creeps in. It is difficult for someone who hasn’t lost everything to identify with someone who has. Receiving bonuses and raises, rather than warnings and pink slips, surely the functional alcoholic has nothing in common with the drunk who can’t even hold his life together.

Rearing Its Ugly Head

Ounce for ounce, the functional alcoholic can usually drink any down and out drunk under the table. Requiring more and more as tolerance increases, chasing that high takes longer to produce. And while losing his job or her house may not happen to the functional alcoholic, something more serious can take its place.

Even if someone is able to fool the world that they have a problem, a functional alcoholic can only fool his or her internal organs for so long. Consequences of day in and day out abuse of alcohol can cause cirrhosis of the liver, and compromise cognitive function in the brain. While discontinuing drinking may reverse some damage, other damage is irreversible.

It is important if you are or someone you love is a functional alcoholic, you must get help immediately. Unlike the alcoholic who needs to hit bottom to accept that he or she has a problem, the functional alcoholic may never hit bottom and will likely die trying.

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