If you’re a functioning alcoholic, you’re likely able to hide the signs of the effects of your drinking – which can lead to you questioning whether you have a problem or not.
You may think that it’s okay to continue drinking excessively, as you haven’t encountered many negative consequences (yet).
This begs the question – should you stop drinking if you’re a functioning alcoholic, or is it okay to keep abusing alcohol? This is what we are going to explore on this page.
Read on to learn more about alcoholism, what exactly high functioning alcoholism is, and the signs that you may be a functioning alcoholic.
Alcohol use disorder is characterised by a lack of control over alcohol use and can include alcohol addiction, alcohol dependence, and alcohol abuse disorder. Medical professionals will steer clear of these terms, and instead, use the term ‘alcohol use disorder’.
Frequently shortened to AUD, alcohol use disorders can vary in severity – ranging from mild to moderate to severe. Alcohol dependence is the more severe form of AUD. AUD is recognised as a mental illness and a physical illness and can be both chronic and relapsing.
People with AUD will typically continue drinking despite the negative effects it can have on their lives. It can affect pretty much all areas of your life – for example, your career, finances, relationships, and family.
It also affects well-being, including your mental health and physical health – and is a causal factor in over 60 medical conditions.
It affects millions of people around the world, with over 700,000 dependent drinkers in Englandalone. This figure includes one in 30 women and one in 12 men.
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Alcohol abuse and alcohol use disorder are not the same conditions – although alcohol abuse can be a form of AUD. Alcohol abuse is classed as a dangerous drinking pattern that can include binge drinking.
Binge drinking is when you drink an excessive amount of alcohol in a single drinking period, to the extent that it causes physical damage. Abusing alcohol can lead to alcohol poisoning, also known as an alcohol overdose.
Alcohol poisoning occurs when there is too much alcohol in your bloodstream to the point that it affects certain life-controlling areas of your brain – for example, heart rate, temperature, and breathing.
Alcohol poisoning can lead to seizures, confusion, loss of consciousness, vomiting, slowed-down breathing, and many more. It can be fatal – especially if you vomit while unconscious.
Abusing alcohol can have many short-term and long-term problems, and not just on your physical health. This is why it’s important to drink alcohol mindfully and in moderation.
In regards to alcohol use, the NHS recommends that you drink no more than 14 units per week over three or more days. For context in popular alcoholic beverages, this is the same as six pints of 4% beer, and six medium glasses of wine.
Not all people who abuse alcohol are alcoholics, but most alcoholics tend to abuse alcohol. IF you abuse alcohol, you could only drink once or twice a week – but drink so much in this period that it causes physical harm.
There is no level of drinking that is considered 100% safe, but drinking mindfully and sticking within the recommended limits may lower the risk of developing an alcohol problem and other health effects.
Many people have an image of alcoholism as somebody who struggles to live their lives ‘normally’ whilst they have an addiction to alcohol. Although this may be true for many people, it isn’t always the case.
Medical professionals steer clear of the term ‘functional alcoholic’ – it is not a medical diagnosis, but a colloquial term that describes somebody with alcohol use issues/ dependent on alcohol but still functions in society.
A more appropriate term is ‘currently functional’ – because often, the problem will become more severe. The term ‘functional alcoholic’ can be harmful because of the potential stigma that can prevent somebody from seeking help for their addiction.
When it comes to high-functioning alcoholics, drinking doesn’t typically cause them to miss out on certain obligations such as attending work, and they’ll often be able to prioritise the important things in life.
Unlike most people with alcohol use disorder, a functioning alcoholic may be able to manage most areas of their lives – for example, relationships, jobs, and their household.
They may not also experience alcohol-related physical health issues or mental health issues – however, alcoholism often progresses in severity, so this will not always remain the case.
That being said, functional alcoholics will often struggle with alcohol cravings. Because of this, they may try to quit but end up relapsing, and being overcome with thoughts about alcohol – which is a key sign of alcohol use disorder/ substance use disorder.
If you have a form of an alcohol use disorder, whether you describe yourself as functional or not, it’s important to seek help.
However, it’s hard to seek help if you don’t know or don’t think you have a problem, or you regularly justify your drinking as you feel like you’re maintaining a successful or functional life.
If others have brought up concerns about your drinking, or you think you may be reliant on alcohol, then you likely have a problem.
You can still be an alcoholic if your life remains or appears somewhat unaffected by your drinking – it may just be harder to see the signs. Read on to learn more about the key signs that could indicate you are a high-functioning alcoholic.
One of the main signs of alcohol addiction, regardless of whether you’re ‘functional’ or not, is the failure or difficulty to stop drinking.
Alcoholism is a brain disease – and if you’re an alcoholic, you’ll struggle to quit drinking as your brain now associates alcohol with a survival tool such as food or water.
However, if you’re a functional alcoholic, you may not see that you have a problem – many functional alcoholics only realise they have a problem when the disease progresses, or when they try to stop and can’t.
There is help out there for you if you wish to stop drinking and gain control of your drinking habits.
Quitting cold turkey isn’t recommended, and can be dangerous – especially when it comes to severe addictions.
Rehab and therapy are effective ways to stop drinking. See ‘Help for Alcohol Addiction’ to learn more.
If others have noticed your excessive drinking, how did you react? Did you lie, or make excuses? Or could you be in denial about the extent of your problem?
Many functional alcoholics will lie about their drinking to others, or become defensive when they are questioned or confronted about their drinking.
You may say you’ve only had one drink when in reality, you’ve had five. Likewise, you may have said you’ve not had a drink when you have. Some functional alcoholics will drink in private to hide their drinking from others – or drink a few in public but then continue drinking in secrecy.
Even if you feel able to function successfully with alcohol, your alcoholism may affect your familyand loved ones. Likewise, although you may not experience any severe short-term effects, you’ll likely experience long-term physical and psychological effects.
Another sign that you may be a functioning alcoholic is that you have developed a tolerance to alcohol. You may appear sober after drinking the same amount as others or appear to feel the effects of alcohol slower than others.
Likewise, you may need to drink more and more alcohol to feel the same effects. You may have previously felt ‘drunk’ after drinking two or three drinks, but now it may take ten drinks to feel the effects of alcohol.
When this happens, it’s a sign that you’ve developed an alcohol tolerance. This is an indication that your alcohol consumption has become problematic.
A key sign of alcohol use disorder is the lack of control over alcohol consumption. Many people with an alcohol problem will continue drinking in the morning to ease the withdrawal or the hangover, as an attempt to help their body regulate.
If you find yourself drinking at inappropriate times such as first thing in the morning, then you may want to evaluate your alcohol consumption and seek help for your alcohol problem – regardless of whether you can still function whilst in active addiction.
Although, if you’re a functioning alcoholic, you may feel as though you’re able to cope with your addiction and still live a functional life, there are still many problems that can arise as a result of you’re drinking.
A key example of this is memory issues. If you drink a lot, you may experience blackouts and memory problems. If people reference certain things you said or did in conversation that you don’t recall, then take this as a sign that your drinking is problematic.
Research shows that the severity of your blackouts can vary depending on your individual makeup– and that memory lapses caused by alcohol can lead to long-term psychiatric symptoms and neurobiological abnormalities.
If you have an alcohol problem, you may put yourself or others at risk as a result of alcohol consumption. This may be even more prominent for those who are in denial about their problem.
You may feel overconfident in completing everyday tasks while under the influence, such as driving. This is not only illegal but is extremely dangerous – and you may put yourself and others at risk.
You may also attempt to operate machinery or complete other tasks that can put your life at risk. Even if you have developed a tolerance to alcohol, your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) remains high, and your judgement is still clouded while under the influence of alcohol.
In short, no – it is not safe to drink if you are a high-functioning alcoholic. Although you may be able to hide the effects of your drinking from yourself and others, your alcoholism will progress if you don’t seek help – and you will not be able to do this in the long term.
It can be difficult (and draining) to hide your alcohol use from others, and the longer you do it, the harder it will be to keep the illusion under wraps. If you don’t accept that you have a problem and seek addiction treatment, you may end up hitting rock bottom.
As well as the damage you’re doing to yourself, you may also be harming other people. Addiction can be difficult for families – for example, if you’re an alcoholic parent, it can be difficult to be there for your children as your priority is alcohol.
The same applies to friendships and romantic relationships. Even if people around you aren’t aware that you have an addiction, they likely sense that something is wrong.
Regardless of whether you’re able to maintain a relatively functional life, drinking can still impact all aspects of your life. It can also take its toll on your mental health, putting you more at risk for depression and other mental disorders.
There are many long-term physical effects of alcohol abuse and substance abuse, and it can damage many of your organs. High-functioning alcoholics are often in denial about their problem – and because of this, they may not choose to receive treatment.
Each day that you don’t receive addiction treatment, you are missing out. Getting sober is the only way to make the most out of your life, and prevent alcohol-related health problems.
If you think that you are coping well with your alcohol abuse now, you should still seek treatment. It’s best to seek treatment before you hit rock bottom or your addiction worsens – and there is help out there for you.
You don’t have to quit alcohol without support – whether you choose to attend rehab or support groups, it’s always best to receive help when getting sober.
There are different types of rehab available for alcohol addiction – for example, inpatient rehab/ residential rehab, outpatient rehab, quasi-residential rehab, private rehab, and NHS-operated rehab.
There are also different types of addiction treatment. With so many options out there, it can be difficult to find the right rehab centre for you. This is where we can help.
At Help4Addiction, we can guide you through the process from start to finish. We’re in contact with rehab clinics all around England and Wales and can find your local alcohol rehab centre.
After listening to your story, requirements and preferences, we’ll find the right treatment plan and centre for you and your addiction.
We can also help with other substance abuse issues – for example, illicit drug abuse (e.g cannabis, cocaine or heroin), and prescription drug addiction (e.g prescription painkillers, stimulants, or sedatives).
The alcohol addiction treatment process can vary from clinic to clinic. In most cases, the rehab process starts with a detox. Detoxification deals with the physical aspect of addiction – and during alcohol detox, you’ll have no access to alcohol to free your body of the addiction.
You may experience withdrawal symptoms during this stage, which can be uncomfortable and unpleasant. Some people prefer a medical detox with detox medication/ addiction medicine and medical supervision – which is best for severe alcohol addiction.
The next stage of rehab typically involves therapy. Getting help from a mental health professional is not only beneficial for those with dual diagnosis, but for anybody dealing with addiction – or anybody who wants to improve their well-being. You may benefit from CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy).
Therapy such as counselling or group therapy can not only help you become mentally stronger and more confident but can help you gain clarity on your addiction – for example, root causes and addiction triggers.
It may feel daunting returning back to your everyday life after rehab, and there’s no denying that recovery can be a lonely and long process. However, there is support out there when you’ve completed rehab. This is known as secondary treatment or aftercare.
This can involve group therapy, counselling, and support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. To start your recovery journey today, contact our friendly team.
Nicholas Conn is a leading industry addiction expert who runs the UK’s largest addiction advisory service and is regularly featured in the national press, radio and TV. He is the founder and CEO of a drug and alcohol rehab center called Help4addiction, which was founded in 2015. He has been clean himself since 2009 and has worked in the Addiction and Rehab Industry for over a decade. Nick is dedicated to helping others recover and get treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. In 2013, he released a book ‘The Thin White’ line that is available on Amazon.
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