What Are High Functioning Alcoholics?
You say, “I never call off work. What’s the big deal if I drink every night?”
You say, “My bills are always paid, and I work hard. I deserve some drinks at the end of a long day to unwind.”
If you’re like me, you’ll say anything to justify your drinking habits. It’s true, your bills are paid on time, and you always show up for work. Your kids, if you have them, want for nothing. Your obligations are always met. So what if you have some drinks?
Knowing this, you might say, “So what?”
While you don’t face the same dire consequences as other alcoholics, you will still face the consequences. Though you appear functional to the outside world, your friends and family might think differently. I know mine did.
You ask, “Am I a functioning alcoholic?” Read on to learn more about functional alcoholism.
Not all drinking is equal, nor are drinking problems. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), 11 criteria determine an alcohol abuse disorder.
The American Psychological Association (APA) states that meeting two of these 11 criteria define an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).
Some of them that correspond with functional alcoholism are cravings and/or strong desires to drink alcohol. Increased tolerance to alcohol is another functional symptom, and so are multiple failed attempts to cut back on drinking.
Though meeting two of these criteria determine an alcohol abuse disorder, the DSM-V lists three grades of AUD severity. They are mild, moderate, and severe.
A mild AUD is where two to three of the 11 DSM-V defined criteria are present. This is the stage where people who may have a problem don’t even realize it. If they do, they might not think it’s a big deal.
The mild classification for women is defined as drinking more than three drinks on any given day, or the weekly consumption of seven drinks. For men, it’s more than four drinks on any day or 14 drinks a week.
People with mild alcohol use disorder don’t need detox when they quit drinking, but they may notice they have problems cutting back or keeping to any limits they put on their drinking.
A moderate AUD is where four to five of the Alcohol Use Disorder characteristics are present. Moderate Alcohol Use Disorder requires medical supervision for detox.
This is the level of alcoholism where you may see the negative aspects of abuse show. These could be work-related punishments due to poor performance or job losses. This may be the point where your relationships fracture.
Or none of these yet. Though a moderate AUD is where your alcoholism is laid bare to the outside world, you might not face the consequences.
I went years with a drinking problem, trying in vain to enforce moderation standards I could never keep. While anyone on the outside could easily see my alcoholism, I lived in a world of denial because I’d yet to face any severe consequences.
Severe AUD is where six or more criteria are present. This is the level defined by chronic drinking. Even in the moderate stage, you may be able to keep a drinking schedule. No drinks until five o’clock was my rule.
In the severe stage, your drinking becomes around the clock and completely compulsive. Morning drinking is part of your routine. Day drinking is no longer for Sunday brunch, and night drinking is no longer reserved for a Saturday night.
This is the level where you face all the consequences you may have avoided in the mild or moderate stage. Broken relationships with friends and family, job loss, and reckless criminal behavior are all symptoms.
Here is where acute health consequences come. Though mild and moderate alcoholism associate with long-term health issues, severe AUD carries the possibility of liver and kidney failure, neuropathy, and death.
Alcoholism is Progressive
It’s important to remember that alcoholism is a progressive disease. What starts as a mild alcohol use disorder can and will blossom into a moderate and severe problem.
For me, it was an easy slide where I swam upstream in denial for years. I made rules for my drinking I could never keep, but decided it was all right because I showed up for work.
Or I’d had a tough day and say things like, “Well, I wasn’t going to drink today.” Or I’d had a great day and needed to celebrate. Soon enough, I found justification to drink every day without limitation.
To have that one more drink, I’d say to myself, “I’ll have one more tonight and then not drink tomorrow.” If you say this to yourself, you know when tomorrow comes, you find a way to drink again.
What is a Functional Alcoholic?
A functional alcoholic is someone who appears responsible on the surface while suffering from a drinking problem. These are the people who, to co-workers or acquaintances, an AUD might not be noticeable.
High-functioning alcoholics are the people who hold a successful job. They achieve academic awards. They can have romantic relationships.
They maintain all the outward appearances of a normal, healthy life to those who don’t know them well enough to see their inner-turmoil. They hide their drinking from others and often run from those who may notice their alcoholism.
Functional alcoholics are masters at compartmentalization. This is a defence mechanism that allows the mind to keep certain actions and feelings separate from other important aspects of their life.
Alcoholics who function at a high level can keep their drinking separate from their careers and romantic relationships for a period of time. To maintain this defense mechanism, they often find themselves at odds with intimacy.
Symptoms of High-Functioning Alcoholics
There are some tell-tale signs of functional alcoholism you can notice in yourself or others.
Are you quick to pour yourself a drink as soon as you’re done with work? Do you find yourself craving happy-hour all through the day? Do you notice yourself as the only consistent happy-hour goer among your co-workers?
Maybe you notice you drink more than you intend consistently. For me, I’d always start out saying I was only going to have one or two beers. One or two always became four or five.
Another symptom of high-functioning alcoholism is relationship problems. Has your girlfriend or spouse confronted your drinking? How did that make you feel? Did you become defensive and angry? Or indignant at even the suggestion of a problem?
You may not develop a ton of serious relationships because of your drinking. Your romantic relationships only last a few months before you’re on the market once again looking for a new partner who hasn’t discovered your drinking.
Have old, close friends dropped out of your life? Do you notice a whole new group of friends has replaced them? The high-functioning alcoholic often substitutes new, permissive friends for older intimate relationships.
Denial is the Tool of High-Functioning Alcoholics
When I drank, I’d tell myself all sorts of things. I’m successful. I have a good job. I’m not an alcoholic because I’m not like those people.
Who are those people? They are the stereotypical alcoholics. They are the people who outwardly express their alcoholism through action and deed. They have multiple DUI, financial issues, relationship problems, and health issues.
I’d see them at the bar and say to myself, “I don’t have a problem. See? I’m not that.”
Like most functional alcoholics, I swam in the deep pool of denial.
Denial is how you, the functional alcoholic, can live and drink and convince yourself you don’t have a problem. You’re not this. You’re not that. Even though you drink daily, you don’t have a problem.
Denial is so dangerous that it can be used to hoodwink those around you. Your friends, lovers, and co-workers would rather not see you as an alcoholic.
Their willingness to avoid the truth of your problem combined with your expert denial ability can surround your problem in a comfort-zone of denial. High-functioning alcoholics live in this world of combined denial.
Is There Such a Thing as Functional Alcoholism?
Yes, there is. These are the people who live their lives on the outside as if everything is normal. They have great jobs. They have a beautiful home with beautiful spouses and kids.
Though most high-functioning alcoholics only function for a period of time. Remember, Alcohol Use Disorder is a progressive disease. If you’re a functioning alcoholic now, you may not be for long.