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Can You Be A Functional Alcoholic?

Not all alcoholics make a scene and openly display their drinking problem. Many alcoholics function normally in society, and those around them are surprised to learn that they have an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Some people with an AUD may be able to appear to have perfect lives. Sarah Allen Benton, a licensed mental health counselor and author of Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic, describes how you can be an alcoholic “even though you have a great ‘outside life,’ with a job that pays well, home, family, friendships, and social bonds.”

The informal classification of a functioning alcoholic comes from the perception that these drinkers are, “Able to maintain a semblance of normal life by continuing to perform and succeed in their careers or other tasks. To varying extents, they may also be able to maintain relationships and physical health and may have been fortunate enough to have so far avoided any serious infractions with the criminal justice system.

The Myth of Functional Alcoholics

While it may appear that these people do not have a life-threatening alcohol problem, this is not the case, as the excess alcohol in their systems is still damaging their bodies, whether or not it is threatening their lives.

Functioning alcoholics may seem fine when under the influence and demonstrate a high tolerance for liquor. When intoxicated, they may not exhibit drastic personality changes or act differently. Some addiction experts claim that “an element of luck may be at play to explain how a functional alcoholic has seemingly dodged some of the consequences of their problematic drinking.” Whatever the reason for the lack of dangerous behavior in the life of a functioning alcoholic, it is critical to recognize that those individuals, like those with obvious disorders, are dealing with an addiction.

The Role of Denial

Denial is the main reason some alcoholics can look at themselves in the mirror and not see their disorder. Denial comes into play when the alcoholic has reason to defend him or herself to concerned loved ones with responses like “I am stable and fully able to support myself.” It can also be used as a defense mechanism. Benton explains that a functional alcoholic may say to themselves, “‘I have a great job, pay my bills, and have lots of friends; therefore I am not an alcoholic.’” Excuses and logic like this do not explain away an alcohol use disorder. Success also provides a built-in excuse, as success leads individuals to overlook excessive drinking. Other success-related excuses may include “I only drink expensive wine” or “I haven’t lost everything or suffered setbacks because of drinking.”

Risks of Alcohol Abuse

While loved ones and those who socialize with the individual with an AUD do not see their inability to function in society, Benton reminds us that alcohol can make any individual loosen their grip. Regardless of if others see it, functional alcoholics put themselves in harmful and threatening situations, such as driving under the influence or engaging in risky sexual encounters.

Robert Huebner, Ph.D., of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, believes that no one “can drink heavily and maintain major responsibilities over long periods of time. If someone drinks heavily, it is going to catch up with them.” While the downward social spiral may not have happened yet for a functional alcoholic, excessive drinking has life-threatening physical risks. No matter how severe, alcohol use disorders have the potential to cause liver disease, pancreatitis, specific forms of cancer, brain damage, memory loss, and high blood pressure. Domestic violence, child abuse, neglect, and fetal alcohol syndrome are all more likely in people with an AUD, depending on their life circumstances.

Treatment for Functional Alcoholics

Individuals suffering from functional alcoholism are less likely to seek treatment because of the denial aspect of the disease. Having said that, there hasn’t been a lot of research done on functional addictions. Addiction is addiction regardless of how it manifests itself. Benton explains that “the treatment for a high-functioning alcoholic is the same as for any other type of addict.”

If you or a loved one are functioning with an AUD and do not know where to get help or find treatment, talking to your primary care physician is a great start. Finding the right treatment for you, whether it’s a therapist, psychiatrist, addiction counselor, or 12-step program, is the next step in your recovery journey. Outpatient programs, like the care offered at Boardwalk Recovery Center, are a good fit for individuals functioning with an AUD because you get the professional treatment and group support you need during the day and can still live at home and maintain some of the same daily routines and activities. An addiction is an addiction, and we are here to help.

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