The terms “high-functioning” or “functional alcoholic” describe individuals who suffer from an alcohol use disorder (AUD), but do not exhibit many of the common life-disrupting effects associated with alcohol abuse.
An alcohol use disorder is a treatable chronic medical disorder that causes long-term changes in the brain that impair one’s ability to control drinking despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.
In spite of internally grappling with an addiction to alcohol, they seem able to continue maintaining jobs, relationships, and general responsibilities.
Though these types of individuals might not appear to have a problem, the health complications that accompany functional alcoholism can have devastating effects over time.
In fact, the toll that substance abuse takes on a high-functioning alcoholic can be worse than it is for someone who shows telltale signs of an addiction. This is because, without external consequences to drive one to seek help, functional alcoholism continues unaddressed for much longer.
Distinguishing someone who suffers from an AUD from someone who simply has a high alcohol tolerance can be tough.
Heavy drinking is certainly one sign of an AUD–but individuals who drink heavily may not necessarily be suffering from an addiction.
Heavy alcohol consumption and addiction are closely linked, however. Prolonged heavy consumption of any substance encourages dependence upon it, and dependence is a known early step in the addiction process.
So what makes the condition of a functional alcoholic so dangerous and what are the risks?
Risks of Alcoholism
Individuals who suffer from alcohol addiction are at the greatest risk for experiencing long-term impacts of alcohol use. Untreated, alcohol addiction can last for years, resulting in a piling up of health complications.
One of the most dangerous potential impacts of long-term alcohol use is cancer.
Multiple areas of the body develop a higher risk for cancer when alcohol is abused over long periods of time. Specifically, the:
- colon, and
are some of the first to fall victim to alcohol’s effects, as these tissues interact with alcohol directly.
Cancer is not the only disease that can result from long-term alcohol use. Alcohol abuse can also wreak havoc on the body by significantly increasing one’s chances of heart disease, pneumonia, stroke, epilepsy, depression, and liver failure.
How Functional Alcoholism Develops
Habitual alcohol use is the most common way individuals develop an addiction. There are, however, some less recognizable known factors that can increase an individual’s risk of suffering from alcohol abuse.
Research continues to show that both genetics and distressing life experiences play a significant role in a person’s vulnerability to alcohol dependence.
While the presence of trauma or alcohol abuse in the family does not mean that they will experience addiction, they are at greater risk than those who do not have these factors present.
Stress, anxiety, and mental health disorders are also factors that can influence someone to adopt high-functioning alcoholic behaviors.
Continuous exposure to significant stress is believed to alter brain function over time. This makes the brain more vulnerable to developing disorders like anxiety. These stress-induced changes, in turn, increase the likelihood of alcohol consumption.
Another factor that can put individuals at a greater risk of addiction is their family history. Studies have shown that persons with a family history of addiction have a higher chance of developing an addiction themselves.
Extensive research has found slight differences in brain structure between those who have a family history of substance abuse versus those who do not. At a biological level, these individuals have a slightly different process for experiencing reward processes. Thus, an individual with a family history of addiction is more vulnerable to similar addictive substances.
In the case of a functioning alcoholic, knowing how to recognize the underlying signs of an alcohol addiction are crucial for deciding when to take action.
Recognizing a High-Functioning Alcoholic
Below are some key indicators that a loved one may observe about someone they suspect is living as a functional alcoholic:
How high-functioning alcoholism might think:
- Obsessing over when they can attain the next drink
- Craving or having strong urges to drink
- Feeling guilt or shame about behavior while under the influence of alcohol
- Using social events and/or access “top-shelf quality” alcohol as an excuse to drink in excess
What a high-functioning alcoholic can sound like:
- Justifying drinking by making comparisons to people who have experienced worse problems with drinking, or severe consequences
- They dismiss critical input or feedback about their drinking patterns.
- Misrepresenting how often, how much, and how strong your drinks are.
- Denying a drinking problem due to lack of external consequences (e.g. missing days at work or school)
What a functional alcoholic lifestyle may look like:
- They are able to handle responsibilities well at home, school, and work in spite of drinking
- Drinking is often done in a concealed or “sneaky” manner (e.g. drinking before or after an event, sneaking alcohol when at an event where it isn’t served, drinking alone, or hiding alcohol around the house)
- Excelling in certain areas of life despite excessive alcohol use
- They drink until they pass out/black out from alcohol consumption.
- Drinking at socially inappropriate (e.g. lunchtime at work) or dangerous (e.g. before driving) times
- They can drink a large amount of alcohol without appearing intoxicated.
- Using alcohol as a reward (e.g. for not drinking for a time) or coping mechanism in stressful situations
- Continuing to drink even if it has caused or worsened physical or mental health problems.
- Projecting a well-groomed appearance that defies the conventional image of a drunk
How to Seek Help for a Functional Alcoholic
An AUD is one of the most common types of disorders in the country. Both short-term and long-term alcohol abuse can be severely detrimental.
Problems like drunk driving, alcohol poisoning, and violence can result from high-volume alcohol use short term.
Additionally, individuals who abuse alcohol for long periods of time are at greater risk for several kinds of cancer, as well as multiple health complications in the heart, lungs, and pancreas.
A functional alcoholic is more likely to be exposed to the risks of both short- and long-term alcohol abuse. This is why it is so important to take steps to prevent discomfort–and even death–before functional alcoholism takes its toll.
There are some factors that may contribute to an individual’s vulnerability to alcohol abuse, but the truth is that anyone can develop a substance abuse disorder. However it may develop, getting help as soon as possible is crucial.
A “high-functioning alcoholic” may not appear to have a problem, but if you think a loved one is suffering from an alcohol use disorder, contact us today.