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How To Spot Functioning Alcoholic – The Tell-Tail Signs

Lisa Taylor
Lisa TaylorAddiction Counsellor

The typical image we have of an alcoholic is that person who is down on his luck, constantly drinking and passing out, and perhaps even living on the street as a result of being unable to hold down a job. Some alcoholics do indeed fit this image. But there are others, known as functioning alcoholics, who do an excellent job of hiding their drinking problems even in the midst of holding down jobs, paying their bills, and supporting their families.

The functioning alcoholic is typically harder to treat because he or she has convinced him/herself, based on his/her ability to hold his/her life together, that he/she does not have a drinking problem. Yet alcoholism is what it is regardless of whether a person has the ability to continue functioning normally.

We assume you have decided to read this article because you are concerned about a loved one you suspect might be a functioning alcoholic. If so, we are happy to help. We hope you find the information in this guide pertinent to your situation. We are also available to offer advice, answers to your questions, and referrals to treatment providers who can help both you and your loved one. Do not hesitate to contact us for help.

10 Signs You Can Look For

An alcoholic who manages to maintain full functionality may not display the typical signs and symptoms we associate with the condition. But that does not mean he or she displays no signs of all. Quite the contrary, highly functional alcoholics exhibit signs and symptoms that are easy to spot if you know what to look for.

Here are ten signs that might suggest a loved one is a highly functional alcoholic:

  • Routinely making jokes about drinking or alcoholism
  • Routine suggestions of a drinking problem made in passing
  • Missing work or being late more than average
  • Needing alcohol to feel confident and relaxed
  • Drinking in the morning, drinking alone, and often getting drunk
  • Forgetting events that happened while under the influence
  • Becoming defensive about drinking habits
  • Asking friends or family members to cover for him or her
  • Engaging in risky behaviour while drinking, such as unprotected sex.

The thing to remember about the functioning alcoholic is that he or she is still able to hold down a job and meet certain social obligations. This is what separates the functional from the non-functional alcoholic. That said, there is a common thread among both: alcohol is in control of the daily routine.

If you suspect a loved one is an alcoholic despite being able to function somewhat normally, you might want to look around the house to see if you can find any hidden bottles of alcohol. Hiding alcohol is a common tactic used to conceal one's drinking problems. It is something a highly functional alcoholic will do without thinking about it.

What You Can Do to Help

In a perfect world, your concern about a potentially alcoholic loved one would be completely unfounded and without merit. But this is not a perfect world. You may suspect your loved one has a drinking problem because you have identified some of the signs and symptoms listed above. In such a case, what can you do to help?

The first thing you should know is that functioning alcoholics are very good at denying their problems. Not only that, they are equally good at manipulating others into enabling their destructive behaviour. If you believe your loved one is indeed an alcoholic, be prepared to be lied to and manipulated. Do not fall for it. Stand firm in your resolve to face the problem head-on and fix it.

Second, understand that you cannot force your loved one to seek treatment. Even if you could, being forced into treatment only encourages bitterness and rebellion. Your loved one would likely dig in his or her heels and refuse to give treatment a 100% effort.

As for the things you can do to help your loved one, here are a few suggestions:

  • Consider Intervention – Conducting an intervention may be successful in motivating your loved one to seek professional treatment. Alcohol counsellors use intervention quite frequently. We can offer you advice on doing it yourself or connect you with a counsellor capable of handling everything for you.
  • Express Your Concern – You should definitely express your concern even though you may not get a positive reaction. When you do talk to your loved one, be sure to display an attitude of compassion, understanding, and a non-judgemental willingness to help.
  • Investigate Treatment Options – An alcoholic loved one is not likely to seek out treatment even if he or she is willing to admit a problem exists. One of the best things you can do is compile treatment information for him or her. You will be ready to go at a moment’s notice should the individual decide it is time to be treated.
  • Stop Enabling – If you are enabling your loved one's alcoholic behaviour, stop doing so. Stop making excuses to cover for him or her; stop calling in sick when he or she doesn't want to go to work; stop telling him or her that he/she's really not an alcoholic and that everything will be okay. Enabling behaviour only makes a drinking problem worse.

Dangers of Alcoholism the Same

The functioning alcoholic may be someone who can abuse alcohol and still maintain a normal life, but that does not mean alcohol is not doing any damage. It is. The dangers of alcoholism are as real to the highly functioning alcoholic as they are to the one whose life has completely collapsed due to drinking.

Untreated alcoholism can lead to a long list of health problems including liver disease, kidney disease, heart disease, cancer, and more. It can result in psychological issues such as depression and paranoia. Worst of all, untreated alcoholism could end in premature death.

Perhaps you have read this guide not because you are not concerned about a loved one, but because you are worried about yourself. Functional or not, continuing to entertain a drinking problem is only putting you and everything you hold dear at risk. Why take that risk? Is drinking so satisfying that you are willing to lose everything just to keep doing so?

We urge you to contact us right away using our 24-hour helpline. If you prefer, you can send us a message through our website. Regardless of how you contact us, we are standing by to assist you in any way we can within the scope of our mission. We will answer your questions, listen to what you have to say, offer you sound advice, and refer you to treatment providers if you are ready to get help.

The functioning alcoholic is no better off than the alcoholic who can no longer function. Both are headed down the same destructive path. If you are on that path, it's time to get off. Call us so we can help you.

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