By: Leah Hovey
Most people have heard the term (either in a joking or serious manner) “functioning alcoholic” before. This term is used loosely to describe someone who has high-functioning alcoholism. It is a problem that is everywhere around us and can severely impact someone if not acknowledged.
I am sure there is someone in your life that you think may be a high-functioning alcoholic, as there is a severe problem within Western society when it comes to alcohol consumption. Alcohol consumption has increased from 5.9 litres annually to 6.5 litres. Researchers also predict the number will increase to 7.6 litres by the year 2030 (Gakidou et al., 2017). We are consuming more alcohol by the year, with the consequences of alcohol abuse more prevalent than ever. But what is the difference between someone who is a classified alcoholic as opposed to a high-functioning alcoholic?
As described by the American Addiction Center, a high-functioning alcoholic is a person who “Despite the outward appearance of having everything together, they still have problems with drinking. Because they succeed in society, high-functioning alcoholics are often very deeply in denial that they have a problem” (A.A.C, 2019). It is not until their personal, physical, or professional lives are impacted do they realize there may be a problem. It has even been estimated that most likely 50% of all individuals dealing with alcohol abuse are high-functioning (Benton, 2009). We may think of an alcoholic as a staggering, belligerent person but many times someone with an alcohol disorder may be able to hide it very well.
Sometimes a person can even hide this problem from themselves. It can be hard for individuals to recognize they have a problem, and therefore they might categorize their behaviour as "normal." For example, maybe a person binge drinks every weekend to the point of a blackout but they excuse their behaviour because it "only happens on the weekends." Another example could be an individual who drinks a bottle of wine every night but doesn’t feel they have a problem because they still get up for work every single day.
A recent study from the University of Texas at Austin concluded there were two main reasons for individuals to believe they do not have a problem with drinking when there truly is a problem. First, individuals tend to adjust their alcohol consumption so it does not interfere with their responsibilities. This does not mean they stop drinking as much; this just means they time their drinking hours or adjust their intake so it doesn’t interfere with important things like work. Second, they excuse certain behaviours with stigma or othering. This means a person may believe they are not "as bad" as another individual they know who struggles with alcohol abuse, because they can still function day-to-day. They may even compare themselves to their peers around them and use their peers' drinking habits to support their own (Rogers et al., 2019).
So, if a high-functioning alcoholic is hard to identify due to not checking all of the boxes for an addiction to alcohol… what are the signs someone you know (or perhaps yourself) may be suffering from alcohol abuse? The biggest signs are listed below:
They have difficulty controlling how much alcohol is consumed at one time, even when they say they will stop drinking.
They begin to obsess about the next drink, outing to the bar, social event with alcohol or dinner with a drink.
They act drastically different when they are drunk compared to when they are sober.
They experience blackouts regularly.
They will tell friends and family they use alcohol as a reward or as a stress reliever.
They drink instead of eating meals.
They have many explanations as to why they drink.
They hide bottles of alcohol, or they are dishonest about how much they consume because they do not want others to know how much they drink.
If someone in your life is experiencing any of these signs, there might be actions you can take to try and help. While individuals who are high-functioning may have a hard time believing they have a problem, you can always voice your concern about their consumption through an informal intervention. You can ask the individual if they have other personal problems occurring within their life, as sometimes this can open up a conversation about getting help or assisting them in seeing a link between their problems and using alcohol as a coping method. Finally, you can even set boundaries with them, such as letting them know you will not be seeing them if they are drinking or by refusing to go to specific social gatherings with them. This may help the person see that they might have a problem if other people are avoiding them when they consume alcohol (A.C.C, 2019).
While high-functioning alcoholism is something that can be ignored, excused, or the punch line of a joke, this is anything but funny. Without proper intervention, an individual's alcohol abuse can get more frequent and can eventually lead to a tipping point of self-destruction. There is nothing wrong with realizing you may be drinking too much, or admitting you need help to cope with the difficulties of life. Alcohol can only mask problems for a brief period of time, not heal them.
American Addiction Center (2019). The Functioning Alcoholic/Addict: How to Help and What to Look For. Retrieved August 7, 2019, from https://americanaddictioncenters.org/alcoholism-treatment/the-functioning-addict
Benton, S. A. (2009). Understanding the high-functioning alcoholic: professional views and personal insights. Greenwood Publishing Group.
Gakidou, E., Afshin, A., Abajobir, A. A., Abate, K. H., Abbafati, C., Abbas, K. M., ... & Abu-Raddad, L. J. (2017). Global, regional, and national comparative risk assessment of 84 behavioural, environmental and occupational, and metabolic risks or clusters of risks, 1990–2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. The Lancet, 390(10100). 1345-1422.
Rogers, S. M., Pinedo, M., Villatoro, A. P., & Zemore, S. E. (2019). “I Don’t Feel Like I Have a Problem Because I Can Still Go To Work and Function”: Problem Recognition Among Persons With Substance Use Disorders. Substance use & misuse, 1-9.