Recognizing the Signs of Functional Alcoholism

Functional alcoholism can be difficult to spot. By definition, functional alcoholism is when someone appears as any non-alcoholic would, despite having a habit of abusing alcohol. They are called “functional” or “high-functioning” alcoholics because they appear to have normally proceeding lives that may even contain great jobs, friends and family relationships.

April is alcohol awareness month, established in 1987 by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in order to educate the public on the many dangers of alcoholism. This makes it an opportune moment to revisit what exactly constitutes functional alcoholism and some of the ways we can spot it in our friends, co-workers or family members.

Signs and Symptoms of Functional Alcoholism

Functional alcoholics may:

  • Use their otherwise successful lives to justify their alcoholism
  • Drink more than three drinks a day or seven a week if they are women; drink four or more drinks a day or fourteen a week if they are men
  • Joke about having a drinking problem
  • Sacrifice relationships—or suffer relationship problems—due to heavy drinking
  • Become angry when confronted about their alcohol use
  • Binge drinking—or drinking more than everyone else—despite seeming relatively sober
  • Occasionally fail to meet obligations such as showing up to work
  • Suffer legal problems due to heavy drinking
  • Need alcohol to function socially or relax
  • Have trouble controlling their drinking—such as unwittingly becoming intoxicated
  • Deny and hide the alcohol

Functional alcoholics suffer the same problems as all alcoholics. There is no question that alcoholism negatively affects both physical and mental health. Alcoholics are in danger of suffering brain damage, memory loss, high blood pressure, liver disease, and pancreatitis. They are at an increased risk of dying from an auto accident, murder, and suicide or being the victim of domestic violence.

Functional alcoholism can be particularly insidious because their denial may be reinforced by their lack of seeming negative consequences.

Alcoholism also raises the likelihood of child abuse and neglect and fetal alcohol syndrome. In addition, adult children of alcoholics are known to be at increased risk of suffering from a host of mental health problems, including difficulty maintaining relationships and being more likely to wed alcoholics.

Understanding the very serious symptoms of alcoholism and how to spot it in family, friends or co-workers might be the first step towards combating the heartbreaking condition. Use this alcohol awareness month to not only educate yourself, but also others.


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