What is a Functioning Alcoholic?

A high functioning alcoholic is someone who meets the criteria for alcohol dependency but is able to maintain - or appear as if they are maintaining - a fairly stable life. Some common markers of alcoholism include difficulties at work, problems in relationships with family or friends, health problems, financial difficulties, and abusive behaviour. However, a functional alcoholic will not experience, or appear to experience, these problems, or only to a small extent. For example, they may be able to maintain their career and relationships, despite their alcohol use problem.

If you think you are experiencing functional alcoholism, or know someone who is, we can help.

How can someone function as an alcoholic?

Differences in circumstances can mean that some people with alcohol addiction problems are able to maintain functionality in their lives for longer than others. Some factors could include greater financial resources, stronger support networks or differences in lifestyle.

Differences in the type of profession a person is employed in can also increase the length of time that the problem can go unrecognised. For example, if the person has a job that does not require attention to detail, very structured activities, or frequent social interaction, their problem may not be noticed until later on, when it starts to have a more debilitating effect on their work. Data gathered by the USA’s National Institute of Health indicates that functional alcoholics are most likely to be middle-aged, have a high level of education, and a secure job and family situation.

How does functional alcoholism differ from normal alcoholism?

Although functional alcoholics differ in their ability to cope with addiction problems, ‘functional alcoholism’ is not differentiated from normal alcoholism by any official mental health bodies. For example, the ICD-10, the World Health Organisation’s classification list of mental health disorders, doesn’t distinguish between them. Instead, it differentiates between acute intoxication, harmful use, dependence and withdrawal. A person is diagnosed with alcohol addiction when they meet certain criteria with a combination of self-reported use and objective observation.

How We Treat Functional Alcoholism 

If you think you are experiencing functional alcoholism, or know someone who is, then you should seek help immediately. Although some alcoholics may be able to remain functional for some length of time, it is likely that they will not be able to maintain this for very long. Eventually, they will experience negative effects on their lives.

Often, functional alcoholics merely maintain the pretence that everything is fine, by concealing the true extent of the damage caused by their drinking. Even in cases where they are able to maintain their normal lives, they are inflicting extreme damage to their health, in particular their brain, which in some cases is irreversible.

Residential Rehab at Smarmore in Ireland

Our residential programme at Smarmore Castle offers a comprehensive, treatment plan that successfully rehabilitates people suffering alcohol addiction problems. Our treatment programme begins with a period of detox, and then immerses the patient in a programme of intensive therapy. Each patient’s individualised treatment plan is tailored to their needs and circumstances to improve the chance of long-term abstinence.

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