When most of us picture someone struggling with alcoholism, we picture someone with an obvious addiction. Drunken behavior at social gatherings may spring to mind, for example, or passing out after a heavy binge.
However, certain types of alcohol addiction can be so subtle you might not catch the symptoms.
When a loved one is a functioning alcoholic, it may seem like nothing’s wrong. They’ll often be in perfect mental and physical health. They’ll hold down a job and have a stable family.
Behind closed doors, however, the drinking and denial can take a toll.
That’s why it’s crucial to know the signs of a functioning alcoholic. Catching a few subtle red flags will allow you to help a loved one who struggles with their addiction in silence. If this topic brings a specific person to mind, here’s what you should know about functional alcoholism.
What Is a Functioning Alcoholic?
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has a specific system of categorizing alcohol dependence. Under this system, there are five subtypes of alcoholism.
A functioning alcoholic, also called a “high-functioning alcoholic,” belongs to the “functional” subtype.
The NIAA notes that people who fall into this subtype are often middle-aged and educated. They also tend to have stable jobs and families. They may also have a family history of alcohol dependence, or they may struggle with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Often, functional alcoholics deny that they have a problem or lie about their alcohol abuse. They may struggle in secret with unsuccessful attempts to dial back their drinking.
However, there are a few clear signs of alcohol abuse you should watch for:
This one may seem obvious, but it’s not always clear what it might mean. The line between moderate and excessive drinking can be hard to identify.
For men, a good rule of thumb for binge drinking is five or more drinks on a single occasion. For women, it’s four or more drinks. Drinking 15 or more drinks per week for men, or eight or more for women, is considered “heavy drinking.”
Another good rule of thumb is drinking to the point of blacking out. If you or a loved one has a hard time recalling what happened during a night of drinking, it may be a red flag.
Hiding Drinking Habits
No one wants to grow dependent on alcohol in the first place, but showing that dependence to others can feel even worse. To keep raised eyebrows and probing questions at bay, a functioning alcoholic may try to hide how much or how often they drink. This may involve drinking in private or lying about the number of drinks they have.
If you find alcohol stored in secret places, such as inside closets or behind other food in the kitchen, it may be another sign of addiction.
Joking or Growing Defensive
Laughing or joking about the amount of alcohol consumed can be a red flag. Often, this is an attempt to make light of a serious situation or to deflect a loved one’s worry.
On the flip side, growing angry or defensive can be a sign that the person in question feels embarrassed or frustrated by their habit. If your loved one won’t even have a conversation about your concerns, they are likely aware that they have a problem and aren’t yet ready to face it.
Drinking at Odd Hours
If you or a loved one has started drinking outside of social events, it can sometimes be a sign of functional alcoholism. This may include drinking while at work, often in secret.
In addition, day drinking can be a sign of functional alcoholism, especially early in the morning. This is especially true when someone needs “hair of the dog,” or another drink of alcohol to help “cure” a hangover after a long night of drinking.
Finding Excuses for Drinking
In an attempt to justify their behavior, many functional alcoholics will come up with excuses to drink or reasons why it’s fine for them to drink so much. Here are a few of the most common:
Celebrations can become great excuses for social drinking, especially when the celebration is for a personal accomplishment, birthday, etc. In some cases, a functional alcoholic will also have a hard time socializing without drinking, and they may even avoid social events where alcohol isn’t a component.
Functioning alcoholics will often claim stress as a factor in their drinking. Workplace burdens or a hectic home life, for example, may turn into excuses to pour themselves a few glasses after a long day.
Other common emotion-based excuses include drinking in order to feel more confident or to relax.
Splurging on expensive alcohol is a common tactic. This is often an attempt to “prove” that they don’t have a drinking problem: after all, they just have a taste for high-quality drinks.
Frequent Attempts to Quit
Functioning alcoholics who are aware that their drinking has become a problem will often try to quit cold turkey. Of course, cutting back on an addiction is often more difficult than it appears at first, which means that past attempts may have been unsuccessful.
If you notice that a loved one has gone through repeated efforts to quit drinking, it shows that they’re already aware they have a problem. Even so, many functioning alcoholics will resist professional alcohol addiction treatment, preferring instead to try quitting alone.
Know the Signs of a Functioning Alcoholic
Functional alcoholism may not seem like a major issue, but it can be just as dangerous as any addiction. Even if your loved one can carry out their daily responsibilities, they’re still dealing with the physical and mental health risks of their alcoholism. Worse, doing so in secret can make it much more difficult to discuss and treat the issue.
Knowing the signs of a functioning alcoholic can help you talk to your loved one and begin the process of seeking treatment.