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  • Writer's pictureChris Thompson

Signs and Symptoms of a Functioning Alcoholic

Updated: Feb 23



Some people never realize that they have a problem with alcohol because they don’t suffer too many of the consequences of alcohol use disorder (AUD). People may be able to keep up with many of their responsibilities while still drinking heavily throughout their life. These kinds of people are really good at hiding that they have an issue, making getting help a bit more difficult.


No matter how well you think you can function under the influence of substances, you could benefit from seeking professional help. Admitting that you have a problem can be hard when you don’t see that you have one. From an outside perspective, trying to figure out if someone is a functioning alcoholic can be nearly impossible.


If you want to learn more about the signs and symptoms of a functional alcoholic, keep reading below! And if you discover you relate, you got this. This is the start of your comeback story.


What Does It Mean To Be A Functioning Alcoholic?

Functional alcoholism, also known as high-functioning alcoholism, isn’t a medical diagnosis a person can receive. It’s usually a term given to people suffering from a drinking problem but still able to maintain a somewhat functional life. We say “somewhat” because no person who is struggling with alcoholism can function at a completely normal level.


To be a functional alcoholic you have to be able to manage most of your life the way a sober individual would. You still show up for your appointments and on time for work, you can meet up with friends and family and stay social, and you might be able to shower and keep yourself looking presentable. Each person’s journey as a functional alcoholic is going to look different.


People around a functional alcoholic may not be able to tell they have an alcohol problem because they can keep it together. Usually, a functional alcoholic looks relatively healthy and seems mentally stable — health problems associated with AUD may not be apparent, such as memory loss. They can hide how they are truly feeling quite well.


What Are the Consequences of Being a Functional Alcoholic?

Even if a person is hiding their alcoholism well, the trouble it can bring is likely to catch up to them eventually.


Consequences that might negatively impact a person with functioning alcoholism can be:

  • Unemployment

  • Financial struggles

  • Loss of relationships with family and friends

  • Legal troubles if caught driving under the influence

  • Harm to themselves due to risky behaviors

  • Alcohol Use Disorder

  • Memory and learning problems

  • Weakened immunity

  • Higher risk for some forms of cancer

  • Increased risk of mental health disorders

How Do I Know if Someone Is a Functional Alcoholic?

When you are trying to determine whether or not someone is dealing with functional alcoholism, there are some signs you can look out for. Functional alcoholics often experience three major symptoms: tolerance, denial, and withdrawal.


For functional alcoholics, it can feel like you’re doing a good job at holding it together, but often close friends and family can tell something is off. A person with functional alcoholism will do a better job at convincing themselves that they are fine rather than those around them. It can be easier to tell when a loved one is dealing with alcohol addiction because you can see through their cracks.


Some signs of a functioning alcoholic are:

  • Drinking alcohol is the first thing a person does after work.

  • Getting agitated when something prevents them from getting a drink they thought they’d be able to get.

  • Joking light-heartedly about alcoholism in daily life.

  • Being confronted by loved ones and family members about their drinking habits, maybe even more than once.

  • Engaging in heavy drinking and high-risk behaviors.

  • Binge drinking and blackouts.

  • Hiding alcohol consumption from people around you.

  • Ruining relationships for no apparent reason.

1. Tolerance

One of the signs of high-functioning alcoholism is a very high tolerance level. High-functioning addicts usually drink about the same as someone suffering from alcohol use disorder, just without showing the effects of alcohol.


Functioning alcoholics don’t always appear drunk while drinking, but that doesn’t mean the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) isn’t through the roof. Most drinkers that build their tolerance up this high need high amounts of alcohol before they can feel the desired effects.


Functional alcoholics can drink dangerous levels of alcohol without even realizing it. If you aren’t paying attention to how much they drink, you might not even realize they are inebriated.


2. Denial

When people seek help for their addiction to alcohol, it is usually because negative consequences finally catch up to them. Whether a tarnished relationship or losing an important job, something usually snaps in a person, and they decide that help is what they need.


For functional alcoholics, it is significantly harder to see that there is a problem because they haven’t yet experienced negative consequences. Nothing that bad has happened to them, so why should they change their habits?

Of course, plenty of negative consequences are happening to their mental and physical health, but they just aren’t apparent. These people might try to separate themselves from other alcoholics to justify their choices and eliminate some of their guilt.


3. Withdrawals

Something more apparent than other signs is the withdrawal that a functional alcoholic might face. They might put it off as just being nauseous or moody, but if you notice their excessive drinking at any point, these withdrawal symptoms should clue you into a bigger problem.


If a person isn’t reaching out for help, when they begin to experience withdrawals, they are putting themselves in a very dangerous position.


Symptoms that someone going through alcohol withdrawals might experience are:

  • Mood swings

  • Irritability

  • Nausea

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Nightmares

  • Pale Skin

  • Headache

  • Dilated pupils

  • Faster heart rate

  • Sweating

  • Not thinking clearly

  • Tremors

  • Appetite loss

  • Vomiting

Getting Help for Functional Alcoholism

Asking for help may never happen for a functional alcoholic. Addiction treatment facilities and alcohol rehab groups, of course, can be great resources. However, they may find it hard to change if they don’t see a problem with their behaviors.


However, some people eventually do come around and want to get themselves into some kind of treatment. There are several methods that a person could try to help treat their alcoholism.


Detoxing

If you’re experiencing moderate to severe reactions to the withdrawal phase, it might be safest for you to enter into a detoxification program. You can be under professional supervision 24/7 to help prevent any injury or harm during the withdrawals. Symptoms can be so intense that you can end up severely harming yourself.


There is also a higher risk of relapsing when detoxing on your own. Your cravings will be so intense that it can be difficult to deny yourself a drink. You don’t have to worry about relapsing or undergoing severe withdrawals alone when you are at a detoxification center.


Medication

Alcohol withdrawals and cravings are very intense. Due to the amount of alcohol a functional alcoholic consumes, trying to quit cold turkey might put their body into shock. Some medications can be given to a person seeking help so that the side effects aren’t as detrimental.

  • Naltrexone can be given in a tablet or injectable and blocks the opioid activity that makes drinking pleasurable.

  • Disulfiram can be given orally and causes unpleasant side effects when a person drinks, which can help people avoid drinking.

Support Groups

Getting a functional alcoholic to go to self-help group meetings might not be easy, but it can help show them a community out there that understands their struggles. Finding a judgment-free area that promotes healthier habits and a sense of community can uplift a person’s recovery journey.


When people feel understood, they are more likely to attempt recovery. They feel confident knowing they aren’t alone in their struggles and that there are other people they can relate to. Loneliness is one of the hardest things to overcome when suffering from addiction. Group therapy and online communities bring people together to seek the same goals.


Treatment Services

Seeking help is all about finding out what works best for you. There are various treatment options, such as inpatient and outpatient services aimed at getting you the help you need.


Some people prefer online Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings over in-person, and that’s okay! Some people need an accountability buddy, or else no treatment will work. Some people have to try a variety of treatment options before finding the right match.


When you talk to a medical professional, you can usually come up with the best plan for your specific needs.


You Are Not Alone

There are other people out there that are struggling with alcohol quietly. Not everyone feels they have people in their corner, making getting help more difficult. With Sober Sidekick, you gain access to a community of sober-seeking individuals who want to support each other.


When you download it on Android or iPhone, you can gain access to 24/7 AA meetings, talk to professionals if you need to, and remain anonymous so that you can feel confident just being yourself. For functional alcoholics who struggle with being open about their struggles, Sober Sidekick might be the right sober community for you to try out!


Sources:


Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes | National Institutes of Health (NIH)


Alcohol’s Effects on Brain and Behavior | NCBI


Naltrexone for the Management of Alcohol Dependence | NCBI

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