The Myth of the Functional Alcoholic

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So what the heck is a “functioning alcoholic”?

There is this almost epic lore about the person who can drink excessively and daily, and somehow magically keep a career, a family and a life together without getting arrested, losing their job or getting divorced. This “unicorn” of the booze-hound family tree seemingly has the best of both worlds – an escape hatch for themselves, and the trappings of the “good life”.

There is this myth about functional alcoholics, that they are somehow immune to the downward spiral that happens with your garden variety alcoholic. We hear about them, and picture them living the high life (no pun intended), with no cares in the world, but yeah, having a bit too much on the side. But they have great careers, a great family life, a nice car in the driveway, etc. so what’s a few extra gin & tonics in the grand scheme of things?

But the question I ask when coming across someone who identifies as a functioning alcoholic or who knows one is “functioning compared to what?”

I actually prefer to call these folks “currently-functioning” alcoholics.

People who are in this 3% of all alcohol use disorder sufferers either stop drinking on their own, enter a program to get help, or start to suffer the consequences of those who aren’t considered high-operating.

Here’s the other thing about currently-functioning folks – they are slippery eels. They are clever, witty and successful. They don’t miss days at work or their kids’ school night performances or soccer practices.

But they are also in DENIAL. Which makes it challenging to talk to them about their problem / non-problem.

Functional alcoholics are difficult to recognize because they try to keep their addiction a secret. Often, only a select few friends, family members or spouses are close enough to recognize the signs.

And what are some signs of a “functioning alcoholic?”

🍷Uses alcohol to relax – will always have a drink nearby, and is the first at the bar after work. Usually pounding back the first two or three. They will rationalize that they “need” to de-stress.

🍸 Has a high tolerance – they can drink like they did in college. They often have to “maintenance drink” to keep away the withdrawal symptoms. They ain’t sipping wine coolers, folks.

🍺 Drinking is a big part of their lives – all social events revolve around drinking. They have a substantial home liquor cabinet. Won’t go on coffee dates. Will skip meals to drink more.

🤷‍♂️ Friends and employees ignore the symptoms – high functioning alcoholics are usually middle-aged, fun-loving, social and in positions of power. Friends and subordinates / coworkers will laugh off the drunken escapades but they know that there is a problem.

🤡 Jokes about having a problem – “I’m a drunk – alcoholics go to meetings” ha ha ha, right? They laugh until they are pressed about their drinking, in which they get defensive, belligerent or gaslight others.

😡 Mood swings – although they are often gregarious and cheerful, high-functioning alcoholics will swing towards angry, annoyed and depressed…without warning.

💩 Begins to see the effects – while still successful in areas of her life, the functioning alcoholic will start to notice shakes or withdrawals when not drinking. She notices that she needs more make-up to cover flushed face or dark circles. She experiences mental fogginess and/or physical problems.

👤Drinks alone – while social and outgoing, when high-functioning alcoholics have alone time, it’s is often spent drinking, away from prying eyes.

The reality is that functioning alcoholics haven’t hit the consequences that other people suffering from alcoholism YET.

I think we were all functioning at one point – until the wheels started to fall off.

The real myth around functioning alcoholics is that they are on a different timeline, but when the drinking increases, so do the consequences…it’s just a matter of time. Some people can dodge bullets for only so long.

So for this hombre here, I don’t distinguish functioning from non-functioning. I just see someone who hasn’t hit enough bottoms or pain points before they start to see just how bad is has become.

What are your thoughts on this?

15 Comments Add yours

  1. I was one of those. What I didn’t tell people, and they never knew were the personal problems I had because of drinking. Most of these were at home. Fights at home with husband because of my staying out at HH too long, not helping much at home, drunk driving, just not caught…yet.
    My coworkers I went to HH with were big drinkers themselves, so they thought I was great.
    xo
    Wendy

    1. Paul S says:

      Wendy! Yes, I can see how that started out for you. And it’s a downward spiral once the alcohol and the thinking that drives it begin to get a foothold. So glad you’re here!!

  2. walt walker says:

    I like that notion of “currently-functioning” alcoholics. I was one of those for awhile.

    1. Paul S says:

      Thank you Walt for this! Yes, I think I was too. Until the wheels fell off! Thank you for this and for being here!

      1. walt walker says:

        The more I think about it, the more “high-functioning” alcoholic sounds like we’re in denial and trying to inflate our ego, whereas “currently functioning” sounds more honest and humbling about the reality of the road we’re headed down.

        1. Paul S says:

          Oh that’s a good point. I like how you phrased that! It’s like a shift, right? I appreciate this kindly, Walt!

  3. I LOVE the term functioning alcoholic. Its an oxymoron isn’t it? We were all functioning…but how well? Its also a way of saving face…like I wasnt ever THAT bad I was FUNCTIONING. It’s that one upmanship thing even as addicts we try to out do one another or to downplay out addiction.

    1. Paul S says:

      YES to the one upmanship part. So true – didn’t see it that way, but yes! It’s like a badge of honour…to suffer like that and be on “top” still when really the house of cards is crumbling. Thank you for this wonderful insight!

  4. Hearon (HD) says:

    No matter the definition, this was me. I say all the time that the rear-view mirror is pretty scary. I also had to change my definition of “manageability.”

    1. Paul S says:

      Thank you Hearon for this. I was like that too – briefly. I think I passed through that pretty quickly into unmanagable, but barely holding it together. THAT was a phase I stayed in a for a while. And yes! That rear view mirror – man, I don’t always look there. I do it as reference, but in the end we are always looking ahead. Much love to you, kind sir. 🙂

  5. bgddyjim says:

    Great post, Paul. I love your take on this. Never thought about it like that.

    1. Paul S says:

      Thanks brother – and Happy New Year, my friend. I appreciate this greatly!

  6. Ainsobriety says:

    I always say I was a high functioning alcoholic, but was a poorly functioning human being.

    The self lies and denial required to keep the illusion going took a lot of energy.

    1. Paul S says:

      Hi Anne – thank you for this! Yes, the lies part definitely tapped me out in energy as much as the drinking did. And that includes the lies to self. I like how you mentioned poorly functioning human being – bang on! We are at such a low capacity of what we could have been, like a phone battery at 3% and being in power saving mode, and yet wanting to use every function. it just doesn’t last long.

      Nice seeing you Anne and happy belated six years sober!!!

      Paul

  7. Interesting post! I don’t know much about the topic, but your view makes sense.

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