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CommunityHealthAre you a functioning alcoholic?

Not all alcoholics are fall-down drunks, but health professionals are concerned about the increase in alcohol consumption during the pandemic.
Anna PukasJanuary 20, 202215 min
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Like all addiction, alcoholism is ugly. No one wants to be labeled an alcoholic or an alcohol abuser or even “problem drinker”. Not every alcoholic is a down-and-out lurching along the street or slumped in an alleyway. Some alcoholics hold down jobs. They have partners and children and people who love them. They can handle their responsibilities.

These are the functioning alcoholics and in some ways, they are the most difficult kind of addict to deal with because they may well not realize they have a problem. They may well refuse even to contemplate the very suggestion.

Alcoholism is also very tenacious. A functioning alcoholic might spend years denying there is anything wrong.

The coronavirus has only made things worse. Nearly a third (29 percent) of people in the UK began drinking more alcohol than usual during the pandemic.

With this in mind, specialist experts from Delamere Health Cheshire have compiled a list of common signs and symptoms that anyone who is worried either about their own or a loved one’s drinking habits can look out for. They also give tips on how to help a functioning alcoholic.

The difference between a casual drinker and an alcoholic 

A functioning alcoholic is a person who suffers from alcoholism but is still able to hold down a job, play a role within a family and, to most people, appears to be coping with life.

A functioning alcoholic is not always easy to spot. Alcoholics are exceptionally good at hiding their condition and if the negative consequences of their drinking are not apparent, a functioning alcoholic is unlikely to want to change, dismissing it as something they will address “some day” when it becomes a serious problem, but believing they have still have time before that happens.

Alcohol addiction is at the chronic end of the spectrum of alcohol use disorders. There is no cure but it can be treated successfully and the sooner treatment begins, the better both for the drinker and for their loved ones.

Signs and symptoms of a functioning alcoholic 

  • Frequent intoxication and smelling of alcohol

  • Loss of control of their alcohol use

  • Hiding alcohol in strange places such as their garage, at the office, in bushes or in their car

  • Drinking between work hours or appointments, or drinking just enough to keep their alcohol levels topped up if they are alcohol dependent

  • Frequent binge drinking after they have taken care of daily responsibilities

  • Justifying their drinking as a way of unwinding after work or a busy day with the kids, or treating alcohol as a reward

  • Becoming irritable, anxious, restless and unable to sleep if they are unable to drink

  • Regularly drinking in the morning before going about their day, or at odd times of the day — at lunchtime, for example — in order to avoid alcohol withdrawal symptoms

  • Always drinking at social events and ‘preloading’ before going out

  • Avoiding social events or activities that do not involve alcohol

  •  Drinking excessively alone at home or disappearing to a pub or bar straight after work and staying for hours

  • Becoming defensive or flippant when challenged over their drinking

  • Denying they are an alcoholic, reasoning that they can still do their job or take the kids to school on time

  • Alternating alcohol and prescription pills in order to be able to function

  • They become erratic, impulsive, angry or their character changes completely when they are drunk

  • They have trouble recalling what happened while they were heavily intoxicated or experiencing an alcoholic blackout

  • Taking risks, such as driving to work or driving children children while still over the limit from the previous night or because they have had a morning top-up

How to help a functioning alcoholic:

First of all, if you’re trying to get a functioning alcoholic to accept help, it is vital that they are able to admit that they have a problem that they cannot overcome on their own.

If you have tried before and they have become defensive, flippant or angry, these are some tips on how to get a functioning alcohol to accept help

  • Set aside a time to talk to them when they have no plans, are not in a rush and are not too intoxicated to understand what you have to say. When they are sober is best but if they are alcohol dependent you need to choose a time before they start drinking heavily.

  • It often helps to speak to a functioning alcoholic about their alcoholism after they have just suffered a negative consequence related to their drinking. They may be remorseful and less inclined to deny they have a problem.

  • Tell the person what you know of alcoholism, the signs and symptoms. Tell them that they don’t necessarily have to have reached a point where they have lost everything in order to be diagnosed as an alcoholic. Share the signs and symptoms of a functioning alcoholic with them from this page.

  • Explain to them that alcoholism is medically recognised as both a mental and physiological disease that is progressive in nature. They should not feel ashamed that they suffer from an illness that requires treatment.

  • Regardless of their emotional response, try to remain calm and not argue with them. Arguing will give them an excuse to leave the conversation and return to their drinking. Instead, try an empathetic approach that shows concern and support.

  • Explain to them how their drinking is affecting you and other family members. Give clear examples of times when their drinking has caused concern and tell them how you feel about their drinking.

  • Acknowledge to them that their situation is probably more common than they think and that there are others just like them. Explain to them that people suffering from an alcohol abuse are rarely able to get better of their own accord because their brain compels them to drink. The relapse rate for alcoholism is very high.

  • Tell them that losing a job or a relationship, mental and physical deterioration, criminal prosecution and all the other negative consequences of non-functioning alcoholism are all just things that haven’t happened to them, yet.

  • Give them hope by explaining that alcoholism is treatable and that a professional detox and rehabilitation program will give them the time and space to get well comfortably

  • If the conversation goes well and the functioning alcoholic admits they have a problem and need help, it is important to act quickly and without hesitation. In the addiction treatment field, we refer to this as a window of opportunity. It rarely lasts for very long before they shrink back into denial.

  • Acting swiftly and engaging professional help while they are receptive could well save their life. If they are not receptive and still deny they have a problem or become confrontational, drop the subject and try again on another day.

This piece was contributed by the Delamere Health Cheshire.

Anna Pukas

Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.

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