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The term “functional drunk” is sort of an oxymoron because someone who is drunk is rarely functional. A person who is drunk is usually in dysfunction and ill-at-ease and therefore suffering from disease. Maintaining an illusion is part of the disease, and at some point the functional part falls away, leaving just a drunk.
The truth is that both a “functioning drunk” and a “stereotypical alcoholic” are alcoholics. The “functioning drunk” is merely waiting for the bottom to drop out.
There are different categories of people who drink, but the lines between these categories are thin and blurry. There are some who are capable of moderating their drinking and this is why many people develop a drinking problem without noticing its progression. But then many others simply cannot say “no” once they start, even if they only drink once each week.
There is a classic picture of the alcoholic as someone who always drinks too much too often and whose life is falling apart because of it, however not all problem drinking fits that mold exactly. Some people seem to be just “fine” while they abuse alcohol. Experts call these people “functional drunks” or “high-functioning alcoholics.”
Alcoholism and addiction is a progressive disease and is often compared to cancer, because no one chooses to get cancer, just like no one chooses to become an alcoholic. Both of these diseases have stages of developments and ultimately require professional treatment.
Because alcoholism is a progressive disease a person doesn’t just wake up and find themselves Stage 4 drunks. It takes time to get there, and depending on the person, the time spent at each stage can vary.
Heavy drinkers and “functional drunks” statistically have a higher chance of dying from car accidents, murder, domestic violence and suicide.
As many as 20% of alcoholics may be highly functional drunks; a drink count isn’t the only way to tell if you or someone you care about has an abuse problem or addiction, here are some other red flags:
Things to ask yourself if you are wondering if you are just a recreational drinker or if your drinking may in fact be a problem. Here’s a fun little test. Ask yourself the following questions
If you have answered “no” to any of the previous questions, then your drinking habits may be more of a problem then you are aware of. Even if you answered “yes” to all of them, if you are questioning the role of alcohol in your life, your drinking is worth exploring further.
It doesn’t have to get worse in order for it to get better! You can catch it before using alcohol as a coping mechanism, before the DUIs, before the isolation, and before the distended stomach.
The only way to do this is to stop fooling yourself into thinking you’re a “functioning alcoholic,” because a functioning alcoholic is still an alcoholic.
Treatment for a high-functioning alcoholic is the same as for any other type of addict. A doctor can point you to help—whether it’s from a therapist, psychiatrist, or other addiction specialist. The most in-depth care allows you to live full time at a treatment facility. Work along with 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and relating to other people with substance abuse issues may help a functional drunk break through denial and begin to recover.