What is a Functional Drunk? Signs and Symptoms - Jason Wahler

What is a Functional Drunk?

Posted at March 10th 2017 | 11:27 AM

You may have heard it before but the question remains: What is a functional drunk?

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.

What is a Functional Drunk

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.

Here’s how alcoholism progresses:

  • Functional drunks may seem to be “in control,” but they are usually putting themselves or others in danger by drinking and driving, having risky intercourse or sexual activity or blacking out.
  • Heavy drinking carries other risks to someone physically as well. Being a “functional drunk” can lead to liver disease, pancreatitis, forms of cancer, brain damage, serious memory loss and high blood pressure. Doesn’t sound very functional at all, does it?
  • Drinking as a coping mechanism, drinking to deal with stress, or drinking to deal with success will eventually progress to a point where a person’s life revolves around problems and consequences caused by drinking and not performing well at work, not being present for your family and drinking.
  • In the last stage of heavy drinking being a “functional drunk” you may think you’re a functioning alcoholic, but even though you might still have a job, what is your performance like? You may still have a family, but are you present for them? Your body may still be working, but for how much longer? Is that all you want to do with your life, just “function?”

Heavy drinkers and “functional drunks” statistically have a higher chance of dying from car accidents, murder, domestic violence and suicide.

Signs and Symptoms of a Functional Drunk

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:

  • Joking about alcoholism
  • Missing work or school
  • Getting into fights
  • Losing friendships
  • Getting a DUI arrest
  • Needing alcohol “to relax” or feel confident
  • Drinking in the morning or when alone
  • Getting drunk when not intending to
  • Forgetting what was done/said while drinking
  • Denying drinking
  • Hiding alcohol
  • Getting angry when confronted about drinking
  • Causing loved ones to worry about or make excuses for drinking

Are you a Functioning Alcoholic?

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

  • Do I know my drinking limit and consistently stick to it when consuming alcohol?
  • Do I feel good about my behaviors and myself after I have been drinking?
  • Do I feel confident in my ability to say no when offered alcohol?
  • Do I avoid situations involving alcohol that may be dangerous, illegal or detrimental? This includes drinking and driving, going to a party underage, binge drinking or blacking out.
  • Do I make sure that drinking alcohol does not interfere with my job, family, friends, school or involvement in groups or activities?
  • Do I feel like drinking alcohol is an option or a choice, and that it is not necessary for me to drink to have a good time, relax, de-stress or enjoy life?

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.

Treatment For A Functional Drunk

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.

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