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Why Being a Functional Alcoholic is Dangerous

Dr. Jeffrey Berman, MD By November 1, 2019
Functioning Alcoholic

What is a Functional Alcoholic?

Nowadays it is not uncommon to see many binge drinking, making jokes that they are “alcoholics,” or even seeing binge drinking glorified as a culture in media. However, with addiction rapidly becoming one of the biggest problems our nation faces, maybe this is not the best approach. 

Using the phrase “alcoholic” to describe enjoying drinking is extremely harmful, and it is ignorant to the real problems people go through. Today, we will be discussing the idea of a functional alcoholic. We will discuss what it is, why it is dangerous (or misunderstood), and why people who suffer from alcoholism should not permit themselves to just “be functional.” Furthermore, we at the Discovery Institute want to help you. If you or a loved one are struggling with an addiction, we are here for you. Hopefully, this article will help you become more educated on these subjects and better help you seek treatment.

Being a Functioning Alcoholic Isn’t a Positive Thing

An “alcoholic”, or a person who has an alcohol use disorder, is a person who is unable to control their drinking and become dependent on alcohol throughout their day. These people may start their day with a drink, drink at work and other inappropriate places, and feel withdrawal symptoms when they stop.

Worst case scenario, a person who struggles with alcoholism cannot function at all in society. They may have lost their job, income, family, and even their home. They may even be living on the streets or in and out of hospitals and other facilities because they can’t manage their own life. Clearly, this is not a situation anyone wants to find themselves in.

A functional alcoholic may have many of the same habits as the person described above, only they are still able to hold on to their work and home. Their relationships may be affected, but the person is still able to be a decently productive member of society.

For the functional alcoholic, it is only a matter of time before their perceived well-kept secret is brought to light. It just takes one wrong move for their world to come crumbling down, and they will quickly enter the dark world of a person who struggles with alcohol abuse despair.

How a Functional Alcoholic Takes a Turn for the Worse

Individuals in these conditions are walking a tightrope, trying to keep up their charade of a normal lifestyle. Inevitably, something will happen to change things and make alcoholism worse. Common things that can happen include:

  • A car accident and DUI
  • Getting caught drinking on the job and fired
  • Having your alcohol stash found by a family member who disapproves
  • Drinking too heavily at a social function
  • Having health issues as a result of drinking

There are so many things that are likely to happen once a person is drinking daily. No matter how long a person has been drinking to get through their day and getting away with it, they are bound to eventually crash and burn. Instead of waiting for that to happen, it is important to realize that to “functional” can be taken out of “functional alcoholic” in the blink of an eye. Why wait to find out?

Why Being a Functional Alcoholic is Dangerous

People throw around the term “functional alcoholic” with little thought to what it actually means. In a sense, it is a way of sugar-coating a condition that there’s nothing sweet about whatsoever. Granted there are varying degrees, but it is a slippery slope that can easily lead to a path of destruction, pain, legal issues, health problems, and even death.

The Problem With the Term “Functional Alcoholic”

The problem with the phrase “functional alcoholic” is that it completely misunderstands what alcoholism, addiction, and “functional” really are. When properly understood, one will see that addiction and functional have nothing to do with each other. A person who says they are a functional alcoholic has an idea of addiction in their head that is completely false, and the method to which they discuss it is not only harmful to them, but to the wider stigma of addiction in general.

The problem with using these two phrases together is that it implies that alcoholism is something the individual can turn on and off to perform various tasks. The “functional alcoholic” thinks they can turn off their alcoholism to function when it’s necessary and have fun partying when they are done. However, addiction is not a switch you can turn on or off. With addiction, that switch is always turned on. When you are suffering from alcoholism, the switch is always telling you that you crave alcohol and need it. You’re counting down the moments until you get it. Even if that means you are able to work, have a family, and be “normal,” the functional alcoholic is most likely constantly thinking about the next time they can drink.

Functional alcoholics assume something completely incorrect, but the reality is that addiction is a disorder. This means the person is constantly craving their alcohol, since it takes the brain’s pleasure meter to places it could never go normally. The problem is that normal good experiences can never measure up to the synthetic experiences given by alcohol. Thus, by assuming you can turn off your alcoholic side and switch back and forth, you are placing yourself in a position to become continually more dependent until finally, normal is not enough. 

Why People Say They Are Functional Alcoholics

Functional alcoholics can sometimes not know they have a problem. As previously stated this setting is their new “normal.” Sometimes it is difficult to know when you have begun to drink too much. For men, binge drinking is defined as having more than five drinks in two hours, and four for women. Moderate drinking is defined as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. We at the Discovery Institute have a guide to see if you qualify as an alcoholic. All in all, if you are questioning whether you are struggling with alcoholism, it may be time to seek help and cut back on drinking.

In other cases, functional alcoholics worry they are not really themselves without the substance. Again, a misunderstanding of addiction makes us think that the substance is just a choice, thus people do not understand why they are different without it. However, this misunderstands the way substance abuse changes the brain. The brain makes being under the influence the new normal. Thus, those suffering from substance abuse may be different when they are not under the influence. Thus, they use the term “functional alcoholic” as a crutch, because they worry people will leave them if they get the help they need.

More About the Harmful “Functioning Addict” Mentality

A perfect example of what not to do is Fun Bobby from Friends. Monica dates a guy named Fun Bobby who everyone loves. However, once they discover he has a drinking problem, they urge him to get clean. Fun Bobby isn’t fun anymore, and the group dislikes him. This is one of the most harmful depictions of addiction in media. We at the Discovery Institute want you to know that you will be loved for who you are without the substance. Your loved ones, friends, and family will all support the real you.

The last reason is very difficult to swallow. Functional alcoholics do not realize that they need to sacrifice the world’s “normal.” The way the media, friends, and society in general present drinking is that it is fun, normal, and encouraged. If one does not drink, they are no longer normal. For many people, one of the hardest things to give up is the idea of having a normal life. They just want to be normal, have fun, and drink like everyone else. Thus, they are functional alcoholics, balancing normalcy and alcoholism. The problem is, those who have alcohol use problems cannot feel normal. The disorder has tragically taken a sense of “normality” away from them. Until an individual realizes this, they cannot be successful in cutting out the substance and seeking treatment.

Better Than Normal

If you are a functional alcoholic, it may be extremely difficult to give up the concept of normal. However, recovery is better than normal. It means that you are free to be your own person, and not constantly obeying the demands of alcohol, narcotics, etc. When we give up normal to pursue recovery, we are getting a better life than what is presented to us, because true connections, real experiences, and genuine happiness are all only possible outside of addiction. For this reason, individuals cannot be functional or normal, we need to be better than that.

Contact us

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol, and think that it is okay since you are functional, it is time to reach out. We at the Discovery Institute want to help you. We are here for you with any questions you might have. Alongside this, we have a contact page just for you so you can reach out regarding anything you need. We also have a number you can call 844-478-6563. It is never too late to take your life back. Please consider getting treated today.

References:

https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/moderate-drinking.htm

https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm

https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/prevention.htm

https://www.dualdiagnosis.org/alcohol-addiction/functional-alcoholic/

Article Reviewed by Dr. Jeffrey Berman, MD

Dr. Jeffrey Berman, MDDr. Jeffrey Berman is a psychiatrist in Teaneck, New Jersey and is affiliated with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. He received his medical degree from State University of New York Upstate Medical University and has been in practice for more than 20 years. He also speaks multiple languages, including French and Hebrew.

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