If you have spent any time in the world of addiction, alcoholism, or recovery from substance use disorder, you may have heard the term “functional alcoholic.” A functional alcoholic is a designation sometimes used to describe someone who is dependent on alcohol and who can’t stop drinking, but who is able to maintain a job or family life and take care of their daily responsibilities. This may describe you or someone you know- someone who need alcohol, but who is able to drink addictively while still going to work and being a “productive member of society.” But is functioning alcoholism real? And if it is, do functional alcoholics need treatment for their condition?

What is a Functional Alcoholic?

A functional alcoholic may have an easier time of hiding their addiction than someone who has experienced a lot of external consequences as the result of their drinking. In fact, many times, external consequences are what people use to distinguish a functional alcoholic from a “low-bottom” alcoholic. External consequences are the obvious things that we lose in active addiction, such as a car, a job, school, our home, relationships, or family connections. In contrast, internal consequences are the emotional and mental consequences of addiction, such as feelings of emptiness, anxiety, loss of faith, anger, and feelings of isolation and loneliness.

A functional alcoholic may not appear to be affected by their drinking, Generally, someone referred to as a functional alcoholic has not experienced many external consequences- they may still have a job, a home, a family life, and from all outside appearance be a normal person. However, this does not mean that they have not experienced consequences. A “functional alcoholic” may be able to hold a job, but they probably cannot get through the day without drinking. This state of living can result in the internal consequences of alcoholism, and emotional turmoil.

Why is “Functional Alcoholism” Dangerous?

Being a “functional alcoholic” can actually be more dangerous and come with more extreme consequences than low-bottom alcoholism. This is due to several reasons.

Most importantly, a functional alcoholic will experience the internal consequences of alcoholism, even if they maintain a “normal” outside life. This means isolation, alienation, deceiving those close to them, and becoming disconnected emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. The emotional pain that comes from being dependent on drinking will rear its head whether or not the external consequences do. This can lead to extremely poor mental health and isolation from relationships.

Additionally to the emotional turmoil, someone who is considered a functional alcoholic may actually have a harder time getting sober and over time could experience severe physical consequences as the result of drinking. If someone is “functional” in their everyday life, they may never feel the need to seek help for a drinking problem. The lack of dramatic consequences can make someone falsely believe that their drinking is not an issue when in reality, it is wreaking havoc on their emotions and physical health.

Over time, if a “functional alcoholic” never gets help for their problem, their body will begin to experience the effects of excessive, long-term drinking. This can include, cirrhosis of the liver, gastrointestinal problems, organ damage, pancreatitis, and even wet brain syndrome.

Another potentially dangerous consequence of being a functional alcoholic and believing that drinking is not a problem is the possibility of delirium tremens. Someone who believes that they do not have a problem with alcohol may at some point attempt to cut back on their drinking or stop drinking without professional help. The problem with this is that alcohol has a potentially fatal withdrawal symptom called delirium tremens, which can result in deadly seizures.

Not having an understanding of the problem makes “functional alcoholism” arguably even more dangerous that having an obvious problem with alcohol.

Getting Help for Alcoholism

If you can’t stop drinking on your own, even if you haven’t experienced seemingly serious consequences, chances are that you need professional help. At the Discovery Institute of New Jersey, we offer medical detox to help people stop drinking safely and as comfortably as possible. We follow up detox with comprehensive treatment plans that are created individually for each client so that our patients can learn to live without drugs and alcoholic. If you believe that you’re a functional alcoholic, get help before it’s too late by calling Discovery at 888-616-7177.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy 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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