The term “functional alcoholic” is a phrase most often used to describe a person who drinks frequently and heavily but has found a way to rationalize that they are not an “alcoholic”.  The functional alcoholic often believes they are a step up from an “alcoholic” because they have not experienced the same consequences or setbacks.  The reality is that an individual who is a “high-functioning alcoholic” is engrossed in a denial system that protects their addiction and drinking.

The consequences of an addiction can take many different forms.  People often use these consequences as barometers for where they are and how serious their addiction is (if they admit to having one at all).  The individual who drinks heavily everyday but is able to hold a job, pay bills, and provide for loved ones may be hard pressed to see they have a problem.  They will often compare themselves to their view of an alcoholic: an individual who has lost his or her job, has a broken family unit, has no housing, has several DUI’s, or has other severe consequences.

Functional Alcoholics Often Emphasize Work

Frequently functional alcoholics seek an inordinate amount of personal validation through work.  They believe if they can keep up with their jobs then the other areas of their life can be deflected from the spotlight.  Therefore, while one part of their life might seem to be holding up adequately, it often conceals the fact that their interpersonal relationships or emotional wellbeing may be crumbling.

Physical Consequences from Drinking

On the surface it may appear that a functional alcoholic has avoided the overt consequences of drinking, but they are not immune to the physical consequences.  Alcohol is one of the most toxic substances people willingly put in their bodies.  Ongoing and heavy alcohol use will impact physical health and increases the risks of liver disease, cancer, pancreatitis, high blood pressure, brain damage, and memory loss.  Many times in the addiction field it is the physical consequences which motivates functioning alcoholics to seek help.

Impact on Loved Ones

Those usually considered as functional alcoholics generally do not hide their drinking.  If you suspect your loved one is drinking more than they claim, read here about warning signs of secret drinking.  The main theme of the functional alcoholic is they don’t see that they have a problem. This is not usually the case for their loved ones.  Loved ones experience the impact of drinking firsthand whether the alcoholic identifies their behavior as problematic or not.  The loved ones often bear the burden of the heavy drinking and they pick up responsibilities that are not handled or are missed by the alcoholic.  Loved ones are often put between a rock and hard place on how to get the alcoholic in denial to see that they need help.  Generally there are few things the loved one can do because ultimately lasting change has to occur from within.

Steps Loved Ones Can Take

Loved ones can always change their own behavior.  This is the place to start.  It is important to look at any enabling they may be doing, to consider attending Al-anon, to set healthy boundaries, and to practice self-care.  Here is a list of what to do and not do when a loved one is addicted.   A word of caution, if you feel inclined to confront someone who’s drinking has affected your life, do not do so while they are under the influence.  Also, be careful not to attack them as this will most likely only escalate into argument and hostility.  Rather, it is most beneficial to speak from your experience and explain how the drinking has affected you and your relationship with that person.  If the entire family system is on board for making a change and is willing to set strong boundaries, a professional intervention is also an option.

Change is Possible

A functioning alcoholic is most likely going to continue “functioning” on their terms until they experience consequences they see as serious enough to prompt change.  There are ways these circumstances can be altered by loved ones.  So if you are feeling stuck with an alcoholic in denial change is still possible, but must start with you.  Your changes may lead to their own changes and to long term sobriety.


For more information reach out to New Hope Recovery Center (773)-883-3916.

Written By: New Hope Recovery Center