What exactly is a functional alcoholic? The definition of an alcoholic generally includes the loss of control when drinking, and an inability to complete certain tasks due to alcohol consumption. So is it really possible for someone to be an alcoholic and be truly functional?
When I was drinking, I suppose I was a functional alcoholic. I went to school and I got good grades. I woke up every day and usually did what I was supposed to do.
But my drinking was getting out of control so quickly, it was just a matter of time before I would forfeit all of my responsibilities because I couldn’t drink and be highly functional at the same time. I suppose as long as I was alive, I was a ‘functional’ alcoholic. I was functioning, just not very well.
The term functional alcoholic implies that these people are living productive lives and alcohol isn’t a huge problem for them. If a person shows up to work every day hungover, are they functional simply because they show up to work? What if they show up to work drunk, but they are still able to fulfill all of their tasks at work?
Just because someone has a home or a job or a family and doesn’t miss too many obligations doesn’t mean that they are functioning at the level they should or that they are safe or healthy.
One of the biggest problems with this label is it gives them the impression that they don’t need to change. It’s just another way for someone to stay in denial. Maybe they don’t even realize they need help.
When I was drinking, I made sure that I went to school, got good grades, and excelled athletically. In some ways, I was very functional, and this is exactly what allowed me to keep drinking for many more years.
It was as if I couldn’t possibly have a problem as long as I was going to school. I couldn’t possibly have a problem as long as I was playing sports in college. But the fact is I did have a problem, and this problem existed long before I decided to seek treatment.
What if someone had said “Hey, I know you are going to school and seem to be doing well, but you don’t seem happy and you seem to be drinking too much”?
What if someone had actually tried to approach me and talk to me about my alcoholic behavior and my drinking? I don’t know if it would have made a difference. I also know that in the beginning, I hid my drinking very well. It wasn’t a secret that I drank, but a lot of people didn’t know how much I was drinking.
There are people, however, who knew that it was becoming a problem and didn’t really say much. Maybe they asked me about it once and dropped it, or maybe they didn’t ask at all. If we allow people to continue destroying themselves simply because they are ‘functional’, it is a disservice to the people we care about who need help.
Most functional alcoholics are drinking enormous amounts of alcohol and have thus developed a tolerance. This is part of the reason people may consider them functional.
The fact that someone has a tolerance and may not seem drunk does not mean that the amount of alcohol they are drinking isn’t dangerous; we shouldn’t ignore these alcoholic symptoms. It is still doing damage to their body internally, and it is still possible for them to consume too much alcohol and fall into a coma or die.
It’s not something to take lightly, and I think by calling someone a functional alcoholic, we are minimizing how dangerous alcoholism really is.