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Most people think of an alcoholic as a stereotype: someone who blacks out, who can’t hold down a job, who slurs their words or stumbles when walking.

While these stereotypes can be true in some cases, most people who struggle with alcohol abuse are functioning alcoholics. In their case, they can abuse alcohol but appear to be fine in many aspects of their lives. They are able to carry on a life, keep a job, maintain relationships with friends and family, and care for a home — all while abusing alcohol.

A person who is able to function at this level while drinking heavily may not think they have a problem. But such a high level of drinking will eventually cause problems, either physically, emotionally, mentally, or in their relationships. Alcoholism, also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a major issue in the United States, affecting almost 15 million people, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Signs of a High-Functioning Alcoholic

One of the most visible signs that indicate someone has an issue with alcohol, even if they seem to be managing their life, is the amount they drink per week. For instance, a woman who has more than three drinks a day or seven drinks a week is at risk of AUD, while a man who has four or more drinks a day or up to 14 a week is also at risk.

Other signs of high functioning alcoholism to look out for in a loved one or family member include:

  • Admitting they have a problem or joking about their alcoholism
  • Not keeping up with major responsibilities at home, work, or school
  • Losing friendships or struggling with relationship problems due to drinking
  • Having legal problems related to drinking, such as a DUI arrest
  • Needing alcohol to relax or feel confident
  • Drinking in the morning or alone
  • Getting drunk when they don’t intend to
  • Forgetting what they did while drinking
  • Denying that they were drinking, hiding alcohol, or becoming angry when confronted about drinking
  • Causing loved ones to worry about or make excuses for their drinking

Risks from Alcohol Abuse Disorder

Someone who falls into the category of a functioning alcoholic can experience the same problems as a more stereotypical “alcoholic.” They run the risk of a variety of health problems, from liver disease and pancreatitis to memory loss and high blood pressure, among other concerns.

They are also at a higher risk of being involved in a car accident or dying by suicide. Alcohol abuse also increases the chances of domestic violence, child abuse or neglect, and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Tolerance is another concern. The more regularly a person drinks, the higher the amount of alcohol they will need to consume to experience the same intoxicating effects. A functioning alcoholic may also, over time, learn how to perform certain tasks while inebriated without showing any signs of drunkenness. This happens slowly but can mean that a high functioning alcoholic may be able to drink significantly at work or in social settings without being noticed.

If a functioning alcoholic does decide to stop or cut back on their drinking, they may also experience withdrawal symptoms. Common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Anxiousness or nervousness
  • Appetite loss
  • Depression
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Dilated pupils
  • Faster heart rate
  • Fatigue or tiredness
  • Headache
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Nightmares
  • Not being able to think clearly
  • Pale skin
  • Shakiness
  • Sweating
  • Tremor

Helping a Functional Alcoholic

Just like anyone with a drinking problem, a functioning alcoholic may be in denial about their problem. Luckily, helping a functioning alcoholic is no different than helping anyone else with a substance abuse problem.

Start by learning about alcoholism. You’ll quickly understand that alcohol use disorder is a disease that the individual is unable to control.

Next, research rehab facilities and treatment options. It is important to have this information before taking the next step.

Find a time to talk with the person suffering from AUD. This conversation may need to happen several times before the functioning alcoholic is willing to admit that they have a problem.

Finally, when the person decides to seek treatment, make sure they have the support they need during and after their treatment. For example, they should consider joining a peer support group or a 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous. Family members and loved ones may wish to consider joining their own support group as well, such as Al-Anon.

Building on a belief that spiritual development and healthy recovery can bring inner peace to clients overcoming addiction and substance abuse, Into Action Recovery Centers takes a people-centered approach to alcohol addiction treatment. We’re conveniently located in Houston, Texas, and our treatment is led by experienced master’s level counselors and medical professionals who specialize in personalized treatment for drug and alcohol abuse.

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