You do not need to be the archetypal alcoholic to be struggling with alcohol use disorder. More than a caricature, alcoholism is a real and debilitating illness that can begin and develop in countless different ways, but always leads to the same tragic conclusion. Recognizing alcoholism means seeing the signs and catching the symptoms, rather than dismissing the possibility because it sounds too dramatic.
An alcoholic does not have to be desperate or functionally disabled to struggle with alcohol use disorder – sometimes, the addiction is hidden away, yet more powerful than most would assume. In many cases, people go on for years as functioning alcoholics before a specific event or time itself causes them to break down and experience a cascade of painful issues, both emotionally and physically. However, how do you differentiate a high functioning alcoholic from someone who struggles immensely to hide and deal with their alcoholism?
Defining Functioning Alcoholism
A functioning alcoholic can’t get through the day without a drink but can still perform their duties at the workplace and are present at home. Functioning alcoholics clearly have more control over their actions and are less affected by their own drinking, but they still have zero control over their addiction itself. Addiction is a progressive disease, in the sense that if you are not in treatment, your addiction will get worse over time as the effects of long-term alcohol abuse begin to set in both physically and mentally, and the urge to use grows stronger from week to week and month to month. All high functioning alcoholics either get treatment or eventually reach a point where they experience low functioning alcoholism. High functioning alcoholism can also be characterized by:
- Alcohol is a requirement for stress relief
- Friends and family have objected to the drinking, without avail
- Often joke about being an alcoholic
- Get drunk most days
- Often drink alone, especially in the morning
- Hide alcohol from others, or get angry when confronted about drinking
- One or more legal issues related to drinking
- Friends and family have had to cover for the drinking
- In denial/unable to confront the possibility of alcoholism
- Can maintain a job yet struggles some days
- Still in a relationship, but with major issues/a codependent relationship
Many of the risks associated with being a high functioning alcoholic are the same as with low functioning alcoholics. High functioning alcoholics are still prone to making risky decisions, especially when drunk. These might range from regular black-out drinking (leading to potential memory problems, risk of alcohol poisoning, and major organ damage), to unprotected sexual encounters with strangers and drunk driving. High functioning alcoholics are still at a higher danger of engaging in violent behavior, inciting domestic violence, child abuse/neglect, and fetal alcohol syndrome.
The main characteristic of high functioning alcoholism versus low functioning alcoholism is the ability to hide the behavior and create convincing excuses for friends and family members. Neither an addict nor those who care about him or her want to believe that their behavior amounts to addiction. Addiction is hard, and takes time and effort to treat, and can ruin lives if left untreated.
However, it’s important to face the reality sooner rather than later, because an addiction is best treated when identified early. If you suspect that your loved one is an alcoholic, don’t wait for their condition to get worse, and don’t mistake ‘high functioning’ for healthy. Some people have a higher tolerance for alcohol than others, and people are free to choose to drink if they feel like it. But if their drinking is outside of their control, they may begin to not only engage in self-destructive behavior, but they may very well make choices that go on to endanger the lives of those they love and care for.
All Alcoholism Is Debilitating
Sooner or later, alcoholism becomes a disease that develops disability. Alcoholism can disable someone mentally as well as physically, severely impeding their ability to perform at work, at school, or even at home. Alcoholism can cause memory issues, can reduce a person’s functional attention span, can hamper their cognitive abilities and can lead to brain damage over time.
An alcohol-related illness or injury can put someone out of commission for months, years, or permanently. While ubiquitous and universally-loved, alcohol is recognized by the CDC as one of the leading causes of death in America. Excessive alcohol use has led to approximately 88,000 deaths each year from 2006-2010, with rising rates. Alcohol was deemed responsible for 1 out of 10 deaths in all working-age adults.
In moderation, the debilitating effects of alcohol use are minimal. Any alcohol use will cause negative side effects, and can cut down your life expectancy, but the same goes for many other things in life. But alcoholism does not understand ‘moderation’. For someone with an alcohol use disorder, the need to drink is compulsory, either due to an emotional drive or a physical dependency on the drug. In either case, however, treatment can help people make great strides towards long-term recovery.
It’s Never Too Late for Treatment
There is no deadline on when to begin treatment for alcoholism or any other form of addiction. And thankfully, there are no criteria for failing to recover from an addiction, other than the obvious one (death). Addiction treatment is meant to help addicts at any point in their journey, regardless of what factors contributed to the development of their addiction, from getting hooked on drugs at an incredibly young age due to a tumultuous and dangerous childhood, to relying on drugs as the only effective way to cope with a terrifying traumatic experience earlier in life. Many people get addicted to drugs, and they first turn to drugs for a large variety of reasons. Addiction treatment facilities do not judge people based on why they started using in the first place, but they do help individuals explore and consider how their past led them to drug use, and why they continue to rely on alcohol to stay happy.
Whether you find success in therapy, 12-step programs, rehab clinics or sober living homes, addiction treatment comes in many shapes and forms, changing and adapting to take into consideration any given patient’s circumstances and personal challenges.
Is Drinking Ever Again an Option?
Some high functioning alcoholics may feel that if they simply get over the reason for their addiction, they may be able to return to a life of casual drinking, and alcohol in moderation.
However, this simply isn’t very likely. Once you’ve gone through an addiction, that addiction will forever leave its mark on your brain. The cravings you experience from time to time (even years after rehab) are part of how addiction imprints on the mind, and a single drink can often be enough to send someone into an emotionally-fueled bender, often leading to death by overdose.
Life doesn’t have to be boring without booze – in fact, it can be much better. But it does take time to get there.