Home Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy Alcohol Awareness Recognising the Signs of a Functioning Alcoholic

Alcohol Awareness Recognising the Signs of a Functioning Alcoholic

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It’s Alcohol Awareness Week from 15th–21st November. In line with this, it’s important to shed more light on alcoholism.

How do you know if you’re a casual drinker or an alcoholic?

Healthcare professionals have growing concerns about the increased alcohol consumption among problem drinkers during the pandemic. Over the last year, Delamere research has shown that alcohol consumption increased, with 1 in 4 (22%) Brits increasing their intake over the last year.

Martin Preston, an addiction treatment professional, shares seven signs that you might be suffering from alcohol addiction, as well as offering some insight on what the causes of addiction are and how it can be treated.

What is a functioning alcoholic?

A functioning alcoholic is a person who suffers from alcoholism but is still able to hold down a job, play a role within a family and to most people, appear to be coping.

A functioning alcoholic is not always easy to spot. Those that suffer from alcoholism are exceptionally good at hiding their condition. With few apparent negative consequences, a functioning alcoholic is unlikely to want to change whilst they feel they still have time.

Alcohol addiction is at the chronic end of the spectrum of alcohol use disorders for which there is no cure. It can, however, be successfully treated and the sooner treatment is undertaken the better for the individual concerned and their loved ones.

Signs and symptoms 

  • Frequent intoxication and smelling of alcohol
  • Loss of control around alcohol use
  • Hiding alcohol in strange places such as their garage, at the office, in bushes or in their car
  • Drinking between work times or appointments, or drinking just enough to keep their alcohol levels topped up if they are alcohol dependent
  • Frequent binge drinking after daily responsibilities are taken care of
  • Justifying their drinking as a way of unwinding after work, a busy day with the kids or as a reward
  • Becoming irritable, anxious, restless and unable to sleep if they are unable to drink
  • Regularly drinking in the morning before going about their day, or at odd times of the day such as lunchtime in order to avoid alcohol withdrawal symptoms
  • Always drinking at social events and ‘preloading’ prior to attending a social event
  • Avoiding social events or activities that do not involve alcohol
  • Alcohol has become a problem at home, with them either drinking excessively alone at home or disappearing to a pub or bar straight after work for hours
  • Becoming defensive or flippant when challenged over their drinking
  • Denying they are an alcoholic, reasoning that they still hold down a job or take the kids to school on time
  • Alternating alcohol and prescription pills in order that they can function
  • They may become erratic, spontaneous, angry or change their character completely whilst intoxicated
  • Difficulty in recalling events that took place whilst heavily intoxicated – experiencing an alcoholic blackout
  • Risk taking, they may well drive to work or drive children to school whilst still over the limit from the previous night or from taking a morning drink

Tips on helping a functioning alcoholic

When trying to get a functioning alcoholic to accept help, it is vital that you, first, get them to admit they have a problem that they cannot overcome on their own.

If you have previously tried to talk to them and they have become defensive, flippant or angry, you may want to try the following tips on how to get functioning alcohol to accept help

  • Set aside a time to talk to them when they have no plans, are not in a rush and are not too intoxicated to understand what you have to say. Preferably they will be sober but if they are alcohol dependent you will need to choose a time before they start drinking heavily.
  • It is often quite helpful to speak to a functioning alcoholic about their alcoholism after they have just suffered a negative consequence related to their drinking. They may be remorseful and less able to deny they have a problem.
  • Tell the person what you know of alcoholism, the signs and symptoms and that a person does not necessarily need to lose everything in order to be diagnosed as an alcoholic. Share the signs and symptoms of a functioning alcoholic with them from this page.
  • Explain to them that alcoholism is medically recognised as both a mental and physiological disease that is progressive in nature. They should not feel ashamed that they suffer from an illness that requires treatment in order to overcome.
  • Regardless of their emotional response, try to remain calm and not argue with them. Arguing will give them an excuse to leave the conversation and return to their drinking. Instead, try an empathetic approach and one of showing concern and support.
  • Explain to them how their drinking is affecting you and other family members. Give clear examples of when their drinking has affected you and others or caused concern and how you feel about their drinking. 
  • Acknowledge to them that the condition they suffer from is probably more common than they think and that there are others who suffer just like them. Explain to them that people suffering from an alcohol use disorder are rarely able to get better of their own accord due to their brain compelling them to drink and alcoholism being heavily characterised by relapse.
  • Tell them that many negative consequences that non-functioning alcoholics suffer such as loss of relationships, jobs, criminal prosecution, mental and physical deterioration, etc. are all just ‘yets’ for anyone who suffers from alcohol addiction.
  • Give them hope by explaining that alcoholism is treatable and that a professional detox and rehabilitation programme will give them the time and space to comfortably get well.
  • If the conversation goes well, the functioning alcoholic admits they have a problem and they need help, it is important to act quickly and without hesitation. In the addiction treatment field, we refer to this as a window of opportunity. It rarely lasts for very long before they shrink back into denial.
  • Acting swiftly and engaging professional help whilst they are receptive could well save their lives. If they are not receptive and still deny they have a problem or become confrontational, drop the subject and try again a different day. 

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