Living With a Functional Alcoholic: Warning Signs, and How to Help
Every evening it’s the same routine. One glass of wine, maybe two—but now the whole bottle is gone, again. Wine always comes after dinner, even if dinner includes other drinks. If you’re the loved one of a functional alcoholic, you know what it feels like to worry as these patterns begin. You tread lightly around the mention of their drinking habits, but always wonder if they’re taking things too far.
You may find yourself asking some tough questions. How much is too much? At what point does the nightly glass of wine turn into functional alcoholism? What adverse effects is this habit having on your loved one that you haven’t even noticed? How are they suffering in the background?
People tend to think of alcohol abuse as easy to spot—but functional alcoholism is as serious as any addiction, and can be just as damaging. Living with a functional alcoholic can be incredibly confusing and challenging for your relationship. But when armed with the right knowledge about the warning signs to look out for, you’ll be far better equipped to recognize when a family member is at risk. Though this so-called “minor” addiction can be hard to identify, the right strategies can help even the most functional alcoholics recover and proceed with a more healthy lifestyle.
The Warning Signs of a Functioning Alcoholic
A person who struggles with alcohol abuse disorder isn’t always easy to understand. Their personal appearance may be pristine. Their career may be intact, and, in fact, may be highly successful. To the outside world, these individuals may appear perfectly healthy on the surface. However, deeper warning signs are often revealed at home to those who are closest to them. It’s important to notice these red flags. As the loved one of a functional alcoholic, you may be their first lifeline for help.
Important warning signs of functional alcoholism to keep in mind:
- Excessive drinking. The numbers vary, but heavy drinking is considered by one study to be 2-5 drinks per day for totals around 14-21 drinks per week. Regardless of body mass or gender, this amount of alcohol is considered excessive.
- Denial. Does your loved one “only drink top shelf” or “expensive wine”? These individuals justify their drinking habit by claiming they’re not suffering any adverse effects, or that their heavy-drinking friends are “worse” than they are. They might get angry when confronted about their habit, deny drinking at all, and even hide alcohol from family members.
- Drinking alone. One clear sign of alcoholism is when individuals drink alone or at odd times of day (for instance, in the morning). They may be the first to suggest a happy hour or be the person who always orders the first round, even when it might not be appropriate. Pre-drinking before social gatherings is also a common behavior.
- Inability to relax without alcohol. They may make a beeline for the liquor cabinet as soon as they return home each evening, claiming they “need to relax” and require a drink to do so. In this way, alcohol use is a strategic behavior for your loved one.
- Joking attitude about alcohol abuse. Your loved one may make jokes about their drinking problem, laugh about how much they drink, or use “alcoholic” as a joking term to refer to themselves or others.
- Breaking promises and limits. Has your loved one insisted that they intend to cut back, but never seems to follow through? They may be completely powerless to stop drinking or to reduce their intake.
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Understanding the Consequences of Alcohol Abuse
If you fear that your loved one may be a functional alcoholic, it’s important to understand the facts surrounding this particularly complex addiction. Your loved one is either oblivious or in denial of the mental, physical, and emotional consequences of their habit. Proper education can, therefore, be a catalyst in your family to finally get them the help they need.
Even though functional alcoholics may be able to hold everything together on the outside, this facade merely masks their true state. Alcohol abuse, especially when prolonged, inevitably hurts the mind and the body. The first major consequence of leading this “double life” is profound exhaustion. It’s draining to struggle in silence, to deny your experience to the rest of the world, and to maintain peak performance in all areas of public life. The stress of compartmentalization alone is enough to weaken a person’s resolve and damage their decision-making skills.
You may start to notice your loved one struggling with interpersonal relationships. The emotionally charged denial they present to the world can easily create rifts between family members, and it’s unfortunately common for the risk of domestic violence, child abuse, and neglect to skyrocket in the wake of alcohol addiction. For the sake of your loved one and the health of your family, it’s important to address their behavior in a helpful way even when you may be tempted to just “let them be” or to “not rock the boat.”
Even if your loved one doesn’t appear to be suffering mental or emotional side effects of their drinking, more urgent are the health risks associated with alcohol addiction. These risks often go unseen and unchecked. The known side effects of excessive alcohol abuse include, but are not limited to:
- Irreversible liver damage
- Severe digestive system inflammation
- Nutritional/vitamin deficiency
- Increased risk of various cancers
These consequences are not merely possible—they are inevitable. Heavy drinking over time wreaks havoc on the body and mind, and no person is immune. But because these effects are slow to emerge over time, it may take a disaster to get a functional alcoholic to decide to change their behavior. If you notice warning signs in your loved one, you can help them seek treatment before such a crisis occurs.
How To Help When You Live With a Functional Alcoholic
In the face of such life-altering effects, you may be tempted to approach your loved one immediately. However, your first task is to examine your own behavior for ways that you may be encouraging or enabling your loved one’s alcohol addiction. It’s paramount that they take responsibility for unacceptable behavior, and you can help by not sharing in that responsibility. Discover where you’re excusing or justifying your loved one’s addiction, and where you may be allowing or encouraging them to continue to drink. You may need to temporarily alter some of your own behavior in order to make recovery that much more attainable for your loved one.
Quick tips on how to help a functioning alcoholic:
- Address your own behavior and attitudes about alcohol.
- Stop making excuses for your loved one’s behavior.
- Educate yourself on the short and long term treatment options that are available.
- Catch your loved one when they are trying to quit drinking on their own.
- Avoid confrontation, and approach your loved one with compassion.
- Have a conversation when your loved one is sober and in a receptive mood.
Approaching a functional alcoholic can be nerve-wracking for both parties. That’s why it’s best to have a plan in place for how you intend the conversation to progress, and how you want your loved one to perceive your intentions. You don’t want them to feel attacked or cornered. Instead, it’s best to tread lightly and to be prepared to make multiple attempts to help. Don’t give up! The ultimate goal is to convince your loved one that you are on the same team, and that you love and value them throughout the recovery process.
When You May Need to Seek Further Treatment
Ultimately, if your loved one is ready and willing to pursue treatment for their alcohol addiction, they are well on their way toward achieving recovery. But because different treatment strategies work for different individuals, it can be tough to land upon the right plan from the beginning. It becomes even harder if your loved one has already experienced one or more relapses after prior treatment.
At this point, it may be advantageous for you to consider a residential treatment program. Highly qualified professionals will make a full analysis of your loved one’s history and current behavior, and will be able to help them make even bigger strides toward recovery in a shorter amount of time. Combined with a safe and comfortable environment and an emphasis on relating to others with similar substance abuse issues, these factors can create the solution your family has been waiting for. Choosing a residential rehab program may be the best decision your loved one can make for their own success in recovery.
At Alta Mira, we offer outstanding residential treatment programs for individuals struggling with substance abuse addictions and co-occurring disorders. With compassionate and highly-qualified staff and beautiful treatment centers in the Los Angeles area, we are dedicated to helping those who, like your loved one, struggle with substance abuse. Reach out to us today for more information on how we can help.