How to Identify and Help a Functioning Alcoholic

Functioning alcoholics are sneaky. They drink enough and have the symptoms to be diagnosed as alcoholics, and yet they still manage to function every day. They are masters of denial and of hiding the truth. These are not the stereotypical alcoholics. They can get drunk and act sober. They can go to work with a hidden hangover and sneak drinks throughout the day. This type of alcoholic may be functioning, but he is hanging on by a thread. How can you recognize functional alcoholism in someone you care about? How can you help?

Recognizing a High-Functioning Alcoholic

These types of alcoholics may be well hidden, but they aren’t uncommon. Some estimates say that as many as half of all alcoholics are high-functioning. Loved ones may suspect someone has a problem with alcohol but never say anything about it. These functioning alcoholics may never confront the problem until something big happens, like a DUI or a bad car accident. This is what makes functioning alcoholics so dangerous. It’s important to identify them and to reach out to them with offers of help. To do otherwise is to enable. Here are some important signs of a high-functioning alcoholic.

  • He thinks about and talks about drinking a lot. He may always want to meet in a bar or have drinks every night, even if you suggest an alternative.
  • He denies that he drinks too much if you try to confront him.
  • He has a hard time remembering things that happened while drinking.
  • He hides alcohol in plain sight. For example, he might say he’s just drinking soda, but you check his beverage when he’s not looking and find it contains alcohol.
  • You catch him drinking at unusual times, like in the morning.
  • You notice signs of withdrawal, like shakiness or irritability, any time he’s not drinking.
  • He may set a limit for how much he’ll drink but is unable to stick to it.

How to Help a Functioning Alcoholic

It’s easy to make excuses for a functioning alcoholic as compared to an alcoholic whose life is crumbling around him. Resist the urge to question your suspicions. You owe your loved one a confrontation and an intervention. He is headed down a dangerous path and it’s only a matter of time before he hits rock bottom. Functioning alcoholics can’t function forever. Eventually they crash and burn, and often in spectacular fashion.

Once you have steeled yourself for a confrontation, be prepared. He will likely give you the usual excuses to prove he doesn’t have a problem with alcohol. Be ready ahead of time with specific examples of observations you have made of his troubling behaviors. You might also want to consider enlisting one or two other people with the same concerns. There is power in numbers, and when he sees that several people are worried about him, he will be more likely to get the message.

He will likely stay in denial in spite of your concerns, so give him a challenge. Ask him to cut back or to give up drinking for a period of time. If he can’t do it, he will see that he does, in fact, have a problem. If there is any chance you think he may react violently to your confrontation, enlist the help of a professional interventionist to keep everyone safe. Whatever you do, don’t give up until he gets rid of his denial and accepts help.

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