The Myth of the Functioning Alcoholic

Addiction is a cumulative phenomenon that occurs when an individual continues a regular pattern of substance abuse over a period of time, becoming physically and even psychologically dependent in the process.

We now understand addiction to be a chronic relapsing disease of the brain in which those who suffer from it are left unable to resist the persistent compulsion to use. However, it doesn’t exactly happen overnight.

As individuals head down the road of substance abuse toward addiction, they don’t intend to become physically dependent. Oftentimes they underestimate the risk of dependency, misunderstand how it develops, and underestimate the power of addiction.

It’s as if addicts expect to have a moment where they’re knowingly standing on the edge of addiction and can choose to either turn around or continue, but that moment comes and goes unknowingly, lost in the whirlwind of substance abuse. It’s also common for individuals to think, “It just couldn’t happen to me.”

What is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism has only relatively recently become well-understood. For many years, alcoholism—like all addiction—was thought to be indicative of weakness, lack of willpower, selfishness, abnormality, and of generally being a bad person, but research has illuminated what’s really happening when someone is unable to control their drinking.

Also commonly called alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, alcoholism is a form of addiction and a disease that is characterized by an individual’s having unhealthy and/or dangerous drinking habits. This typically means that an alcoholic will continue to drink alcohol in excess despite the negative consequences this behavior has on his or her relationships, employment, finances, and many other aspects of life.

According to the diagnostic criteria for alcoholism, you may suffer from alcohol dependency if you suffer from three or more of the following problems in a single year:

  • The inability to quit drinking or control the amount of alcohol consumed
  • Needing to drink more and more alcohol to achieve the desired effect
  • The onset of withdrawal symptoms during periods without alcohol
  • Spending a lot of time recovering from drinking, giving up other activities in order to be able to drink more
  • Having unsuccessfully attempted to reduce or eliminate drinking alcohol
  • Continuing to drink alcohol despite physical problems and/or problems it causes relationships.

It’s common for alcoholics to be in denial of the severity of their drinking problem, telling themselves that they are in control of their drinking. In fact, some alcoholics are able to camouflage fairly well among individuals who aren’t alcoholics, carefully portraying themselves as casual drinkers and ensuring that their alcoholism doesn’t get too far out of their control.

Unfortunately, the destructive potential of alcoholism is almost a guarantee; despite the belief of many alcoholics that they can balance their drinking habit along with their responsibilities and obligations, too often they suffer and cause much undue suffering to those in their lives.

The Addict’s Goal: Being a Functioning Alcoholic

It’s the goal of most addicts and alcoholics to be able to maintain a substance abuse habit without the habit causing them hardship. While this might sound impossible and illogical, it seems an attainable, achievable goal to someone with an addict’s mentality. In the mind of an addict, if they’re able to maintain a job, keep their bills paid, and sustain their relationships, it’s almost like they aren’t really suffering from addiction; and if they’re not really suffering from addiction, there’s no need for rehabilitative treatment, right?

When individuals suffering from dependency assess the severity of their addiction, they often compare themselves to what they imagine an addict would look like. For alcoholics, they picture someone who spends much of their days and nights sitting in a bar, looking disheveled, having lost their job and probably their home, maybe living on the street, and so on. Therefore, they see themselves are being in much better shape than the alcoholics they’re imagining, which has led to the myth of the functioning alcoholic.

The functioning alcoholic is, by definition, someone who suffers from alcohol dependency, either knowingly or unknowingly, but who has not yet had their alcoholism turn their life upside-down. In this case, the keyword is “yet.” These individuals see their success as being proof that they’re immune to the destructive power of addiction, clearly able to continue being productive and responsible while harboring dependency on alcohol.

However, the reality of the situation is that, for one reason or another, these “functioning alcoholics” simply haven’t yet reached the point where their drinking begins to prevent them from fulfilling their responsibilities. These individuals fail to account for the progressive, cumulative nature of the disease of alcoholism.

The Stages of Functional Alcoholism

In an article that recently went somewhat viral, an addiction blogger recently expelled the myth of functioning alcoholism by breaking it down into a series of four stages. According to these four stages of alcoholism for the so-called functioning alcoholism, these individuals often start out with binge drinking, getting into a routine of occasional, semi-frequent intoxication and, consequently, experiencing a marked increase in tolerance, which leads to drinking more and more alcohol over time.

The second stage involves drinking as a coping mechanism; functioning alcoholics begin justifying their excessive drinking by saying they need it to “unwind,” having had a stressful day at work or a difficult experience that warrants intoxication. It’s during the third stage when these individuals begin experiencing consequences for their growing alcohol dependence—things like DUI for drinking and driving or making other poor decisions while intoxicated that have repercussions—and must begin trying to hide their drinking by isolating themselves, which causes depression that is treated with more drinking.

The fourth step involves changes in health in appearance; this is when the “functioning” alcoholic looks at him or herself in the mirror and sees something more in line with how he or she used to picture an alcoholic in their head.

The take-away from this is that the functioning alcoholic doesn’t exist; those that refer to themselves as a functioning alcoholic are simply alcoholics whose drinking hasn’t yet ruined their lives. However, it’s important to remember that when it comes to alcoholism and addiction, if the consequences haven’t materialized insofar, it’s only a matter of time.

Chemical dependency is a progressive illness that causes physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, and social degradation over time. An addict might be passably functional today, but he or she will be less functional tomorrow, and even less functional the day after that, ad nauseam, until he or she is left with nothing but the bottle.

Start Your Recovery from Alcoholism and Addiction Today

If you or someone you love suffers from addiction to alcohol or drugs, Drug Treatment Center can help. Our recovery specialists have helped countless individuals suffering from chemical dependency and addiction to find relief from this deadly disease. Don’t wait; call us today.

Staff Writer :