What is a functioning alcoholic?

This Page was last reviewed and changed on May 25th, 2022

Content Overview

A functioning alcoholic defines someone who drinks heavily due to an alcohol addiction, but functions well enough for their alcohol abuse to go unnoticed. Most functioning alcoholics either do not recognise that their alcohol consumption is out of their control, or they are in denial about needing addiction treatment because they feel they are holding everything together.

A high-functioning alcoholic may not act in a way that you would expect, as they can continue working and running a family home without their alcohol use affecting their performance. Many who don’t drink alcohol alone or don’t drink heavily on nights out wouldn’t associate themselves with having an alcohol use disorder. However, alcohol abuse and alcoholism are common and can develop without you realising.

a man drinking non alcoholic while out with friends

So others can understand how excessive drinking can lead to severe consequences, James*, who recovered from alcoholism at Recovery Lighthouse, shares how his journey with alcohol addiction began, what it means to be a functional alcoholic and how his alcohol abuse went unrecognised for so long.

How does alcohol addiction develop?

“It develops when alcohol is used as a coping mechanism for a deeper problem. When I was 31, my wife was diagnosed with MS. We were coping at the start then everything fell apart when my wife had an awful attack and was taken in for a few days with secondary progressive MS. When you are diagnosed with that, it’s simply a waiting game. The pressure this caused me is what started my alcohol abuse – although I wasn’t aware it was an alcohol addiction at the time.”

At what point did your drinking habits become alcohol abuse?

“I’d always been a social drinker, enjoying a bottle of wine or some pints with friends. Towards the end of the 90s the pressure was becoming unbearable. My wife was sick and I couldn’t get the house to the correct standard to stop her going into a home. So, I had to buy us a new house. By this point I would consume alcohol heavily; I’d stop at the pub and have two or three pints before facing home. My life was reaching certain demands that I couldn’t meet, and to drink heavily helped me.

“I was also struggling with some other major responsibilities in my life. The business was being restructured, there were people applying for jobs, customers to keep happy, concerns about my own job. Perhaps if it had only been one thing to deal with, then I may have been able to cope, but the pressure of everything together just made me crack. I went from heavy drinking to full-blown alcoholism over the course of about three years.”

Did you notice any warning signs?

“Definitely, the biggest warning sign is when you wake up in the morning needing a drink. If you have that moment, you must recognise that you are a functioning alcoholic. I remember the first time clearly. It was in 2005, and I just woke up and thought, “I can’t face the day without a drink”. I had one, and then I felt okay for a little while. But soon enough, one drink became two which turned into all day drinking, and that became typical.”

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Were you ever in denial about your drinking problem?

“Eventually my wife became incontinent, blind and a paraplegic. Meaningful mobility was virtually impossible, and resentment had started to build up inside me by this point. I resented everything, including the fact that I was as a full-time carer within a support network. It was terrible and it was killing me. By this point I was a high-functioning alcoholic, but I was in denial. I didn’t realise the alcohol was controlling me, rather than me controlling it, and I told myself I was a heavy drinker.”

What would you advise anyone showing signs of a functioning alcoholic?

“There are two things. You’ve got to accept that you’ve hit the bottom. And you have to accept that step one [of the 12 steps] is valid (you’re out of control and unmanageable). Rehab is about changing your mindset through behavioural therapies, so if you are not at the point of wanting to change, then you are not ready for rehab.”

Alcohol addiction can be extremely difficult to spot in yourself, particularly when surrounded by others that enjoy alcohol. Addiction feeds off denial, giving you reasons to blame others for your drinking or to justify why it is okay. For those who know they will benefit from support, James offers insight into the treatment process and how it taught him to take control of his high-functioning alcoholism.

What made you seek addiction treatment help?

“Years later, when I remarried, I seemed to be coping fine, but in reality, my drinking was getting worse and started causing significant relationship problems. In lockdown 2020 I hit the bottom and started to stretch my wife’s loyalty. I would come home drunk and then promise I wouldn’t touch another drop, only to last a few weeks before I’d get back to my old drinking patterns. I tried to control the alcohol misuse by myself, but I kept thinking about my next drink. I now realise that this is a mental disorder and you cannot succeed without professional help.

“My wife told me that we can’t go on like this and asked if I’d go into rehab; something clicked for me, and I said yes.”

Can you explain the admissions process?

“We found Recovery Lighthouse online. I rang and spoke to a mental health professional who gave me all the treatment information. He told me I need to continue drinking at least half a bottle of spirit each day, explaining that if I cut down on alcohol, withdrawal symptoms could result in dangerous health problems. My wife didn’t believe me so I had to ask the therapist to call back and confirm.

“I was so exhausted by the time I got to the addiction rehab that I struggled to walk up the short path to the treatment facility. Once I got there, admissions itself was extremely efficient. There is a lot thrown at you, and when you have a serious alcohol use disorder, it is overwhelming, but once I was there, I accepted the inevitable. Within time, the fog started to clear. The admissions is a formal contract. It’s a big commitment. Once the fog cleared there was a mix of emotions – relief, acceptance of my situation, and realisation of the critical nature of my resentments. I resented Cathy’s predicament. But most of all, I resented the fact that I’d become a horrible person to be around.”

What happened when you arrived at Recovery Lighthouse?

“I was in a terrible state. I went through the induction with the Centre Manager, and had to have an isolation period because of Covid regulations. I needed addiction medicine because the Covid swab made me nauseous, so we spoke to a doctor who prescribed Librium, and I had a reduced dose four times a day for seven days. That helped enormously with withdrawal symptoms and reduced the vomiting, so I was calmer and could watch TV.

“Physically I was exhausted but within time my brain began to function clearly. To begin with, was selfishly focusing only on myself. Initially, I thought only of recovery, which was being was being driven by my acceptance of the situation. In my mind, once acceptance was achieved, that is effectively the first step of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 12-step programme.”

How did rehab help you deal with your emotions?

“The process made me deal with the resentment, without dwelling on it. One of the big cathartic moments amongst the cohort was the big share moment when everyone had to talk about their life and how they had ended up there. When I started telling my story, it almost felt like I was hearing it for the first time, and this helped me to accept the realities. It was also the first time I hadn’t looked for excuses, or felt like I was being judged for my alcohol use. Everyone comes up to you afterwards and there are tears streaming. It’s very powerful.”

What is a typical day in rehab like?

“A typical day would look something like: wake up and go down for morning coffee. If the weather was nice, we would go outside and eat breakfast together. We would then usually start meditation at 9:15, before doing a series of workshops. Everyone was set three tasks. The first was to share our life stories for about 25-30 minutes. That was at the end of week two. Then at the end of week three, we had to do a solo presentation. Just before the end of the time there, we had to give a final presentation, and explain how we would manage once we left. I tried to approach this in a coherent, logical manner, and in doing so both within rehab and subsequently within AA meetings, I maximised my chances of developing and maintaining long-term recovery.”

“The whole thing was pretty full on. You didn’t get time to stop, which was a good thing. By the end of week three I had the hang of things. I understood what I had was an illness and I realised medical professionals and will power do absolutely nothing. It’s all about discipline. We could also go out for a bit of chaperoned exercise, so I started getting a bit fitter. I had a good comprehension of the 12-step programme by this stage. When the first step change came, it was a huge boost. After that, each week I felt better than the last, and I was confident that the addiction treatment was improving my physical health.”

How did other people help you overcome your drinking problem?

“The drinking caused me to isolate my feelings, because I thought nobody understood and I was alone with these thoughts. Yet, within the first week of rehab I felt like part of the family – ten out of twelve in the group were absolutely brilliant. One of the great things is we all fed off each other. There was a support network there and there was a lot of good-natured banter. Those friendships have lasted to this day.

“By the end of the second week, I completed the first assignment and presented it. This really helped the bonding, because when you do it everyone responds. There is so much love and passion and friendship. I just welled up and cried for a while. I also built a great professional relationship with the Lead Therapist.”

Does rehab help functioning alcoholics take control?

“Rehab is what you make of it. You are given the understanding, tools, and the means to continue sobriety. It offers the guidelines to rebuild relationships with family members and combat health issues, but it cannot do the work for you. If you embrace them and put effort in, you are likely to succeed.”

How can you help a functioning alcoholic?

“Functional alcoholics have mental disorders. If someone’s brain is wired that they are prone to addiction then they are at risk. With this illness, medical professionals cannot do anything to help. The only thing that will stick is that it’s got to come within. It’s also important to recognise that there will always be a negative stereotype on alcoholism, because alcoholics are unpredictable, violent and untrustworthy. These might not reflect the individual’s personality, but they are ill, and these are side effects of that illness.

“One of the biggest breakthrough moments for me was when I stopped making excuses and recognised that I was the only person responsible for my actions. The behavioural addiction therapies incorporated into the treatment really helped me to change the way I was acting. If you have a loved one who is a functional alcoholic, the best way you can help them is to make them see the damage their alcohol use is causing. Once they realise that they are on the verge of losing their family or throwing away a successful career, it may be the impetus they need to seek help.”

Final thoughts

James’ experience is unfortunately all too common, and there are many functional alcoholics across the UK who often don’t realise the extent of their drinking until it’s too late. Addiction treatment can make all the difference in overcoming an addiction to alcohol, even for those people with a high functional tolerance who may not feel like they need it. With fantastic treatment facilities, effective recovery programmes, and ongoing support groups after you leave, you can get in contact today and like James, you can take the first important step on the road to recovery.

*James’ real name has been changed to provide anonymity.

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