Dating a Functional Alcoholic: Pros, Cons & Precautions

by John Santana

TRIGGER WARNING: This article or section, or pages it links to, contains information about alcohol addiction which may be upsetting to some people. If you are suffering from alcohol addiction, please consider visiting them at Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) or calling them at 1-800-487-4889

Alcohol abuse is a difficult subject to approach. The signs can be hard to notice at first and there is often a lot of misleading stigmas attached to alcoholism that makes it even harder to peg someone down as an alcoholic. It can be hard to identify someone with an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) especially if they seem to have their act together.

Society often brands someone an addict if they have trouble holding a job, looking after themselves or are prone to bursts of rage. These are, unfortunately, only the harshest of cases that make it a lot harder to notice if someone has a chemical dependency or not.

AUD can manifest in anyone who abuses alcoholic substances, even people who seem hard working, well educated and happen to hold stable relationships. A functioning alcoholic might be able to hide their alcohol addiction for years without making any mistakes. However, there are many negative consequences for sustained alcohol abuse that manifest as severe damage to their emotional well being and to the well being of their loved ones.

If you or anyone you care about shows symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder, then its of the utmost importance that you address these problems immediately. Addiction treatment advice can only ever come from practicing doctors, but if you suspect someone of being an alcohol abuser, then informing yourself about the signs and unlearning stereotypes is an important first step.

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What is an Alcoholic?

Before we look at what makes one a high-functioning alcoholic, we have to understand what an alcohol addiction is outside of general stereotypes.

How do you measure it?

There is no solid statistic that classifies someone for alcohol abuse. Some studies claim having more than three drinks in a night is a sign of alcoholism, while others claim 15 drinks a week is too much.

The problem with these measures is that you cannot measure alcohol consumption by as broad a unit as “drinks.” Is one drink equal to a beer? Or is one drink a shot of moonshine? How does alcohol content measure into something like this?

One’s limit of alcoholic beverages depends on their size, weight and other factors, some genetic in nature, that contribute to their tolerance. Age also plays a role in how much alcohol you can drink. As soon as you turn 50, your body begins to struggle to metabolizing alcohol.

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It’s About the Symptoms

Alcohol abuse can only be identified by the physical signs that they show. It all starts with building a tolerance to alcoholic beverage. When someone starts out one or two drinks would be enough to make them light headed. Eventually it takes more to get them drunk, and eventually they become numb to the whole experience.

A drinking problem first rears its head when you turn to binge drinking just to feel normal. They no longer drink alcohol for the buzz, but rather to escape withdrawal symptoms. It’s similar to drug abuse, in that the individual feels like they have no other option besides substance abuse.

What are the Symptoms of Alcoholism?

Withdrawal symptoms include restlessness whenever they don’t stick to their drinking habits. They might feel upset or even angry when they don’t consume alcohol within a certain time frame.

Cravings is another symptom that surfaces with a drinking problem. These signs are some of the most obvious to spot. They might openly admit to having cravings, or they frequent the fridge or liquor cabinet throughout the day, only to turn away when you notice them. They might push you to out drinking with them or just drink alcohol at any occasion they get.

What Causes Alcohol Addiction?

The addiction starts when alcohol consumption reaches such a level that it changes the chemical composition of the brain. The pleasure someone with Alcohol Use Disorder derives from drinking is enhanced to such a point that they would want to keep drinking regardless of the consequences.

It’s this slow change and the elevated feelings of an Alcohol addiction that leads to withdrawal symptoms, and the desire to drink alcohol to keep these symptoms at bay. An addiction takes time to form, and is often shared by family members.

What Makes a High-Functioning Alcoholic Different?

The criteria used to diagnose someone with Alcohol Use Disorder is: “an inability to control drinking even after it has caused issues at their job or in their personal life,” according to the American Addiction Centers website. This criteria does not apply to someone who is classified as a “high-functioning alcoholic.” As mentioned earlier, “alcoholic” carries certain negative connotations with it as a disease that usually drives people to bankruptcy.

High-functioning alcoholics are better described under the umbrella term AUD, since they are still afflicted by a chronic medical disorder that afflicts the brain in such a way that makes it difficult to control drinking.

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Warning Signs

It is very difficult to spot a functional alcoholic and many of the descriptions can also match a casual drinker. The negative consequences are still there regardless if your loved ones are high-functioning addicts or not.

Skipping Meals for More Drinks

In certain businesses it is possible for their employees to go out for a drink or two during their lunch break. This only incentivizes a functioning alcoholic to drink rather than eating lunch. Skipping meals in favour of a drink is another symptom of a high functioning alcoholic.

Drinking Alone

Girl sitting alone- Drinking

It is no problem for a high functioning alcoholic to drink alone and in their free time. In the best cases you’ll see a functional alcoholic alone in a bar, talking to whoever will listen. In the far worse cases, they might be avoiding social interaction all together in favour of polishing a bottle of wine at home alone.

Hangovers are Rare or Non-existent

When someone maintains a stable blood alcohol level, the chance of them getting hung over is rare. High-functioning alcoholics usually have enough alcohol in their blood to suppress the symptoms of a hangover. It’s the same logic behind the old adage, “hair of the dog that bit you.”

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Frustration After a Day Without Drinks

A high-functioning alcoholic can become moody, irritable, uncomfortable or nervous if they broke their drinking cycle. When their body is used to the regular influx of alcoholic beverages, then they begin to affect their psychological functions. Even the idea of being deprived of a drink can trigger the negative effects of their alcohol addiction.

Over Excessive Drinking

A functioning alcoholic’s aim is to get another drink as soon as possible. High-functioning alcoholics fall into the habit of going one drink further than the rest of the group In worst-case scenarios, the alcoholic will pretend that the drink that they have in their hand is the last.

Lying About How Much They’ve Had

High-functioning alcoholics might have started drinking before an event has started, or they might keep drinking long after it is done. No relationship should be built on lies, and mixing lying functioning alcoholics and relationships is a dangerous concoction.

Memory Loss/Black Outs

Since alcohol addiction effects the chemical processes of the brain, high-functional alcoholics tend to experience memory loss due to the amount of drinks they had. A functioning alcoholic tends to black out, where they loose control and usually come out of it having no recollection of what they did while they were blacked out.

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High-functioning alcoholics often refuse to admit or even acknowledge the chance that they might have a drinking problem at all. A high functioning alcoholic will claim they don’t have a problem since they might not have faced any severe consequences besides showing up late to work.

Functioning alcoholics might claim to have a normal life compared to much more severe cases of alcohol addiction. To them, this distinction is a coping mechanism, so they might tend to get angry or violent if the issue is pressed too hard.

A High-Functioning Alcoholic Finds Excuses to Drink

Drug Addict

There will always be a reason for drinking excessively when you have high functioning alcoholism. It might be as innocent as celebrating an achievement or wanting to get your mind off of a bad day at work. But it can be as problematic as using it as a coping mechanism to avoid the pain of stress and anxiety or even out of sheer boredom.

They Hide Their Alcohol

We said earlier that high-functioning alcoholics don’t see a problem with drinking on their own. This could lead to bad habits such as hiding alcohol in their cars or at work so that they can get a drink at any time. This feeds into the point that high-functioning alcoholics don’t want people to know exactly how much they already had to drink.

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High-Functioning Alcoholics and Relationships

Brothers Hugging

Alcohol addiction is a family disease since it not only effects the process of the brain, but it also affects those who are close to the addict. This ranges from the dependent’s family and children, but also their friends and partners. Children of alcoholics have it worst, since they often develop traits and characteristics that stem from the side effects of addiction such as low self-esteem, abusive relationships and addiction.

People who maintain a relationship with a person suffering from addiction often develop a codependency with their partner. They tend to crave the AUD person’s approval in order to feel validated. This makes it easier for functional alcoholics to trick their partner into sustaining their addiction.

This desire for affection can hold out through horrible instances of psychological and physical abuse out of a fear of losing someone important to them. Guilt is one reason for this, as a person might blame themselves when their partner suffer from high functioning alcoholism. Not standing up for yourself around a AUD partner will only perpetuate the cycle of alcohol addiction.

How to Identify Codependent Behavior

The unfortunate truth is that codependency stems from a place of love. When your partner is suffering from withdrawal you will likely want to help them any way they can. This often leads to enabling the addiction, without you even realising that you’re doing it. Your emotions will often get in the way when you are trying to help someone cope with their addiction.

Often times its put of fear for the AUD person’s life that a codependent partner unwittingly helps the addiction. A codependent might be making excuses on behalf of the addict, lending them money, performing their daily duties for them like shopping. In extreme cases, the codependent might try to justify the addict’s bad behavior.

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How to Help Your Partner

Dating a widower

Part of an AUD person’s recovery comes in the form of behavioral therapy, whereby the addict needs to own up to their own mistakes and actions. This exceeds the direct behaviors, such as feeding their addiction, and includes handling the effects their addiction has on other parts of their life. An addict has to face the consequences of their actions, and they have to do so on their own. This doesn’t mean you should abandon them, but you need to limit yourself to constructive support, in stead of trying to fix their problems for them.

Often the people closest to the AUD person have it the hardest. If you have a loved one who has an alcohol problem then it is up to you to consult a doctor for any help you can get them. There are plenty of support groups and therapists that are willing to help someone with these sorts of problems. There is never a reason to give up hope.

Alcohol addiction treatment is offered in a variety of settings, depending on the needs of the afflicted. If you need to keep a close eye on your partner then inpatient or residential alcohol rehab is an option where the person stays in a facility for the entire duration of their treatment.

The best solution for high-functioning alcoholics is often Outpatient care, where they can maintain their work-a-day lives and be treated at home. This is the best option for people who are afraid of treatment facilities and the gossip that would stem from the person’s absence.

Peer support or self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous is a 12-step fellowship that has meetings around the world to help people stop drinking. The program is heavily based in religion, which may be problematic to some people.

SMART Recovery is a peer support group that works better for people who need evidence-based principles to keep them in check.

Women for Sobriety is a safe space for women which encourages them to address emotional issues associated with alcohol abuse. This group is a lot more open to people who suffer from alcohol-related relationship abuse.

American Addiction Centers offers a range of treatment facilities across the country. The center not only helps with detoxing a patient and offering Outpatient care, but it also offers therapy for cases that are based on depression.

Holding an Intervention

The best way to deal with a person who is in denial about the effects of their addiction on themselves and their loved ones is to hold an intervention. To the uninitiated, an intervention is supposed to encourage an addict to seek treatment for their problems. It also points out to them the negative consequences their addiction has had in the past. It is a very emotional and sensitive process that needs to be handled with the utmost care.

An intervention should follow specific steps to ease the risks that come with the process. This is why it is important to seek out a professional interventionist for help in preparing one. These professionals decide on the best way to deliver the intervention, and they offer guidance throughout the process. Always consult a professional from a local treatment center or a doctor before you attempt the intervention.

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Seeking Support From Others

Happy Couple

Dealing with a high-functioning alcoholic is just as stressful on the people trying to help the AUD person. Even after researching the subject intensively, you should seek guidance from self-help organizations or church groups.

Alcoholism affects everyone in a household or a relationship. Even in cases of high-functioning alcoholism, the chances of experiencing physical and emotional violence is increased than in a sober relationship. It even increases the chances of initiating other forms of substance abuse. Always seek help from a therapist, not just for the afflicted member, but for those closest to them as well.

Know When to Step Away

This is often the hardest part of the process. It is incredibly painful to watch someone throw their lives away like this and its even worse when you realise there is very little you can do about it. Walking away from this isn’t an admission of defeat, but a recognition that this is not your battle to fight. If your loved one refuses to accept the help they need or seek treatment, then for your own well being, you should walk away.

Before you leave them, you should still try to help them with intervention. Get in touch with a local rehabilitation center. It can seem hopeless at times, but there might still be a light at the end of the tunnel. With their help, you can develop a support group from friends and family members who can help you and your loved one beat this addiction.

Final Thoughts

Most high functioning alcoholics deny having a problem in the first place. Noticing up front and handling it in a safe manner is incredibly important. Be sure to take care of not only the physical abuse but also the mental health problems associated with this problem. But most importantly: Remember to take care of yourself as well, and know when it is time to let go.

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John Santana

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