The 17 signs you're a functioning alcoholic – and what to do if you’re worried

AN alcoholic isn’t always glaringly obvious, and your own habits may even fit the definition.

A “functioning alcoholic”, in a nutshell, is a person with dangerous drinking behaviour who is still able to carry out day-to-day tasks.

Not everyone who becomes dependent on alcohol shows obvious signs, such as losing their job or relationship.

Functioning alcohlics are highly likely to deny they have a problem with alcohol because they often compare how stable they are compared to a typical alcoholic, rehab clinic Delamere says.

The Cheshire-based centre is concerned that its research has shown one in four (22 per cent) Brits increased their alcohol intake over the last year.

Experts are most concerned about those who already had some problems with drinking before the Covid pandemic hit.

Addiction treatment professional, Martin Preston, said: “A functioning alcoholic is a person who suffers from alcoholism but is still able to hold down a job, play a role within a family and to most people, appear to be coping.

“A functioning alcoholic is not always easy to spot. Those that suffer from alcoholism are exceptionally good at hiding their condition. 

“With few apparent negative consequences, a functioning alcoholic is unlikely to want to change whilst they feel they still have time.

“Alcohol addiction is at the chronic end of the spectrum of alcohol use disorders for which there is no cure. 

“It can, however, be successfully treated and the sooner treatment is undertaken the better for the individual concerned and their loved ones.”

During this Alcohol Awareness Week (15-21 November), Mr Preston revealed the signs of a functioning alcoholic.

The signs 

These are the common signs seen in people who have functional alcoholic disorder: 

  1. Frequent intoxication and smelling of alcohol
  2. Loss of control around alcohol use
  3. Hiding alcohol in strange places such as their garage, at the office, in bushes or in their car
  4. Drinking between work times or appointments, or drinking just enough to keep their alcohol levels topped up if they are alcohol dependent
  5. Frequent binge drinking after daily responsibilities are taken care of
  6. Justifying their drinking as a way of unwinding after work, a busy day with the kids or as a reward
  7. Becoming irritable, anxious, restless and unable to sleep if they are unable to drink
  8. Regularly drinking in the morning before going about their day, or at odd times of the day such as lunchtime in order to avoid alcohol withdrawal symptoms
  9. Always drinking at social events and ‘preloading’ prior to attending a social event
  10. Avoiding social events or activities that do not involve alcohol
  11. Alcohol has become a problem at home, with them either drinking excessively alone at home or disappearing to a pub or bar straight after work for hours
  12. Becoming defensive or flippant when challenged over their drinking
  13. Denying they are an alcoholic, reasoning that they still hold down a job or take the kids to school on time
  14. Alternating alcohol and prescription pills in order that they can function
  15. They may become erratic, spontaneous, angry or change their character completely whilst intoxicated
  16. Difficulty in recalling events that took place whilst heavily intoxicated – experiencing an alcoholic blackout
  17. Risk taking, they may well drive to work or drive children to school whilst still over the limit from the previous night or from taking a morning drink

What to do if you’re worried

If you have many of the above symptoms, it’s possible you have a drinking problem.

Delamere says it is fairly easy to self-diagnose alcoholism if a person is honest about their drinking and asks themselves the following questions:

  1. When you drink are you able to stay in control of the amount of alcohol you consume and drink in moderation?
  2. If you want to stop or reduce your drinking are you able to, and able to maintain it?

Answering ‘NO’ to both of these questions indicates that a person is suffering from an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), over which they have no control.

If you're concerned about your drinking or someone else's, a good first step is to see a GP, the NHS says.

They'll be able to discuss the services and treatments available to you after assessing your drinking habits using screening tests. 

Treatment usually involves counselling and medicine that helps you to slowly cut down on drinking and avoid withdrawal symptoms.

There are also a number of charities, support groups, and private clinics to help.

What to do about a loved one

If you are concerned someone you love or care about is a functioning alcohol, the first thing to do is get them to admit they have a problem they need help with, Delamere says.

The clinic has the following tips for getting a functioning alcoholic to accept help if they have previously been defensive.

  • Set aside a time to talk to them when they have no plans and are not too intoxicated to understand what you have to say, such as a time before they start drinking heavily.
  • It is often quite helpful to speak to a functioning alcoholic about their alcoholism after they have just suffered a negative consequence related to their drinking because they may be remorseful
  • Regardless of their emotional response, try to remain calm and not argue with them. Instead, try an empathetic approach and one of showing concern and support.
  • Explain to them how their drinking is affecting you and other family members. Give clear examples of when their drinking has affected you and others or caused concern and how you feel about their drinking. 
  • Give them hope by explaining that alcoholism is treatable

Tell the person:

  • the signs and symptoms of a functioning alcoholic
  • that alcoholism is medically recognised as both a mental and physiological disease that is progressive in nature.
  • that a person does not necessarily need to lose everything in order to be diagnosed as an alcoholic
  • that many negative consequences – such as loss of relationships, jobs, criminal prosecution, mental and physical deterioration – often come as alcoholism progresses 
  • that they should not feel ashamed that they suffer from an illness
  • that the condition they suffer from is probably more common than they think and that there are others who suffer just like them.
  • that people suffering from an alcohol use disorder are rarely able to get better of their own accord.

If the conversation goes well, the functioning alcoholic admits they have a problem and they need help, it is important to act quickly and without hesitation. 

This is seen as “as a window of opportunity” in addiction, and rarely lasts for very long before denial sets back in again.

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