Alcohol: the most socially accepted addictive substance in the United States. Drinking and sometimes drinking to excess is seen as a social norm, almost to the point of being an expectation. Alcohol consumption is part of everyday American culture. Mourning, celebrations, relaxing, and even dinner gatherings seem to circulate around drinking. Alcohol is in our movies, television shows, and music, too. The normalization of alcohol abuse in all aspects of our lives makes it easy to miss signs of alcoholism, especially when they aren’t blatantly obvious. This gray area allows people- often labeled functioning alcoholics- to slip between the cracks, harboring addiction just beneath the surface.
What is a Functioning Alcoholic?
Scientifically, alcoholism is a long-term chemical change within the brain caused by alcohol consumption. In layman’s terms, alcoholism is an addiction to alcohol, typically resulting in excessive drinking. Because alcohol affects men and women differently, the guidelines for sensible drinking differ. The typically accepted limit is:
- Men: Two drinks per day or 14/week
- Women: One drink per day or 7/week
Functional alcoholism is a form of alcohol abuse which is not readily recognizable. Whereas alcohol abuse disorders are often characterized by clear dysfunction and instability, functioning alcoholics are better able to conceal their addiction symptoms. People living with alcoholism who fall into this category are often viewed as not having a problem or still being in control; they maintain employment and continue tending to other responsibilities, so we often overlook the warning signs.
We shouldn’t. Functioning alcoholism is just as dangerous as any other type of alcohol abuse disorder. It may even be worse since without being properly addressed, alcohol abuse can have life threatening consequences.
10 Signs of Functional Alcoholism You Shouldn’t Overlook
1: Getting an Early Start
People who are functioning alcoholics may not drink all day everyday, but beginning the day with alcohol may be a warning sign of deeper lying issues. Weekend mimosas first thing in the morning or spiking your coffee to make it through the workday could signify physical or mental dependence, especially when habitual.
2: Working Hungover
Going into work hungover is often viewed as a sign of a good time the night before. But regularly toughing it through the day while nursing a migraine, fighting back nausea, or struggling with vertigo should be a wake up call. Alcohol abuse can also lead to missing work days, excessive sick days, and other employment issues.
3: Secretive Drinking
Having to drink in secret to avoid judgement or raising concerns is a red flag. If you have to downplay your drinking habits in order to not arouse suspicion, it’s time to re-evaluate your relationship with alcohol.
This common tradition among the partying crowd is a harmful habit which could indicate alcohol abuse. While many view it as a means of avoiding inflated bar prices or ensuring a good time, pre-drinking before going out to drink could be an indicator of an elevated tolerance brought on by excessive alcohol use.
5:Exceeding Set Limits
Going out with a specific boundary set only to exceed your self-imposed limit may be a sign of impulse control issues. The inability to stop drinking or follow a reasonable pace is significant in terms of identifying warning signs of functional alcoholism.
6: “Blackouts” and Memory Issues
Getting drunk to the point of blacking out is dangerous for everyone involved. It leaves one vulnerable to malicious intent and raises the risk of life-threatening situations. Missing hours or days’ worth of memories due to alcohol abuse is a sign it may be time to seek help.
7: Drinking Instead of Eating
Making choices to purchase alcohol over food or lacking an appetite in favor of drinking is not only damaging to one’s health, it could implicative of functional alcoholism. Pay attention.
8: Defensiveness of Drinking Habits
“I’m just a social drinker!”
“Come on, I don’t drink that much!”
“I’m an adult, I can drink however much I want! I’m not hurting anybody!”
Often, the people closest to us notice changes within us long before we do. Deflection and defensiveness when they express concern for one’s alcohol consumption can be telling of the true depth of alcohol abuse.
9: Joking About Alcoholism
They say behind every joke is a bit of truth, which may ring true for jokes about alcoholism or being an alcoholic. Joking about excessive drinking may be an attempt to receive validation or convince yourself or others that the problem isn’t as bad as it seems.
10: Binge Drinking
Of all the invisible symptoms of functional alcoholism, binge drinking is perhaps the most ambiguous. While binge drinking alone is not necessarily a sign of alcoholism, a pattern of doing so may be. Binge drinking is defined by the CDC as “a pattern of drinking which brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above.” This typically translates to five drinks or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women, but may vary.
While no single item on this list is absolutely demonstrative of functional alcoholism, patterns of addictive behaviors should not be overlooked. Alcoholism in any form is too often ignored unless it has harmful or tragic consequences. By opening the conversation about alcohol use disorders and recognizing potential trouble in our own habits, we can help to reduce the harm of alcohol on our families and communities.