“I am a functional alcoholic” is an overused adage by many people who suffer from alcohol abuse. I don’t think any other phrase has done more to avoid recovering from a real problem in their lives. It can perpetuate the outward illusion and self-delusion that everything is fine.
Most people with substance use disorder are functioning, some at high levels, and when we talk about “functioning,” most often we mean someone can hold a job. Many people with addiction problems have very good jobs and they perform well. They may even have a life that from the outside looks full and extravagant with excesses of money, houses, boats, cars or even jets and fancy vacations.
You can be an alcoholic AND have a job.
What’s in question is not the person’s ability to get through life appearing successful, but rather whether or not they’re happy with the way things are going. Life is more than a to-do list or a job. Fulfillment in life comes from a healthy mix of work and personal life.
When I talk to someone using the guise of being “a functional alcoholic,” often the professional aspects of their life are seemingly going ok, but other parts may be suffering. Let’s look at the ways ‘functional alcoholism” may not be so functional after all:
While the person with alcoholism thinks their career is going well, it may not be going as well as they think. Many people settle into easier jobs than they should be able to handle at their age and experience level. It’s important to ask if they’ve been passed up for promotions or settled into a situation where they under-earn. Have less qualified people surpassed them? In the case of business owners, have they missed good opportunities or made poor choices?
In many instances, if the person works for a company, human resources is onto them. Repeatedly calling in “sick” has raised a red flag and they’re on the radar. HR likely knows that there is a problem, but they don’t have the ability to take action.
The myth of the functional alcoholic
When someone describes themselves as functional, often they’ve convinced themselves that their professional life is healthy when in reality, they’re holding onto power and control with an iron fist. We’ve all worked for the angry or short tempered boss. Some people use at work, often prescription medications, under the cover that if its prescribed by a doctor, its ok. If they don’t use at work, it might be immediately after work. Holding on tight during the day and just waiting for quitting time to relax. Some will start cutting out early, unable to make it through the full workday before leaving to drink or use.
The bottom line is that while an alcoholic is technically showing up to work, they’re rarely functioning at their full potential. Work has become the greatest cover for their addiction, “proof” that they don’t have a problem.
While someone might be holding their professional life together, their family life can leave much to be desired. Even in cases where people with alcoholism make money to provide for their family, put their children through the best schools, and go on fancy vacations, we see an underlying unhappiness in the family.
This type of person displays symptoms of being a “work-a-holic.” They focus all of their time and energy on working, unable to juggle a career and a fulfilling family life.
At home, tension arises between the person with substance abuse and their spouse or children. Frequent arguments leave family members worn out, in isolation, and giving one another the silent treatment. The alcoholic and their spouse begin to grow apart and can result in the spouse creating a fully individual social network outside of their relationship.
Children who grow up with parents that try to pass as “functional alcoholics” experience significant stress from their relationship. Many give up on the parent, move far away, and don’t expect they’ll ever have a meaningful relationship with them.
Social Life & Leisure life
As addiction progresses, the person suffering becomes isolated. Friendships shatter or slowly dissolve over time. Addiction makes activities that were once enjoyable seem unappealing. All the enjoyable parts of life get pushed aside to make room for drinking and using.
Disappearances are common. People with substance abuse disorder often miss important events, or are withdrawn when they do show up. They cancel plans due to crashing or hangovers, unable to engage in the work of maintaining a friendship. Over time, the person’s social life dwindles, invitations stop coming in, and they exist in a silo with themselves and their addiction.
I know this all too well from personal experience. I grew up very active and enjoyed all kinds of outdoor activities. As my addiction raged on, I slowly pushed these activities out of my life. Active weekends of running, skiing or boating became weekends of boozy brunches. I was unable to wake up early. As I looked at people running at 7AM, I wondered how they were able to do it, even though I used to be one of them.
Using money to mask the problem
Wealthy people are able to keep up the facade of being a “functional alcoholic” for many more years than someone who doesn’t have equal means. They point to what they are providing to prove that they don’t have a problem, or money can be used to soften the blow of any problem that arises.
There’s an old adage, “money can’t buy happiness” and it certainly applies here. With enough money, a person can ensure they never hit a rock bottom hallmarked by job loss or financial problems. Money may drag an addiction on for years longer than it should.
When I considered myself a functional alcoholic, I was actually functioning at a pretty low level. I woke up, went to the gym, went to work, and went home and drank. I accomplished 3 things every day for 3 years, and I did it unhappily. I disliked my work and stuck around in a toxic codependent relationship. I “functioned,” but I was miserable.
If you consider yourself a functional alcoholic, are you really functioning at your highest level? Or have you lowered the bar of what’s acceptable to cater to your addiction?
About Adam Banks
Adam Banks is a certified interventionist and the owner of Adam Banks Recovery. After receiving an MBA from the University of Chicago, Adam built a company that was later acquired by United Health Care. His discipline and attention to detail comes from his former career as an airline pilot, holding an ATP, the FAA’s highest license.
Today, Adam is dedicated to helping others achieve long-term sobriety. His work has guided executives, pilots, and physicians on paths to recovery. Adam brings families together through a loving and inclusive approach.
Adam has authored four books on addiction. His recent work, Navigating Recovery Ground School: 12 Lessons to Help Families Navigate Recovery, educates families on the entire intervention process. He also offers a free video course for families considering an intervention for a loved one.
Adam is available for alcohol and drug intervention services in New York, Long Island, the Hamptons as well as nationally and internationally.