Signs your loved one is a functioning alcoholic

Signs your loved one is a functioning alcoholic

We all know that alcoholism is a huge problem around the world. According to Our World in Data, there’s an estimated 107 million people globally suffering from an alcohol use disorder (AUD), 3.42% of the population of the UK and 1.73% of the population here in Spain. In the US alone 14.5 million people were identified to have AUD in 2019 and very sadly 95,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually.[1]

However, what these figures don’t show you are the numbers of “functioning alcoholics”, as these tend to be hidden from sight. These people are living a seemingly normal life, able to carry out all the daily tasks that they need, yet dependent on alcohol. Here at The Bridge, we know that these people need help too, yet often struggle to get it, as they don’t feel they need rehab.

Many of these so-called functioning alcoholics, aren’t really functioning well at all and are at risk of slipping into a full-blown alcohol use disorder. They could benefit from outpatient addiction treatment, therapy or online rehab, which can fit around their lives, yet get to the root of the problem.

However, as these people defy the concept of “alcoholics” and usually deny they have a problem, it is very difficult for their friends and family to get them the help that they need before things escalate.

According to “Understanding the high-functioning alcoholic”, one study estimates that 20% of people who would tick all the boxes to be diagnosed with an AUD appear to be successful people, and another study estimated that 50-75% of people who are alcoholics are able to function at a high level in many areas of their lives. This makes it so hard for families living with these people, or looking on from afar, as the warning bells aren’t ringing and it’s very difficult to convince your loved one that they have a problem.

Yet it’s vital to get a diagnosis and addiction treatment as soon as possible, before it gets worse and causes long term harm, either physically or mentally. That’s why we’re writing this article! We’re outlining the symptoms and signs to look out for and the approaches that have been effective in addressing these sensitive issues over the many years we’ve been working with alcoholics.

What are the warning signs that your loved one has a problem with alcohol?

Even if the outside world thinks everything is perfectly fine and your loved one is convinced that their drinking isn’t an issue, it’s normally the families that first start to suspect something isn’t right. However, it can be difficult to pin down exactly what is wrong, so that you can be sure there is an issue.

Here’s a checklist of common signs of a functioning alcoholic. If you identify three or more of these things and they are happening on a regular basis, then you have cause for concern.

  • They often drink alone and at odd times of the day
  • They can’t socialise without “having a drink”
  • They store alcohol in strange places
  • They hide alcohol, or evidence of their drinking
  • They drink heavily and excessively on a regular basis and often don’t remember what happened
  • They justify their drinking and make jokes about being a heavy drinker
  • They struggle if they are unable to drink for some time and can’t stop if you ask them to

If all or some of these statements resonate with you and you live with this on a regular basis it is likely that your loved one is a functioning alcoholic and should seek help. However, speaking to them about it and actually getting them to accept your point of view is usually easier said than done. That’s why we’ve made a list of ways to deal with these difficult conversations and help them admit that there’s a problem.

Effective ways of communicating with a functioning alcoholic about their relationship with alcohol

  • Have a conversation when you are calm and they are sober – This is not something to discuss in the heat of the moment, or when you’ve both been drinking. It needs to be at a time when you are both able to speak honestly and openly, in a safe space.
  • Shift the focus from their behaviour to how they are affecting others – To avoid the person getting defensive and aggressive, it’s easier to explain the impact that their drinking is having on you, on their parents, or children and how you are feeling as a result. This is difficult to argue against and may touch them, as they love you and don’t want to hurt you.
  • Be kind and understanding – We know that living with a functioning alcoholic is hard for you, but it is also very difficult for them and there is a very good chance that they are feeling shame about their addiction and that although they try to stop, they aren’t able. Showing that you understand how difficult it is and that you empathise with the problem and want to help will increase the likelihood of success.
  • Show what you have learned – You’re likely to have done a lot of research about this and they need to know that you have that knowledge behind you. Show them this article, or invite them to read our blog entitled “How do I know if I am addicted to alcohol”. Showing that it isn’t just you saying this is an issue and that you have the backing of experts will make it more likely that they will take you seriously. 

We wish you lots of luck ahead of this difficult conversation. Remember that if tempers rise, walk away and consider seeking support yourself from families of addicts in groups such as Al-Anon. It’s OK for you to seek help too!

We’re here for families dealing with addiction

At The Bridge we know how hard it is for families of addicts and work hard to help them to navigate the issues they face due to that addiction. We also offer family therapy to help them to recover from the effects of the addiction in their lives and to improve communication between our patients and their families. Families are at the front line in the battle against addiction and at The Bridge they are not forgotten. Please contact us for any help or support you need, or to get our help to bring your loved one out of addiction.