Living with a functioning alcoholic can be devastating for a loved one because they know that eventually, they will become a non-functioning alcoholic. The most used and abused drug in America is alcohol, and in spite of the common representations in the media of the town drunk or the neighbor from hell, there are many alcoholics for whom the symptoms of the illness are nearly invisible. High-functioning alcoholics can live in denial by pointing to their success.
Since functioning alcoholics don’t fit the stereotype because they go to work, fulfill their everyday obligations, and even manage a household, it seems reasonable to them to claim they don’t have an alcohol problem. Even friends and family often refuse to believe there’s a problem, pointing to and even being impressed with their ability to function under the influence. A high achieving, successful professional can tell himself that he’s not like the drunk who has lost everything: “I don’t drink from a bottle in a paper bag. I drink expensive wine.” However, you know that there is a thin line between the two.
Working with a Functioning Alcoholic
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that nearly 20 percent of all alcoholics are “functional.” One of the biggest problems in recognizing a functioning alcoholic is that by the time the signs are evident to all, they are no longer functioning. Even if you are the person living with a functioning alcoholic, you may not recognize all of the signs of how dangerous their drinking problem has become.
Many functioning alcoholics can refrain from drinking during the workday, but as five o’clock approaches, they’re already tasting that first drink. Be the one to interrupt their plan by asking them to stay late or to go somewhere that alcohol isn’t available, and you’ll see a different side to your previously cheerful co-worker.
If someone drinks heavily and regularly, it’s going to catch up with them eventually. Job loss, family breakdowns and hitting rock bottom will come even to a functioning alcoholic, and sadly, by the time it happens, it is a surprise to no one, and their secret life will be exposed.
What Signs do You Notice When Living with a Functioning Alcoholic?
You could count the number of drinks the individual has per day or week, but the drinker is likely quite adept at masking the number of drinks or refills in which he partakes.
There are, however, other warning signs:
- If they joke about being an alcoholic, pay attention. It’s not funny.
- Lost friendships or missed work are signs there’s a problem.
- A DUI arrest is a no-brainer, but if it’s a first-time offense, they will try to explain away their responsibility.
- Do they need alcohol to feel confident or to relax?
- Do they deny their drinking or get angry when confronted?
- Do they take part in risky behavior?
Can a Functioning Alcoholic Who Performs Well at Work Cost Their Company Money?
There are attendance and performance issues that supervisors should be alert to. They include:
- Extended lunches
- Regular Monday absences or tardiness
- Unexplained absences
- More than average sick days
- Missed deadlines
- Poor decision-making
- Careless work
- Faulty analysis
Estimates of the cost of alcoholism in the workplace range from $33 billion to $68 billion per year. Compared to their sober co-workers, absenteeism among alcoholics is calculated to be as much as eight times higher. Also, high-functioning alcoholics present very real liability issues, from dangers to themselves or others in the workplace to accidents involving non-employees.
Conventional Thinking of a Functioning Alcoholic
- When challenged about their drinking, a functioning alcoholic will often blame a failed marriage as the reason for their drinking instead of being able to see that their drinking is the reason for their failed marriage.
- “They keep giving me more responsibility at work. They wouldn’t do that if I were an alcoholic.“
- Often, a functioning alcoholic will use alcohol as a reward, sometimes just for staying sober during the work day.
Family, friends, and co-workers in denial only make the problem worse. Often, friends will make excuses for the behavior they observe, spinning it, so it doesn’t sound like a real issue:
- He still drinks like he did in college, but he goes to work every day.
- She can drink more than anyone I know, but she never seems drunk.
- He’s a happy drunk.
- She doesn’t drink at work, and it’s not my business what she does on her own time.
What are the Benefits of Inpatient Treatment?
From an employer’s perspective, a valued employee would take advantage of an employer-sponsored alcohol addiction treatment program designed to meet the individual’s need. For those dealing with withdrawal, an inpatient detoxification program would be of greatest benefit.
Functioning alcoholics are actually living double lives. They live the high-functioning life of a successful worker and provider, and they live the secret life of an alcoholic. Living with a functioning alcoholic can turn you into an enabler and eventually a caretaker if they don’t get help for their alcohol addiction before they become non-functioning.