Chances are, if your loved one is a functioning alcoholic, they may be in denial that they have a problem. This is due to the fact that many functioning alcoholics don’t display the stereotypical behaviors that we often associate with alcoholism, such as:
- Missing work, school, or family time due to alcohol or its after effects
- Experiencing financial problems due to drinking
- Having multiple DUIs or arrests because of drinking
In fact, your loved one can be a functioning alcoholic and still be a high performer at work or school, spend quality time with family, pay their bills on time, and have never experienced legal consequences due to drinking. Here’s the thing though—eventually, anyone who drinks heavily is going to suffer consequences, especially long-term health consequences. Consequently, if you suspect that a friend or family member is a functioning alcoholic, you’re right to be concerned. Because your loved one may not think that they have a problem, there are steps you can take to help your loved one come to terms with their drinking and get the treatment he or she needs.
Alcoholism is a Disease
First of all, the best way you can help your loved who is a functioning alcoholic is recognizing that alcoholism is a disease. In fact, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism describes alcoholism, or what is medically referred to as Alcohol Use Disorder, as a relapsing, chronic brain disease where the suffering individuals lacks the ability to stop or control alcohol consumption.
By identifying alcoholism as a chronic, relapsing brain disease, medical professionals and addiction specialists can relate alcoholism to other chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis. Individuals afflicted with these diseases can have periods of time with and without symptoms of their disease, but can also control symptoms with treatment. For people suffering from alcoholism, this means that they may go through multiple cycles of treatment, abstinence, and relapse throughout their life, and that symptoms of their disease can be controlled with proper treatment.
If you’re able to treat your loved one’s alcoholism like a chronic disease, it may help you release the notions that he or she is capable of stopping drinking without treatment or that a future relapse means treatment didn’t work or that they are a failure. When you approach your loved one’s drinking with this perspective in mind, it can help you release blame and remain calm and supportive while talking to your friend or family member about their alcohol consumption.
Get the Facts
Next, get the facts. If you’re planning to bring up your loved one’s drinking, having information is crucial. This is due to the fact that, unlike most other drugs, alcohol use is a socially accepted behavior and moderate use may not put a person at risk for developing alcoholism. That means that individuals can drink alcohol, even on a daily basis, and not meet the criteria for being an alcoholic. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism breaks down drinking into two categories: moderate alcohol use and heavy alcohol use.
Moderate Alcohol Use
Moderate alcohol use is defined as up to two drinks per day for men and one drink for women. Since what is considered a “drink” varies based on alcohol content, the Dietary Guidelines include a table that breaks down drink equivalents by beverage. Individuals who drink moderately are at low risk of developing an alcohol use disorder, which is what we commonly call alcoholism.
Heavy Alcohol Use
Heavy alcohol use refers to consuming eight or more drinks each week for women and fifteen or more drinks per week for men. Individuals who binge drink five or more times per month are also considered heavy alcohol users. Binge drinking is defined for women as having four or more drinks on a single occasion, typically within a couple hours. For men, binge drinking refers to having five or more drinks in this same timeframe.
If your loved one is a heavy alcohol user, they may already be an alcoholic. If not, they are at a high risk of developing an AUD.
Signs of a Functioning Alcoholic
As mentioned previously, many functioning alcoholics will deny they have a problem. After all, from the outside, they may look successful and productive. However, there are warning signs you can look for that can indicate your friend or family member is a functioning alcoholic:
- They regularly “blackout” or forget what they did while drinking
- You or other loved ones try to hide or make excuses for their drinking
- They justify their drinking with excuses such as stress or using it as a reward
- They need alcohol to relax, be social, or feel confident
- They joke around about having a problem with alcohol
- They drink in the morning or during the day
- They drive, take care of children, or engage in risky behavior while drinking
- They always drink more than they say they’re going to
- They get defensive when confronted about their drinking
- They hide empty bottles or are dishonest about how much they drink
Health Risks of Alcoholism
Because your loved one may not currently be experiencing the dark side of alcohol abuse, it’s important for them to recognize that the long-term consequences of alcoholism don’t just include strained relationships, lost jobs, money problems, and legal issues. Even if all those areas of life stay in tact, heavy drinking takes a major toll on the body. Health issues that can occur with heavy drinking over the long term include:
- Brain damage
- Certain cancers
- Cardiovascular disease
- High blood pressure
- Fetal alcohol syndrome
- Liver disease
- Memory loss
- Nerve damage
- Sexual dysfunction
Know the Treatment Options
Once you know the facts, start researching treatment options. As mentioned previously, alcoholism and its symptoms can be successfully managed with effective treatment. It’s important to note, however, that the most effective treatment for alcoholism will vary for each individual. Since every person suffering from alcoholism has unique circumstances, it’s crucial to discuss your loved one’s situation with a trusted healthcare provider, addiction specialist, or mental health professional in order to determine what may be the best course of treatment.
We should also mention that, even though your loved one may be a functioning alcoholic, in all likelihood, many components of treatment with be the same as for someone who is not a functioning alcoholic. In the course of your research, you’ll most likely hear or read about:
For many alcoholics, the first step towards recovery is what is referred to as detoxification or “detox.” During the detox process, the individual either stops alcohol consumption abruptly or tapers off consumption over a period of time, eventually allowing the body to rid itself of all alcohol in the system. Deciding whether to go “cold turkey” should be decided by a medical professional, as some individuals can suffer life-threatening reactions when alcohol consumption is suddenly stopped.
During detox is when most people experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Since some alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider before your loved one stops drinking. Individuals struggling with long-term or heavy alcohol abuse may be safest detoxing in a hospital, detox facility, or inpatient treatment center where they can be monitored by medical professionals.
Inpatient or Outpatient Treatment
After detox, most individuals will continue treatment in an inpatient or outpatient treatment center. Inpatient treatment facilities allow individuals to reside at the center while recovering, while outpatient facilities allow individuals to live at home. The type of treatment that is best for your loved one will depend on several factors including the severity of their alcoholism, insurance coverage or financial resources to pay for treatment, and ability to be away from family, school, or work for an extended period of time. Regardless of being inpatient or outpatient, reputable treatment centers should offer:
- Individual Therapy
- Family Therapy
- Group Therapy
- Medical Oversight
- 12-Step and/or Non-12-Step Programs
- Case Management
- Aftercare Planning
Some treatment programs may also offer holistic and educational modalities, such as:
- Nutritional Counseling
- Psycho-Education Groups
- Holistic Therapies
- Community Involvement
- Spiritual Counseling
- Career and Educational Goal Setting
For most people, staying sober is a lifelong process. Consequently, many alcoholics find that they need to remain engaged in some kind of long-term maintenance program, or what is called aftercare, in order to maintain sobriety. Having consistent accountability and support can make all the difference when it comes to abstaining from alcohol long-term.
Aftercare programs take many forms. Some treatment centers have even designed their own aftercare programs, which give their former patients access to amenities such as:
- Sober Mentoring
- Sober Housing
- Educational Programs
- Alumni Activities
Many alcoholics also choose to participate in 12-Step or Non-12-Step Programs for continued support after they leave treatment. Some even stay with these programs for life. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is the most well-known 12-Step program for those recovering from alcoholism. There are also several Non-12-Step programs for alcoholics, such as:
- SMART Recovery
- Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS)
- Women in Sobriety
Get Your Loved One Help
Once you know the facts and have a plan for treatment, it’s time to get your loved one help. Sometimes a simple, heart-to-heart conversation with your friend or family member is all that’s needed to start the recovery process. However, because so many functioning alcoholics struggle to see their addiction for what it is, often they will refuse to seek treatment. If you find this is the case for your family member, you may need to stage an intervention.
A intervention is a formal, pre-planned, in-person meeting between an individual struggling with alcoholism and their loved ones, where the primary goal is to convince the individual to seek professional help for their addiction. As mentioned previously, many functioning alcoholics are in denial about the severity of their alcohol use and may not be aware of the negative effects their behavior is having on friends, family, or their own bodies. Consequently, the purpose of the intervention is to inform your loved one how their drinking is negatively affecting their own life and the lives of those around them and to offer a structured opportunity to get help. If you’re unsure of how to stage an intervention, we recommend enlisting the services of a
Speak to Someone who Knows
Nexus is an outpatient facility in Los Angeles that treats functioning alcoholics with customized treatment plans, medical supervision, and a top-notch treatment team. We also have a deep focus on community and rebuilding family ties. Our goal is to help anyone struggling with alcoholism to learn to live a fulfilling and meaningful life without drinking.
If you’re concerned that a friend of family member is a functioning alcoholic, Nexus is here to help. Contact us today and speak with one of our trusted recovery advisors. We’ll help your loved one take their first steps on the road to recovery.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, we are here to help. Give us a call at 888.855.6877 or send us a message below and one of our admissions counselors will do their best to get you the help you need.