A functioning alcoholic is a person who does not match the classic image that usually comes to mind when thinking of alcoholism. Learning how to identify this person in your family can clarify when it is time to get help for alcohol abuse. Flexible treatment programs like partial hospitalization may be the most appropriate and effective way to get your loved one on their path to sobriety.
Understanding the Phrase ‘Functioning Alcoholic’
You might think of an ‘alcoholic’ as someone who has poor hygiene and coordination because they are always intoxicated. Maybe you imagine them on the verge of poverty because they keep losing their job; any money they earn is wasted on beer or liquor.
While this is an accurate picture of some peoples’ lives, alcoholism is not always that straightforward.
Some individuals are called ‘functioning alcoholics’ because they are dependent on alcohol but can still manage to keep their career, family, and social life from falling apart. For instance, the NIH reports that “nearly 20 percent of alcoholics are highly functional and well-educated with good incomes.”
This might sound like a good balance, but these individuals are at serious risk of developing a more severe alcohol use disorder. They may be considered ‘functioning’ now, but more dire and extreme circumstances may be looming with continued abuse.
Everyone in the Household Is Impacted
When one person in the family has a substance use disorder, the whole family is impacted whether you realize it or not. Each member adopts strategies to deal with the stress and tension brought on by the uncertainty of living with an alcoholic. Coping mechanisms are fluid, meaning that members can pick up different roles as their circumstances and personal feelings towards the issue change over time.
Keeping Substance Abuse a Secret Can Harm the Next Generation
Alcohol abuse and addiction are often not spoken about and kept a family secret. You may pretend that your familial situation is normal and deny a problem exists. This can lead to dysfunctional household dynamics and personality traits becoming ingrained in your family. For instance, some members may develop low self-esteem and difficulties communicating with others.
The experience of coping with addiction can be particularly devastating for children who may come to believe they are at fault for their mother or father’s addiction. Even after the member with the disorder gets clean or is no longer living in the home, the cycle of addiction can get passed down to the younger generation through social learning.
Roles Taken on by Family Members to Cope
A number of roles have been identified in dysfunctional families, including those with members who abuse substances. It is important to remember that life is often messier than the organized categories described in writing. You may relate to more than one of the following six roles at a time:
The ‘Alcoholic’. The focus of the family is on the individual with the alcohol use disorder.
The Comic/Mascot. In trying to reduce the stress and pain caused by the ‘alcoholic’, this member makes jokes or does silly things, effectively dismissing the problem.
The Hero. The hero is overly responsible and an overachiever but also highly stressed. This is their way of bringing order back to their lives and the home.
The Caretaker/Enabler. This member is often a spouse or child. They deny the problem as a way to hold the family together and will make excuses for the ‘alcoholic’. They enable their addictive behavior by giving them money and failing to hold them accountable.
The Scapegoat. By being the rebel or a troublemaker, they divert attention from the real problem in the household. They may feel deprived of love and attention due to the unhealthy living situation.
The Lost Child. This is the member who limits interaction with the family as a way to cope. They stay to themselves to avoid drama.
Being aware of these roles can help you recognize how your actions impact your loved one’s evolving disorder.
The Red Flags of a Functioning Alcoholic in Your Family
Because a functioning alcoholic has not faced some of the more severe consequences of their addiction, these roles may not be as prominent yet. There is no reason to wait until they do. There are a number of red flags that indicate you could have a family member that is on a path to more pronounced alcohol addiction. Ask yourself, do they:
- Drink alone often?
- Use any situation as an excuse to drink?
- Downplay or make jokes about their use?
- Pour a drink the moment they get home?
- Use alcohol to relieve stress and anxiety?
- Get into trouble with the law because of drinking?
- Engage in risky or dangerous behavior while under the influence?
- Show signs of withdrawal when they have gone without a drink for a few hours to a day?
Getting Your Loved One Help
It can be hard to watch the cycle of addiction unfold in your family. If you pay close attention to your loved ones, you can monitor their behavior for signs of alcoholism. It will be important to help them realize if their current level of use has increased and how that trend is likely to continue if they do not get help.
It is also vital for them to understand how their behavior affects the home. Having the family communicate their concerns in a loving and supportive manner can help them feel less need to become defensive. Designing a family plan that includes concrete action steps, like getting treated, can hold them accountable for recovering.
Not everyone who abuses alcohol has a glaringly obvious problem. Functioning alcoholics are individuals who have a good quality of life despite their reliance on substances. Learning the signs and the role family members play can help loved ones know when to call a treatment center. Avalon Malibu is a California state-licensed residential treatment facility for addiction and mental health disorders. We understand that it can be hard to get a loved one to agree to full-time treatment. There are just as many reasons not to seek help as there are to find solutions when walking the path of sobriety. At Avalon Malibu, we offer another program called partial hospitalization (PHP), which gets them the help they need with minimal disruption to daily life. PHP is a more flexible treatment option that provides high-quality care without sacrificing personal responsibilities. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out and find the solution. Call: (844) 857-5992.