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Functioning Alcoholic


A common statistic in the addictions field is that ten percent of all people have a chemical addiction to either alcohol or drugs. Those with addictions come from all socioeconomic backgrounds ranging from the wealthy, career-driven influential members of society to individuals living on the streets and committing crimes regularly in order to support their drug habit or alcoholism. Actually, homeless alcoholics and addicts represent a small fraction of people with addictions. These individuals are the visible minority.

Of course, there are many more people who drive through these impoverished neighborhoods on their way to work in the downtown business sector who have the same addictions, but instead, these individuals are what could be called “functioning alcoholics or functioning addicts” because they are able to continue on with their chemical addictions while still maintaining their careers and families.

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Such functioning alcoholics are still self-destructing with mood-altering substances, however, their usage of chemicals is not so obvious as individuals with addictions who live on the streets. Functioning alcoholics are often binge drinkers or have “delta” patterns of alcoholism.

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Those with binge drinking habits can go for long periods of time without using mood-altering substances (alcohol/drugs), but then, often for no apparent reason, binge for an undetermined length until he or she collapses.

Binge drinkers and drug users typically cannot predict the results of their behaviours. Such functioning alcoholics may black-out by drinking and do not know where they are when they awake. Also, they likely have made numerous foolish decisions while drinking alcohol or using mind-changing drugs that in some cases can be life-threatening. These functioning alcoholics have addictions and their lives have become unmanageable as a result of their alcoholism.

The interval between binges may be weeks, months, or years. The interval between binges may remain constant, fluctuate or decrease. If the interval between binges continues to decrease then the pattern will eventually change from binge drinking to chronic, daily drinking. Jellinek refers to binge drinking as epsilon alcoholism.

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Functioning alcoholics, however, may be able to hide such binge episodes by being away on business or by answering replies to work only by e-mail. Thus they appear busy working to the outside world, but really they are out of control in one of their many binge drinking episodes. Business owners and individuals with unsupervised work schedules can live for years as functioning alcoholics without ever being detected.

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Functioning alcoholics may also be “delta” drinkers. In the 1940’s Jellinek (*) distinguished several types of alcoholics (ie. Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, etc). Delta alcoholics are individuals who drink alcohol but do not appear overtly intoxicated. Instead, such people drink enough alcohol to receive an effect, but they control the amount they take into their bodies. Therefore these functioning alcoholics with delta patterns continue to function during the day with alcohol regularly in their systems. Functioning alcoholics who drink for years with high tolerance levels are susceptible later in life to developing early onset dementia. Also functioning alcoholics may be gregarious and outgoing so that they spend a lot of time with others who are drinking alcohol which results in them being able to normalize their use of alcohol. Functioning alcoholics may be fun and well-liked by others around them so they appear to be lively, wine-tasting connoisseurs rather than people battling with alcoholism. Within certain business circles, social drinking is not only tolerated but encouraged as a form of bonding as well as camaraderie. Therefore functioning alcoholics can spend many years undetected in such business circles and since they have large homes, successful careers, and children who attend university then no one suspects that they may be suffering from alcoholism. Many functioning alcoholics are also workaholics.

Source: Jellinek, E. (1960) The Disease Concept of Alcoholism
(New Haven, Hillhouse Press).

Distance Learning Center for Addiction Studies has a good article on Jellinek Phases and Progressive Symptoms of Alcoholism.

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A final pattern is reward drinking and this occurs when individuals use alcohol as a way to unwind at the end of a busy day. People justify to themselves that they have stressful jobs and alcohol (ie. a glass of wine) at the end of the day is their personal reward. Remember that individuals can rationalize that they are not just drinking a glass of alcohol, but rather consuming an elegant cup of culture. Therefore they do not have to feel guilty or unusual that they are drinking regularly because after all the bottle of wine comes from a sophisticated vineyard of the highest quality of standards. Individuals can swirl the wine in their mouths and enjoy the full experience of true wine tasting. The reality is that over time people develop tolerance to alcohol and that one glass of wine no longer provides the proper effect. Now individuals need a bottle of wine as their tolerance increases. High functioning alcoholics can use alcohol in the privacy of their own homes without anyone else knowing and justify that they deserve this reward even if their drinking levels have become self-destructive. 

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High functioning alcoholics/addicts like any variety of people who self-destruct with mood-altering substances suffer from pain. In fact, many overachieving alcoholics and addicts are also workaholics. Rather than dealing with problems, individuals escape into the world of work where they appear to have control, influence, and even moments of great success. Meanwhile, they are disconnected from their families and any quality of life. Such high functioning addicted people juggle responsibilities but they are merely a hamster on a wheel running from one demand to the next while feeling like they are getting nowhere. Many overachieving alcoholics suffer from burn-out and experience such a level of chronic exhaustion as well as fatigue that they are barely able to make sensible decisions at the best of times. Such individuals progress further into such a stupor of self-destructive drinking that they can sit for hours at their desks obsessing about work while accomplishing nothing.  With such feelings of disconnection, shame, and loneliness through their isolation many high functioning alcoholics toy with the idea of taking their own lives (suicide) on a daily basis.

For more information on this topic see Cathy Patterson-Sterling’s new book “Fingers On The Ledge: Healing The Lives Of High Functioning People With Addictions ” (2007).

See the alcohol section for other alcohol-related topics.

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I couldn’t beat my alcohol addiction on my own and received some of the best help in the world at Sunshine Coast Health Center. After 90 days, I came home a changed man. With hard work, consistency, fearless honesty, and humility, my problem is manageable today. Thank you all for your love and support.

- Tyler

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