The term “functioning alcoholic” is generally used to avoid labeling someone as a stereotypical alcoholic. Alcohol is one of the most abused substances and often has specific stereotypes linked to abuse of it.
When picturing someone struggling with alcohol addiction, we imagine a disheveled, homeless person, or someone who has lost their home, family, and other possessions due to their alcohol abuse. These stereotypes are the result of a much longer process, and they can mislead functioning alcoholics because their lives have yet to fit these stereotypes.
Someone who uses the term “functioning alcoholic” to define themselves may be in denial about the extent of their problem. The reality is that a functioning alcoholic can still be controlled by alcohol abuse.
If alcohol abuse is suspected, there are a few signs that can indicate there is a problem.
Alcoholism is a disease that slowly develops over time, not all at once. While everyone may experience this progression differently, there are four common stages people go through when becoming a functional alcoholic.
The first stage of alcoholism is a general experimentation with the substance. Individuals in this stage may not be familiar with different types of alcohol, so they are more likely to test their limits.
This stage of alcoholism is often defined by the goal of “drinking to get drunk.” People who abuse alcohol often use it to self-medicate and escape negative thoughts and feelings. This is how problem drinking starts.
Usually, people in the first stage of alcoholism are not drinking every day, and they are still able to perform daily activities. Although drinking may not consume their thoughts, they may need to drink more to reach the desired level of intoxication.
During this stage, someone may believe they are still functioning because they have a job and they are successfully maintaining relationships. In reality, this isn’t true, because after they consume their first alcoholic drink, they usually struggle to control their drinking.
The second stage of alcoholism is defined by the mental obsession with the next drink. Many people consume alcohol to relax and unwind. But those struggling with alcohol abuse may see drinking as the only way to relieve stress.
Over time, other coping skills will fade away and all negative thoughts and feelings will be addressed by drinking alcohol. At this point, people may not be physically addicted to alcohol, but they may be psychologically dependent on it.
During this stage, outward appearances do not change much, but individuals may be routinely hungover. This is often justified by saying they just like to “cut loose and party.”
The third stage of alcoholism is usually identified when others begin to show concern for someone’s drinking habits. For those struggling with alcohol abuse, stage three is all about managing the consequences of their drinking.
Individuals in this stage of alcoholism may try to set boundaries for themselves, but they will be unable to stick to them. Possible boundaries can include telling themselves, or someone else, they will only have a certain number of drinks and then stop, or they will drink only beer instead of hard liquor.
During this stage, individuals may feel like they are a “functioning alcoholic,” despite all the changes alcohol has caused them to make in their lives. These changes may include a new group of friends or frequently changing jobs.
At this point, an individual’s life is centred around managing the consequences of their alcohol abuse. People may continue to compare themselves to the stereotypical alcoholics who have lost it all and assure themselves that is not who they are.
Isolation happens when someone becomes uncomfortable drinking in front of concerned family and friends. People may feel embarrassed by being called out and choose to start drinking alone.
Another consequence of alcohol abuse is possible legal issues, such as being caught driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). This may also cause people to stay home and drink alone, increasing their isolation.
Prolonged alcohol abuse can also affect someone’s emotional state, causing them to feel depressed and anxious. When alcohol becomes the only way someone copes with stress or unhappiness, drinking to excess can amplify any negative emotions.
Once someone hits stage four, their bodies are not what they used to be. When they examine themselves in the mirror, they may not recognise themselves. Common outward changes may include flushed skin and a distended stomach or “beer belly.”
They may not be aware, but alcohol is affecting their bodies internally as well. Possible physical side effects include increased blood pressure and liver damage. In the morning, their hands may shake, and they may experience frequent heartburn.
During this stage, individuals are drinking every day, usually to avoid uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. However, many people still believe they are “functioning” because they can get up and go to work. Although they still have a job, their performance is probably not what it used to be. They may also feel like it takes everything they have got to feel and act normal.
Identifying the early stages of alcoholism can help prevent dependence and addiction. Some individuals may need additional help in breaking their addiction to alcohol.
No matter what stage of alcoholism someone is currently experiencing, there is hope to get through their alcohol addiction.
Medically supervised detox followed by an inpatient treatment program can increase the likelihood of successful recovery and help people regain control.
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