Identifying an alcoholic isn’t as easy as you may think.

The consumption of alcohol has become a societal norm, especially when it comes to socializing. It’s not unusual for a person to ask colleagues to grab a drink when the clock strikes 5pm. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much for a “social drinker” to develop an alcohol addiction. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) excessive drinking is responsible for one in ten deaths among working-age adults (20-64 years old). Additionally, more than ten percent of children in the United States reside with a parent who abuses alcohol according to a 2012 study (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2019). Alcoholism develops when a person consumes alcohol in excessive amounts. A person’s body will eventually develop a dependency for alcohol, requiring the person to consume more to achieve the same level of intoxication. So, when does a person know that their alcohol consumption has manifested from “social drinking” to an alcohol use disorder (AUD)?

An alcohol use disorder (also known as alcoholism) occurs when a person’s life is controlled by their drinking. Signs include drinking more to achieve the same effect, experiencing withdrawal symptoms after discontinuing drinking, decrease in work performance due to drinking and family/relationship issues resulting from drinking. AUD are usually self-diagnosable, however, there are many suffering from alcohol addiction that refuse to admit that their drinking has negatively impacted their lives. There are many reasons why those who abuse alcohol refuse to ask for help or refuse to admit they have a problem. Often, people who can’t admit they have a problem with alcohol are known as “functioning alcoholics”. Highly functional alcoholics live what appears to be successful lives. They have great careers, families and strong social connections, unlike the alcoholics depicted on television. As a society, we have been brought up to think alcoholics are disheveled, unemployed people who ruin family holidays and events by drinking too much. The truth of the matter is that most alcoholics do not fit this stereotype. In fact, those who do fit the stereotype were likely functioning alcoholics, that after years of abusing alcohol, the ramifications finally caught up to them. They may have lost their job, gotten divorced or were arrested.

A highly functional alcoholic defies what most of us think a person suffering from alcohol addiction would look and act like. They are often high achievers, sometimes in positions of power. In fact, a highly functioning alcoholic’s success might lead people to overlook their excessive drinking (Bienvenu, 2019). Denial is also a top reason why a high functioning alcoholic refuses to acknowledge he/she has a problem with alcohol. They may even be inclined to justify their drinking because, “I have a great job and provide an excellent life for my family. I’m entitled to have a drink to unwind from the workday!” The truth is that no one can drink heavily and maintain their responsibilities over time. Eventually the drinking will catch up with him/her.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2019) Alcohol Facts and Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
Bienvenu, M. (2019) Are You a High-Functioning Alcoholic? Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/high-functioning-alcoholic#1