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Why The Label “Functioning Alcoholic” Does More Harm than Good

You’ve heard expressions like these all the time:

“He drives a nice car and has a nice house but drinks like a fish… He’s a functioning alcoholic.”

“Her company just promoted her to upper management; she has a beautiful family and perfect skin. She drinks herself to sleep nearly every night, though. She’s a functioning alcoholic.”

The term “functioning alcoholic” has the connotation that if you keep up appearances and maintain a high degree of material wealth, despite your heavy drinking, then your problem must not be that bad.

Is there truth to the saying?

Society gives a pass to people whose vice isn’t enough to hinder their ability to fit in and reflect society’s highest goals, including professional success, financial wealth, fame, or romantic achievements.

It makes sense because achieving these goals implies you’ve figured life out and gained a free pass to enjoy its pleasures to excess as the reward. However, we have to drill down to the definition of alcoholism and what it means for the individual.

Heavy or binge drinking doesn’t always correlate to alcoholism. Most people lay off for a while after they’ve binged to the point of illness or hangover. Consequences in the physical or material sense cause enough pain for ordinary people to cut back or abstain.

The real alcoholic, however, keeps drinking hard despite the current problems it causes and the looming consequences on the horizon. Their employer may have put them on probation for drinking on the job, yet the alcoholic will scheme about how he can get away with a few drinks before the period is up. Likely, if he is a true alcoholic, the thought doesn’t even cross his mind that all he has to do is lay off the booze for the short three-month probationary period. Alternately, for the non-alcoholic, the plan to lay off for a while would be their first course of action.

As the AA Big Book says, one of the defining characteristics of the alcoholic is his “utter inability to leave it alone, no matter how great the necessity or the wish.” In other words, consequences don’t pave the mental speed bumps for the alcoholic as they do for average folks.

What Does Defining Addiction Have to Do with Functioning or Not?

Well, everything. In the 12 step programs, we have to diagnose ourselves. Even if we’ve had family and doctors tell us we’re alcoholic, none of that matters if we don’t think we are.

Someone who thinks of herself as a “functioning alcoholic” may find it harder to accept that she has a problem. She thinks there’s no way she is, in fact, mentally ill because of all the stuff she has. But how does drinking make her feel if she is bare-bones honest with herself?

If she admits to herself that she loses control when she starts to drink or regrets picking up a glass in the first place, she is getting to the core of the issue. How does she see herself when she drinks? An alcoholic usually has strange responses to that question which you won’t hear from normal drinkers.

None of the “Stuff” You Have Matters.

The material stuff, stellar outer appearance, or competitive employment has nothing to do with how you view your drinking habit. The way you view your drinking habit and its impact on you is the only way for you to determine if there’s a problem or not.

The wealthy, famous actor could have lost the ability to control his drinking to the same extent as the homeless guy on the corner who has nothing. Both of them vaguely sense that they have no idea where they might end up once they pick up the first drink that evening.

The actor has more money and toys to throw down at a party that night than the homeless person, but their problem manifests in much the same way. They cannot stop once they start. And they can’t stop staring even when they try hard not to.

Because It Boils Down to You Alone

So what good is all your stuff when it comes to recovering from addiction? Not much, if it keeps you from honestly examining what impact drinking has on your life.

Sure, material wealth makes a recovery more comfortable, but none of that matters if you can’t admit defeat when it comes to your habit. The real alcoholic can and will progress down the depth of alcoholism eventually, losing more stuff, self-respect, and high regard from his fellows, no matter how high up the ladder he started.

Until then, don’t assume that being a functional alcoholic is protective or buys you more time. Alcoholism is cunning. Harsh consequences can happen all at once, suddenly. Don’t rely on outside success to keep you safe when you play Russian roulette.


The term “functioning alcoholic” has spread across Western society to describe someone who seemingly handles problem drinking well. However, it can hinder you if you are questioning your drinking habit.

It gives a false impression that you don’t have a problem because others say you don’t. However, items and success don’t confer any special protection against the damage to your self-esteem that alcoholism causes. The label also doesn’t prevent the more severe consequences of out-of-control drinking from occurring at any time.

Don’t let a prevalent label prevent you from honestly asking yourself what your excessive drinking has crossed the threshold into a dangerous addiction.

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