What Is A Functional Alcoholic?

by | Jul 31, 2015 | Addiction | 0 comments

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Robert Downey, Jr. played a functional alcoholic in the film Iron Man, after dealing with a far less functional form of addiction in real life. (GQ)

Robert Downey, Jr. played a functional alcoholic in the film Iron Man, after dealing with a far less functional form of addiction in real life. (GQ)

This may sound like a strange thing for a recovery website to say, but we’d like to talk about Iron Man. For those who haven’t seen it, the film is about a billionaire weapons manufacturer named Tony Stark who discovers that his products have been sold to terrorists and embarks on a mission to destroy every weapon he has ever created with the help of self-designed armor. In many ways, it is a typical superhero movie. But why do we bring it up? Because Stark is one of the more well-known examples of a functional alcoholic in contemporary fiction.

The term “functional alcoholic” may sound like something of an oxymoron, especially in the case of the aforementioned film. A real alcoholic, functional or not, would generally do best to avoid getting behind the wheel while intoxicated. Flying a rocket-powered suit of indestructible armor would especially be out of the question. But sure enough, the eponymous hero of Iron Man can be seen nursing a drink in numerous scenes.

And it’s not like he’s the only functional alcoholic depicted in modern media. There are numerous characters in films and on various television shows who are almost never depicted without a drink in their hand, yet the other characters rarely comment on their apparent alcoholism. To some, this may give the false impression that such heavy drinking is perfectly acceptable. But that’s why such characters are confined to the realms of fantasy. If one were to try and attempt to mimic the habits of such characters, they would soon discover that the task is not nearly as easy as it is made to look.

To truly understand the dangers posed by such depictions, one must understand the true definition of the functional alcoholic. That is what we would now like to discuss, as well as the dangers posed by high-functioning alcoholism. The word “functional” might make it sound as if these dangers are minimal, but you are about to learn why this is most certainly not the case.

Defining the Functional Alcoholic

As we have discussed before, we do not fully like to describe to the idea that alcoholics and addicts can be boiled down to one specific personality type. They are as varied in their personality traits as the next person. But that does not stop people from formulating ideas regarding the “typical” alcoholic and how such people appear and behave.

In most cases, the image that will spring to a person’s mind when they think of the typical alcoholic is that of a fall-down drunk. It will be someone who fits every single trait that is listed on our signs of addiction, from neglected hygiene to frequent trouble fulfilling obligations. When a person thinks of an alcoholic, they do not think of someone who does well in work or school. They may not even picture a person who attends work or school when they are scheduled to do so. They will picture a person who is most pathetic, and struggles to behave in anything that might be said to approach a rational or responsible manner.

The functional alcoholic is not like this. The functional alcoholic fulfills their obligations. Sometimes they might only meet the base requirements for what is expected of them, while at other times they may actually excel in their efforts. Think of the movie Flight, in which Denzel Washington’s character not only flies a plane while drunk and high on cocaine, but actually manages to save several lives in the process. Much like Iron Man, the movie Flight clearly does not picture an everyday occurrence in the life of the functional alcoholic. Nevertheless, it still provides you with an idea regarding just how convincing a functional alcoholic can be.

While the functional alcoholic may not display certain signs as frequently as one might expect, that does not mean they will not display them at all. They might be charged with the occasional DUI. They might sometimes isolate themselves out of depression, or in order to hide their drinking from their family. They might even occasionally acknowledge their heavy drinking; however, they will probably do so in the form of a joke. This is something of a defense mechanism, but it also demonstrates the depth of denial in which many high-functioning alcoholics find themselves. Since they do not fit the stereotypes of the alcoholic who loses everything and winds up on skid row, it’s easy for them to convince themselves that they do not really have a problem.

They might even be able to convince others that they do not have a problem. From the outside, the functional alcoholic might appear to be perfectly immune to the effects of alcohol. This, however, is something of an illusion created by the functional tolerance that sometimes accompanies heavy drinking. Functional tolerance increases when a person drinks frequently, and it allows a person to behave with relative normalcy regardless of blood alcohol concentration. They might have some impairments when it comes to motor functions and hand-eye coordination (which is why we say that the functional alcoholic is still not fit to drive), but their mental faculties will appear to be surprisingly intact.

High-functioning alcoholics are among the reasons that we have previously expressed a need for people to change their stereotypical views of alcoholics and realize that this disease can affect any type of person regardless of social or economic circumstances. When a person spreads the myth that only low-functioning alcoholics exist, the denial of the functional alcoholic is given credence. This means that they are much less likely to seek the treatment they need if they are ever to recover. This feeds into the many dangers of high-functioning alcoholism.

Dangers of High-Functioning Alcoholism

Denzel Washington depicts the downfall of a seemingly functional alcoholic in the movie Flight. (GQ)

Denzel Washington depicts the downfall of a seemingly functional alcoholic in the movie Flight. (GQ)

We’d like to return briefly to the example that we opened with. The film Iron Man does not show the protagonist suffering any consequences of his alcoholism. However, the sequel contains a party scene in which he becomes heavily intoxicated and begins acting recklessly. In the process, he endangers many of his guests. Again, this movie is pure fantasy. But the functional alcoholic is not immune from such recklessness in real life. Not by a long shot.

See, while some alcoholics may appear functional due to their ability to maintain grades or employment, alcohol still lowers the inhibitions of the individual who imbibes it. The result is that the functional alcoholic may not see a problem with driving after a few drinks. They may engage in sexual conduct without taking the proper safety precautions. They might also endanger their social lives by putting their need to drink above their obligations to family or friends.

In addition, it is not secret that alcoholism is not exactly the healthiest affliction from a physical standpoint. While the functional alcoholic might have increased tolerance, this only affects certain aspects of their mental state. According to self-described functional alcoholic Sarah Allen Benton, those who exhibit traits of high-functioning alcoholism “can face the same health risks as a lower-functioning alcoholic.” In fact, they might be at even greater risk, since their increased tolerance might allow them to drink even more before they begin to truly feel the effects. A night of binge drinking for a functional alcoholic might involve the consumption of much more alcohol than other alcoholics would be inclined to consume during a binge.

This increased consumption will hurt the functional alcoholic in the short term as well as the long term. They are not immune to hangovers, and will often feel the effects of their binge drinking quite harshly the following day. Like many other alcoholics, they may try to ward off this feeling by drinking more alcohol, also known as the “hair of the dog” cure. Unfortunately, this will only make things worse, since what they are actually doing is filling their bodies with even more of the same toxin that is already taking its toll on them.

The great quantity of alcohol often consumed by the alcoholic will also take a toll during the detoxification process, should they elect to enter treatment. Their body has been experiencing the effects of their drinking for quite some time, but now they can actually feel it. In addition to this, withdrawal itself can be a very nasty experience. They may have proven themselves able to function to a certain extent while drinking, but it has generally been quite some time since they have had to function without alcohol in their systems. This can be a shock, and it will not be easy for them to get back on their feet without proper treatment.

Furthermore, while all of these dangers are bad enough on their own, do not forget the examples we’ve referenced. In the sequel to Iron Man, the hero’s alcoholism takes him on a downward spiral. The same thing happens in the movie Flight, and is depicted quite realistically. While the main character appears to be a functional alcoholic at the start of the movie, he is barely functioning at all in the penultimate scene. He puts his job and the lives of his passengers at risk. He sacrifices relationships with family and with his romantic interest. He may have thought that he had his life under control, but the truth of his reality was quite different from the beliefs he had toward his drinking. If the functional alcoholic is ever to recover, this deep denial must be broken.

Helping Functional Alcoholics Recover

The functional alcoholic will likely not realize on their own that they need help. They must hear from those whose lives they have affected. (Thinkstock)

The functional alcoholic will likely not realize on their own that they need help. They must hear from those whose lives they have affected. (Thinkstock)

As with any alcoholic, a full regimen of treatment will be needed to make a proper effort at recovery. The first step is to ensure that the alcoholic in question is actually willing to enter treatment. If their downward spiral has already commenced, then it is most definitely time for an intervention. Even if it has not commenced, remember that it is never too early to save a life. When staging an intervention for a functional alcoholic, remember that they have likely not suffered as many consequences as some others who have struggled with alcoholism. As such, those present for the intervention will need to focus on how the alcoholic’s use has had an impact on others. They might not even be aware of just how much harm they have done.

Even then, however, it can be an uphill battle. As has been mentioned many times above, denial and self-deception are the way of the functional alcoholic. It will not be easy to break through this denial to ensure that they see the effects their drinking has had on themselves and others. First of all, it is vital to make sure that they are not drinking at the time of the intervention. This is one of the basic guidelines for staging a successful intervention. It can be a little more difficult with a functional alcoholic, since they are often somewhat better at hiding their drinking. You may have to simply do your best.

The other thing at which the functional alcoholic often excels is making excuses for their behavior. This is a person who still maintains enough awareness while drunk that they can often argue with the best of them. This can make breaking through the alcoholic’s denial a very difficult process. As difficult as it may become, it is worth sticking with it. Not only will it benefit the person who is struggling with alcoholism themselves, but it will also benefit the lives of those around them.


If the functional alcoholic should agree to enter treatment, then the problem is mostly out of your hands. Many of us here at Amethyst Recovery have dealt with functional alcoholics before. In fact, many of us have struggled with being functional (as well as not so functional) alcoholics. This means that, when a functional alcoholic enters our programs, they will be in the hands of people who truly understand them. We know what they are going through, because we have had to break through that same denial ourselves.


Once treatment has been completed, it would be worthwhile to consider looking at sober living facilities. Since the functional alcoholic has generally been drinking for a long time, it will take more than a few months of counseling to solidify their recovery. By living with others who are dedicated to embracing a sober lifestyle, they will be able to hold themselves more accountable and adjust to their new, alcohol-free circumstances. The functional alcoholic may be a difficult case, but that does not make them untreatable. Never give up hope.


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