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By Carien Grobler

Deputy Digital Editor


Behind the façade: The subtle menace of functional alcoholism

You can be an alcoholic and still be successful in your career, while your family loves you and you have a wide circle of friends.


When one hears the term “alcoholic”, one tends to think of someone whose life is in tatters as a result. Someone who has problems at work, with relationships and may have lost their family due to a drinking problem.

However, the truth is that you can abuse alcohol and still be successful in your career, while your family loves you and you have a wide circle of friends.

Experts refer to these people as functional alcoholics because they abuse alcohol, but on the surface, they still make it seem as if everything is in order.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in America classifies alcoholics under five subgroups:

  • The young adult: This group makes up the largest percentage of alcoholics, but is also the least likely to seek help.
  • The anti-social young person: These people are in their mid-20’s and often suffer from depression or other mental illnesses.
  • The functional alcoholic: These are usually middle-aged people – educated and working.
  • Intermediate relative: These alcoholics are usually middle-aged and come from a family where alcohol abuse occurs over generations.
  • Chronically severe: This group forms the smallest percentage of alcoholics and comes from families where alcohol has been abused over generations and where large percentages of personality disorders and other mental illnesses, as well as abuse of other substances, occur.

Research shows that up to 20% of alcoholics may be functional.

According to We Do Recover, a group that operates rehabilitation centres nationwide, the CAGE test is one of the oldest and most popular tools for determining whether someone has an alcohol problem. It consists of four questions:

  • C: Cut Down – Have you ever felt like you should drink less?
  • A: Annoyed – Have people ever annoyed you with their criticism of your drinking habits?
  • G: Guilt – Have you ever felt guilty about your drinking habits?
  • E: Eye-opener – Have you ever had a drink just after getting up to get your nerves under control or get rid of a hangover?

If you answered “yes” to two or more of the above questions, it may indicate that you drink too much.

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Functional alcoholics

“You can be an alcoholic while having a well-paying job, owning a home, having a family, friendships and social connections,” says Sarah Benton, a mental health counselor and author of the book Understanding the High -Functioning Alcoholic.

She explains that functional alcoholics’ problem is often overlooked because they work every day and appear responsible and productive.

According to Benton, functional alcoholics appear to be in control, but often put themselves and others at risk by driving drunk, slacking behind the wheel or having risky sex.

What is heavy drinking?

The NIAAA considers women who enjoy more than three drinks a day or more than seven drinks a week to be at-risk drinkers. For men, the limit is 14 drinks per week.

Here are more red lights to watch out for:

  • If you jokingly say you have a drinking problem or make jokes about alcoholism.
  • If you need alcohol to relax or feel confident.
  • If you drink in the morning.
  • If you drink alone.
  • If you often get drunk when it was not your intention.
  • If you forget what you did while under the influence of alcohol.
  • If you deny that you have been drinking, hide alcohol or get angry when someone confronts you about your drinking habits.
  • If your drinking habits worry you or they make excuses for you if you drink too much.

If you are concerned that you are drinking too much, call Alcoholics Anonymous’ national helpline on 0861 HELP AA (435 722). You can also visit their website to get help in a specific area.

*Additional sources: We Do Recover, WebMD

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