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What is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

High Functioning Alcoholic

Nightly, your spouse berates you for your drinking. She has left you multiple times and is threatening to do the same if you don’t get your drinking under control.

“Why is she acting like this?” It’s not like you don’t go to work every single day and bust your tail to provide for your family. “She must be crazy.” Or maybe, she is onto something.

This scene plays out in households all over the world because of a lack of awareness of what a person with high-functioning alcoholism (alcohol use disorder) looks like.

“She calls me an alcoholic, but I’m not spending every dollar I earn or begging for money to get more booze.” In all likelihood, your spouse is witnessing alcohol use disorder, a fresher term for alcoholism.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is the diagnosis one gets from a medical professional when someone is managing an alcohol addiction. AUD is classified as mild, moderate, or severe, and occurs when a person has compulsive alcohol misuse, loss of control over the amount of alcohol consumed, and suffers from withdrawals when alcohol isn’t available.

High Functioning Alcoholic

While alcohol is legal — and relatively safe when consumed in moderation by those looking to relax — drinking it may cause legal troubles, health issues, depression, anxiety, and/or relationship problems.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction (NIAAA), 14.5 million Americans ages 12 and older lived with an AUD as of 2019 and 414,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 had an AUD.

Alcohol addiction can be caused by many factors, but a common one is multiple binge-drinking episodes. While binge drinking is not a direct path to alcohol addiction, it does put a person at greater risk of developing an alcohol use disorder.

Determining the difference between alcohol addiction/misuse and social drinking isn’t always easy, because alcohol affects each person differently.

A good gauge is following medical professionals’ standards of how much alcohol is considered too much.

Alcoholic

How Much Alcohol is Too Much?

Again, alcohol affects everyone differently. Two beers in one sitting may make one person feel nothing, while others may feel “tipsy.”

However, the NIAAA, a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), describes more than seven drinks per week as heavy drinking for a woman. It also describes more than 15 drinks per week as heavy drinking for a man.

One drink is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as:

  • ​​12 ounces of beer
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof (40% alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor

Functioning Alcoholic

Do I Have Alcohol Use Disorder?

While only a professional can determine whether someone has an AUD, there are signs that you can look for as outlined below.

Alcohol use disorder covers a broad spectrum, but in general, a person living with AUD is facing any mix of the following consequences of drinking too much: 

  • Drinking alcohol causes financial, career, or relationship problems
  • Lying to yourself about how much or how often you drink
  • Withdrawal symptoms from going without alcohol
    • Irritability in the absence of alcohol
    • Sweating
    • Nausea
    • Tremors
    • Fever
  • Lack of control around alcohol

High Functioning Alcoholic

Am I a Functioning Alcoholic?

Alcohol use disorder paints a picture in the minds of many people because of the stigma (negative and often unfair belief) that has been tied to it.

In general, a person will describe someone that is managing alcohol addiction as a person that is down on their luck, broke, and typically jobless. This image that is conjured in the minds of most is flat wrong and has led to many professionals and “high-functioning” people with alcohol use disorder going unnoticed.

A person with functioning alcohol use disorder is defined by the NIH as “typically middle-aged, well-educated, with stable jobs and families.”

People with functioning alcohol use disorder make up around 20% of all people with alcohol use disorder in the United States. In total, 18 million Americans live with AUD.

Around 25% of the 20% that are living with functional alcohol use disorder have faced at least one major depressive episode in their life. One-third have a multi-generational history of AUD.

Do not be mistaken in thinking functioning alcohol use disorder is safer than being in the general population of those with an AUD.

High-Functioning-Alcoholic

Who is Most at Risk?

According to the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality report on Substance Use and Substance Use Disorder by Industry put out by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in 2015, the professions with the most cases of alcohol use disorder are mining and construction.

The lowest rates of heavy alcohol use or AUD were generally seen in education, health care and social assistance, and public administration.

Possible reasons for these high or low ranks range from alcohol access to work hours. 

  • Access
    • There are jobs that revolve around alcohol. Those that work in the service industry, such as bartenders or waiters, spend more time around alcohol. Daily interaction with alcohol may lead to temptation or acceptance of alcohol-induced behaviors. Food-service workers have the third-highest rate of AUD.
  • Social engagement
    • No, not on Facebook or Instagram. Some jobs require a person to engage in events outside of the office. These events may be centered around alcohol consumption. In events like dinners or golf outings, professionals may use alcohol to impress clients or prospective cohorts.
    • Following a day of work, many coworkers may hit the bar or a restaurant for wind-down time together to enjoy fellowship with each other.
  • Pain
    • This goes for the top two highest-ranked professions with cases of AUD. Work that causes physical stress, injury, or pain may play a role in the amount of alcohol consumed because of its ability to numb the pain.
  • Irregular shift hours
    • Those that work irregular hours or alternating shift times between day and night may have a greater risk of developing something known as “shift work disorder.” This can lead to a person consuming more alcohol to cope.
    • study from Oxford University found that in comparison to day-shift workers, night-shift workers are more commonly suffering from AUD.
  • Long hours
    • A person may also be facing financial difficulties and be forced to work longer hours. Regardless, this may be a cause of alcohol use disorder.
    • A person spending time away from their family and friends can lead to a greater feeling of disconnect or loneliness.
    • A person may also face sleep deprivation, which can cause depression or anxiety. Some people cope with depression and/or anxiety by drinking alcohol.

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Dangers of Alcohol Use Disorder

While this is not a firm fact as to the amount of life that is taken away from each person who drinks too much alcohol, a 2014 study in Denmark found that a person who faced hospitalization due to alcohol use disorder lived an average of 24-28 fewer years than the general population.

The exact age for men was 47-53 and the exact age for women was 50-58 at the time of death.

Losing years off of your life is not the only danger of living with and not treating an alcohol use disorder.

High-Functioning-Alcoholic

The CDC lists the dangers in both the short term and the long term on their website.

Among the short-term dangers are: 

  • Injuries
  • Motor vehicle crashes
  • Drownings
  • Burns
  • Falls
  • Violence
  • Homicide
  • Suicide
  • Sexual assault
  • Domestic violence
  • Overdose
  • Also known as alcohol poisoning
  • Risky sexual behaviors
  • Unprotected sex with strangers
  • Can lead to unintended pregnancy or disease

Among the long-term health risks are:

  • Physical health problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Liver disease
  • Digestion problems
  • Cancer
  • Social problems
  • Family issues
  • Relationship troubles
  • Job-related struggles
  • Unemployment
  • Mental health disorders
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

High-Functioning-Alcoholic

Alcohol Use Disorder Treatment Options

Living with an AUD and not seeking medical treatment is a dangerous game to play, as we just discussed.

However, regardless of the length of your substance use disorder or how severe it is, there is hope you can make a change and extend your life for many years to come.

Depending on how impactful your alcohol use disorder is, there are inpatient and outpatient options available to overcome and work towards recovery

In most cases, detoxing with the help of medical professionals is necessary to begin the journey to recovery.

During the detox period, you will battle withdrawal symptoms that can range from mild to severe, but you’ll have the help of medical professionals around you.

Withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Nausea
  • Anxiety
  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia (sleeplessness)
  • Confusion
  • Nightmares
  • Irritability
  • High blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate
  • General discomfort

After a detox period that usually lasts from 7-10 days, a person will need to move into outpatient or inpatient treatment.

Our treatment includes a mixture of evidence-based methods (counseling, group therapy, family therapy, and more) and alternative approaches  (meditation, activity-based treatment, and more). We know not every patient has the same needs for their healing journey, which is why we offer options to help our patients reach their recovery goals.

SUN Behavioral Health in Houston offers inpatient and outpatient alcohol addiction detox and treatment options.

If you or a loved one is in need of treatment or simply has questions about what treatment at our facility may look like, call us at 713-714-2287.

Call Today to talk to one of our representatives.

Frequently Asked Questions

What profession has the most alcoholics?

According to the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality report on Substance Use and Substance Use Disorder by Industry put out by SAMHSA in 2015, the professions with the most cases of alcohol use disorder are mining and construction.

What qualifies you as an alcoholic?

Alcohol use disorder covers a broad spectrum, but in general, a person living with an AUD is experiencing  withdrawal symptoms, their finances or careers being impacted by alcohol consumption, a lack of control when it comes to drinking, or even lying to themselves about how often they drink.

How many drinks a night makes you an alcoholic?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a division of the National Institutes of Health, describes more than seven drinks per week as heavy drinking for a woman. It also describes more than 15 drinks per week as heavy drinking for a man. These numbers do not tell the entire story, however, as alcohol affects each person differently.

Contact a medical professional to discuss your concerns if you believe you have an AUD.

What is the life expectancy of an alcoholic?

While this is not a firm fact, a 2014 study in Denmark found that a person that faced hospitalization due to alcohol use disorder lived an average of 24-28 fewer years than the general population.  The exact age for men was 47-53 and the exact age for women was 50-58 at the time of death

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