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Functional vs dysfunctional alcoholics

How would you define alcohol abuse and alcoholism?

A great deal of people would probably start by listing attributes they believe are associated with ‘alcohol addiction’, for instance:

  • Dysfunctional behaviour – missing work or other responsibilities
  • Excessive drinking or binge drinking
  • Emotional, physical and mental abuse of loved ones
  • Escapism – using alcohol to escape reality

The attributes above are correct and definitely do describe the average alcoholic’s behaviours, however they generally describe a dysfunctional alcoholic, and overlook the fact functional alcoholics do exist.

Functioning alcoholic vs dysfunctional alcoholic - alcohol rehab South Africa

Functional alcoholics

Functioning alcoholics are often not seen by their peers and loved ones as being alcoholics, because as their name suggests, they are functioning.

Unlike a dysfunctional alcoholic, functioning alcoholics generally appear to have their lives together. They are able to perform at their job, pay for expenses and maintain their overall day to day tasks.

In fact, because they are able to maintain their lives so well, people including themselves, will often overlook their drinking completely.

This form of denial is often accompanied by statements such as, “I only have a few drinks a night” or “It’s not like I act like a drunk”.

Unfortunately, excuses like these are an even bigger indication that there is a problem.

While they may give off the impression that they are doing OK, the truth is, that no one is able to operate to their full potential, maintain major responsibilities and drink heavily over a long period of time, without it catching up to them at some point.

I can’t be an alcoholic, I have a job.

Alcohol is the most readily available, socially acceptable substance abused in society today.

Contrary to popular belief, a heavy drinker doesn’t actually need to drink that much.

Females who consume more than three drinks a day or seven drinks a week are “at-risk” drinkers. For males, the limit is four drinks a day or 14 drinks a week.

Sadly, if you drink more than either the daily drinks limit or weekly drinks limit, you are at risk of developing an addiction to alcohol.

Signs of a functioning alcoholic

As many as 20% of alcoholics may be highly functional, competent individuals.

However, counting drinks is not the only way to tell if someone has a drinking problem and may need help.

Below are additional signs to look out for:


  • Tries to joke about their “drinking problem” to avoid the seriousness of the issue;
  • Often fights with family and friends when drinking;
  • Must have alcohol to relax;
  • Drinks alone or in the mornings;
  • Sometimes forgets what they did when they were drinking;
  • Denies having a serious drinking problem and becomes angry when confronted about their drinking habits;
  • Tries to make excuses about their drinking;
  • Has loved ones questioning whether they drink too much.


I have a few drinks a night, so what?

Although, a functional alcoholic may seem to be in control of their life and their responsibilities, they are not.

Their drinking behaviours, under influence driving, blacking out and argumentative state when drinking often put those they love at risk.

In addition, heavy drinking can lead to other health risks, such as:


  • Liver disease;
  • Pancreatitis;
  • Some forms of cancer;
  • Brain damage;
  • Serious memory loss;
  • Anxiety and depression;
  • Alcoholic dementia;
  • Damage to central nervous system;
  • and high blood pressure.


Furthermore, women develop complications associated with alcohol abuse quicker than men do.

Step Away – Substance abuse and addiction rehabilitation centre South Africa

Our alcoholism treatment and rehabilitation programme uses a number of successful treatments and therapies to treat alcohol dependency. Living a life without alcohol and finding joy in a sober life, is at the core of our treatment programme.

Alcohol abuse can and will eventually ruin your relationships, cause harm professional connections, and often leads to legal problems and implications.

Take real charge of your life today, contact us.

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