The Myth of the Functional Alcoholic

by The Discovering Alcoholic on November 29, 2008

Original photo by trialsanderrors at The Discovering Alcoholic

Occasionally even I am guilty of using the term when too tired or lazy to argue a point, but tonight after a long debate with a very determined colleague it’s time to set the matter straight. There is no such thing as a functional alcoholic. It’s a myth just like Dionysian satyr- a half man/half goat that supposedly made his living drinking wine, chasing women, and dancing- both were created to explain the excesses of man and neither creature can pass the test of logical scrutiny. There are two reasons why I wish to make this case.

The first is obvious, I like to be right. I won our debate this evening because once you define an alcoholic- it is obvious that functional exists nowhere in the description.

The Journal of the American Medical Association defines alcoholism as “a primary, chronic disease characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking.” ~ Wiki

Basically an alcoholic by definition is someone who has no control over their usage and places a priority on drinking above all things. So the classic “functioning alcoholic” who yes certainly abuses alcohol, cannot be defined an alcoholic because they still have the power to rein in their behavior and place a higher priority in maintaining a specific lifestyle or existing within normal society. When they reach a certain pain threshold they abstain, yet an alcoholic by definition continues drinking “despite adverse consequences.”

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The second and most important reason that I feel it’s necessary to make, what on the surface seems just be a point of semantics, this distinction is the potential harm the term can cause to the perceptions of the general public in relation to addiction. I’ve often heard people nonchalantly use the term functioning alcoholic to describe their college lifestyle or single days, only to say that they grew out of it. The same can be said for many old school businessmen, they grew up in a culture that placed value in being able to handle heavy drinking- and they are proud of the fact they survived. Heavy drinking however does not make an alcoholic and for people to suggest that a certain level of maturity or toughness is needed to maintain functionality is a load of poppycock.

You want tough? I’ll give you alcoholic tough! I’ll give you the alcoholic that continues to drink and drive regardless of how many times he is jailed or hurts himself and others. You want mature cold natured decision making, I’ll give you the alcoholic that chooses drink over their family, friends and business. Don’t give me this sissy functional crap about I needed to keep my job or license to have money to drink! The only thing functional about an alcoholic is the desire to drink – and there is no control or any greater priority, by definition. So the myth of the functional alcoholic undermines support and diminishes the seriousness in which the public views this problem which factually cost our society tens of thousands of lives and billions in dollars annually.

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