‘Functional alcoholic’ is a convenient term for the denial of alcoholism. It’s a handy way to differentiate between the stereotypical alcoholic and the functioning alcoholic. Both are alcoholics, but one has had more consequences than the other. In popular culture, alcoholics are portrayed as people whose lives are out of control, people who have lost everything. But contrary to popular perception, many alcoholics are successful in their professional and personal lives, allowing both the alcoholic and those around them to deny the existence of a problem. Functional alcoholism isn’t a type, it’s merely a stage before the bottom falls out one day.
The functional alcoholic still has a job, but how is his performance? The functional alcoholic still has a family, but is she present for them? The functional alcoholic seems healthy, but nobody escapes the physical ravages of alcoholism. The functional alcoholic has no legal troubles. Because nothing really bad has happened to the functional alcoholic, they can continue in denial.
Imagine a car that guzzles oil, the steering is a bit loose, the brakes are starting to fail. But the car is still functional. Is merely functional really something to aspire to? Functioning is akin to surviving, but functioning is not thriving. Alcohol addiction is limiting and painful no matter what stage you’re at. The term functioning alcoholic is dangerous because it denies that a drinking problem is a problem. It allows both the alcoholic and those around them to think they do not need help.