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GUEST WRITER - Functional Alcoholism: How Much Is Too Much

READER NOTE: Today we offer the work of Guest Writer Gemma Hunt, a freelance writer who has gone full bore on trying to make a living at this.  Our fingers are crossed!  Please welcome Gemma and don't hesitate to offer comments below.  Also, don't forget our new Reader Survey below.  Enjoy!

Functional Alcoholism: How Much Is Too Much by Gemma Hunt

We all have an idea in our minds about what an alcoholic is like. They’re depressive, irrational, sometimes violent. They glare, rage, and bunch their fists, or they slump in corners with slack jaws and staring eyes. They slur incomprehensible sentences while clutching the neck of some dubious liqor brand in a white-knuckled grip. Their livers are shot to hell, their facial veins are broken, and their lives are ruined. Alcohol has taken everything from them, alcohol is all they have left, and nothing can make them abandon alcohol.

You may not exactly be a saint when it comes to booze. You definitely drink more than the recommended amount. But you’re not an alcoholic, no sirree! And nor is your friend Dave, even though he regularly gets paralytic when you hit the bars together. He may be a mess during the night, but he emerges the next day in a clean suit, with a rueful little smile on his face, and goes to his nice, stable job before returning home to his nice, stable family. Nope, neither of you fit the ‘alcoholic’ stereotype! But this doesn’t mean that you’re safe. Plenty of people don’t realise that they are actually alcoholics, purely because stereotypes tell them that they aren’t. ‘Functional alcoholism’ is a bigger problem than many realize - and it could be closer to home than you think.

What Is Alcoholism?

The definition of an ‘addiction’ is a tricky one. It has a biological component, certainly - addiction causes certain neurological phenomena which cause things like cravings. But these do not develop in isolation. Most alcoholics have pre-existing psychological or lifestyle-related issues which provoke or promote drinking in the first place - and it is here, before the neurological symptoms really kick in - that alcoholism begins.

Many psychologists state that an ‘addiction’ forms when a substance or behavior becomes so compulsive that the need for it begins to damage the sufferer - emotionally, physically, socially, or financially. A high-functioning alcoholic may not feel that their alcohol consumption is having too much of a negative impact on their lives - and they may even be right. How, then, do we know if someone is a ‘functional alcoholic’?

What Is Functional Alcoholism?

Because we think of alcoholics as people completely unable to exert any kind of rational control over their lives, we may have great difficulty in believing that someone who holds down a job, a mortgage, has a great family life etc etc can possibly be an alcoholic. However, it is more than possible. What is more, because of all the support systems in place (money, family, career and so forth), the condition of a functional alcoholic may progress into extremes before people begin to notice. Needless to say, this is appalling for the sufferer’s health - too much alcohol over a prolonged period of time will subject you to a whole spate of nasty, painful, and gory health conditions which can and frequently do kill.

So, a functional alcoholic is someone who has an alcohol problem yet still manages to maintain their ‘normal’ life. Is that all their is to it? Well, sort of, but going deeper into these people’s lives can be revealing - and rather a shock for many. Functional alcoholics don’t tend to regularly get obliterated on booze. Instead, they’ll drink a bit more than they should when out with friends, round off the evening with one more glass of wine than was necessary, make excuses to themselves to have an alcoholic drink with their lunch, that kind of thing. It’s a little bit here, a little bit there - combining to make a lot, but not enough to get them into horrendous states (or not usually, anyway).

Nonetheless, it’s all doing damage. Furthermore, the income and support available to a functional alcoholic in many ways enables them. Because there is (usually) enough spare money to buy alcohol without having to sacrifice anything else in order to do so, the scale of the dependence never becomes as clear as it does for those in more desperate circumstances. Denial is a big problem for functional alcoholics - and this denial means that a lot of families every year are shocked to learn that their apparently stable loved one has died of alcoholic liver failure, or has an alcohol-related disease.

How Much Is Too Much?

So how much IS too much? How much must one drink in order to develop an alcohol problem? Well, there is no rule of thumb. Some people are more prone to addiction than others, and some will develop health, social, emotional, and economic problems related to alcohol faster than others. It all depends upon your personal circumstances. However, if you’re finding yourself making excuses to drink, wishing that other people would hurry up with their drinks so that you can refill your glass, bringing more booze than is strictly necessary along to parties (to ensure that you do not run out), drinking in secret, making excuses to drink, and wondering if you’re drinking too much - you’re probably drinking too much. US recommendations warn that people should not exceed 14 units per week of alcohol. That’s just over a bottle of wine. Not much, but if you’re going over this significantly on a regular basis, it may be time to step back and reassess.

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