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What is with the term "functional"?

Old 01-10-2011, 02:13 PM
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What is with the term "functional"?

Been thinking lately about the term "functional" alcoholic and what that even means and why we it is even used. From what I gather is this supposed to mean that someone is an alcoholic, yet continues to have a job, pay bills, and is reasonable to be around.

I started to think about my father when I was growing up as a "functional" crack addict (which made me laugh) because he held a job, hid his drug problems well, and on the outside seemed fine. The thing is though this "functional" thing was just about appearances. He just wasn't available in a "normal" way. There were times when you could look him in the eyes, say his name, and he would just look past you like you weren't there. It took great efforts to get the mans attention because he wasn't really on the planet with you.

Thinking about that made me wonder why we even use the term "functional" as if keeping a job and behaving reasonably normal in appearances is some kind of redeeming quality. In my fathers case, functional, was just a phase that passed once he and the family lost the ability to cover up the problem.

I guess the point being to me it seems like calling someone a "functional" alcoholic seems like just a way to soften the blow of the disease to ourselves, to the A, and to the outside world. I guess I was just thinking it seems like that label itself is a type of enabling.

Any thoughts....
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Old 01-10-2011, 02:16 PM
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I'm with you on your final assessment.
With that said, I believe defining the word functional is very subjective to each person and situation.
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Old 01-10-2011, 02:26 PM
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Originally Posted by Shellcrusher View Post
With that said, I believe defining the word functional is very subjective to each person and situation.
My opinion?
A "functional alcoholic" is a person where you keep wondering whether or not they could be an alcoholic, but you know for certain they can't have just one drink.
I believe that "functional alcoholics" are those who haven't progressed enough for the world to notice yet. Note I said the world - I would call my A a "functional alcoholic" (go-to guy at work, always planning something giant for the weekends) but he certainly wasn't functional around me!
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Old 01-10-2011, 02:32 PM
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Originally Posted by crystal226 View Post

I guess the point being to me it seems like calling someone a "functional" alcoholic seems like just a way to soften the blow of the disease to ourselves, to the A, and to the outside world. I guess I was just thinking it seems like that label itself is a type of enabling.

Any thoughts....
I agree with your big picture assessment.

When I think of functional I think of someone that can basically take care of themselves but are still alcoholics. When they pass the point of being able to take care of themselves, well then they are no longer functional in my head. I guess I only think of things like logistics and not relationships or emotional/spiritual functioning.

Applying it to individual people can sure muddy the waters though.
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Old 01-10-2011, 02:34 PM
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I pretty much agree that a functional alcoholic holds down a job, pays bills and to the average acquaintence or co-worker, seems normal. These people may not even know if the person in question drinks or not.

But the closer you get to the alcoholic - closer co-workers, closer friends, family members - the more aware of the alcoholism they are.

Of course "functional" is just one train stop on the way to hell. I went from a functional alcoholic, to a mostly functional alcoholic, to a part time functional alcoholic, to a rarely functional alcoholic, to a dysfunctional alcoholic. As I went down that path, there were more and more people, on each successive step, that were aware of my alcoholism. This is of course despite my best attempts to hide it.

I don't think using the term has a lot of value except maybe to the medical/recovery community, to see how far down the line the person has gone. In AA when a newcomer tells me he is a functional alcoholic, I always try to gauge just how functional they were, and relate my progression as I did above.
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Old 01-10-2011, 02:38 PM
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It's a ridiculous phrase and helps perpetuate the myth that the alcoholic lives under a bridge drinking cheap liquor out of a brown paper bag...the last thing an alcoholic needs is re-enforcement of an already huge ego by insinuating that because they hold down a job and a roof over their head that they are somehow different to the average alcoholic and unique...

One often finds that it is not the alcoholic themselves who call themselves functional but family, friends and some medical "professionals"...

If ever there was an oxymoron - functional drunk!
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Old 01-10-2011, 03:00 PM
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I am totally with you, Crystal226 and actually hate the term "functional alcoholic." It is an insult to me, having grown up in a family run by a "functional alcoholic," where there was hardly food or milk, often no heat, electricity or phone, but ALWAYS beer and cigarettes. The neglect, and the abuse I suffered, and the scars I have on my body from that neglect, makes me sick to think about. And that is just the tip of the iceberg, no exaggeration, but I do not want to continue about the $hit I call my childhood. IMO, anyone who uses the term "functional alcoholic" and believes it, is in Denial. All that term is, is a way to ignore the TRUTH.

Thanks for sharing.
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Old 01-10-2011, 03:07 PM
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It is interesting ... I would read about alcoholics, and none of it seemed to 'fit' my AH, but when reading about 'high functioning', that rang more bells.

However when I mentioned it to a friend, and they pointed out his past history, they questioned just how "high functioning" he really was, and I see their point.
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Old 01-10-2011, 03:09 PM
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Good post, good thought. And I think this is right on the money:
It's a ridiculous phrase and helps perpetuate the myth that the alcoholic lives under a bridge drinking cheap liquor out of a brown paper bag..
Like someone said: Alcoholism is an elevator that goes down to hell, and it's up to you where you want to get off.

Just because an alcoholic is still riding past the executive floors doesn't mean he's not an alcoholic.
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Old 01-10-2011, 03:10 PM
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It's a cover up, sometimes.
I think it's a useful phrase if it's the first step to acknowledging the truth, though, as long as it's not the only step.
Besides, any alcoholic considered a "functional alcoholic" will lose any semblance of functional if they don't get help soon enough.


I know when it came to my A, I was on the fence until I learned that some people were called "functional alcoholics". Once I accepted that term, and made the first leap to the conclusion that yes he was a kind of alcoholic, it wasn't long until I accepted the full truth of the situation. (He still hasn't, even though he's gone to rehab "for me" and has admitted he has an "alcohol problem," but that's his problem, not mine.)
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Old 01-10-2011, 03:23 PM
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Best use of that phrase I've seen to date was here on SR. Functional is a stage of alcoholism.
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Old 01-10-2011, 07:46 PM
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Originally Posted by yeahgr8 View Post
It's a ridiculous phrase and helps perpetuate the myth that the alcoholic lives under a bridge drinking cheap liquor out of a brown paper bag..
That is kind of where I am coming from. I feel like a lot of the reason I had trouble leaving my STBXAH is I thought of alcoholics as on the low rung of society. Drinking is so acceptable socially I think it just makes it that much more difficult to draw the line. Whereas with drugs just using is usually enough for most people to see it as a problem.
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Old 01-10-2011, 08:21 PM
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In my experience, "functional" simply means "hides it well."
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Old 01-10-2011, 08:33 PM
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we're humans. we classify (judge) everything.

we have, over here - the alcoholic that can't raise their head after eleven am.

we have, on this other side, the alcoholic who drinks all day and works a job
and his productivity is not harmed or detrimental to the workplace.

sometimes
it's a good thing to have a reference point
to jump from.

meanwhile,
both are dying.
both are lost.

depends on what part of the theatre
you're seeing the show.
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Old 01-10-2011, 08:43 PM
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Drinking is so acceptable socially I think it just makes it that much more difficult to draw the line. Whereas with drugs just using is usually enough for most people to see it as a problem.
Amen.

You know what I found most amazing when I started telling people why I left my ex?
There was not ONE person who reacted with shock and said, "REALLY? Wow, I would never have thought that he..."

Every single person had someone (a parent, uncle, cousin, daughter, etc) who was an alcoholic. Every single person. And it is such a pity that we're so good at keeping up appearances and pretending we're all OK -- because we're acting as if it's shameful, both to be an alcoholic and do have one in the family. So we're all putzing around in our little bubbles of shame and thinking everyone else has it together, when we could be supporting each other...

but I think that's where "functioning" comes in, too -- we don't feel like we have to be that ashamed, because, really, he's not as bad as some alcoholics...
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Old 01-10-2011, 08:50 PM
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Originally Posted by lillamy View Post
And it is such a pity that we're so good at keeping up appearances and pretending we're all OK -- because we're acting as if it's shameful, both to be an alcoholic and do have one in the family. So we're all putzing around in our little bubbles of shame and thinking everyone else has it together, when we could be supporting each other...
We are all about "keeping up appearances," aren't we?
This reminds me of the summer when there were fifty million flies in our house. We felt so dirty, like we couldn't keep our house clean. My mother kept looking for fly paper, and most places were sold out. She finally started calling the neighbors, to see if they had any lying around, and learned that everyone was having a fly problem.

We are so concerned about not letting anyone see past our white picket fences, but everyone is hiding behind the same facade.
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Old 01-10-2011, 09:23 PM
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Originally Posted by lillamy View Post
Amen.

You know what I found most amazing when I started telling people why I left my ex?
There was not ONE person who reacted with shock and said, "REALLY? Wow, I would never have thought that he..."

Every single person had someone (a parent, uncle, cousin, daughter, etc) who was an alcoholic. Every single person. And it is such a pity that we're so good at keeping up appearances and pretending we're all OK -- because we're acting as if it's shameful, both to be an alcoholic and do have one in the family. So we're all putzing around in our little bubbles of shame and thinking everyone else has it together, when we could be supporting each other...

but I think that's where "functioning" comes in, too -- we don't feel like we have to be that ashamed, because, really, he's not as bad as some alcoholics...
I had a nearly identical experience. Opening up allowed others to open up around me.
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Old 01-10-2011, 10:09 PM
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My own AH is 'functioning' although I too, dont like the term. Yes he functions, in that he works hard, cooks and cleans the home. It is due to this level of 'functioning' that I have questioned many times whether he is an alcohol or just a problem drinker. My AH doesn't function very well when it comes to having meaningful relationships with his wife and children and would choose alcohol before a 22 year marriage and is definitely not functioning in the emotional sense at all.

It is sad, that I have slowly gotten used to the lying, denying, evading the subject and verbal abuse that has developed over the past 22 years of marriage due to alcoholism, so that it has become a 'normal' way of life to me and somewhat acceptable.

Best use of that phrase I've seen to date was here on SR. Functional is a stage of alcoholism
I do agree with this but My AFIL who had lived on his own for the past 30 years still managed to 'function' as a hard worker, right up until his death from a stroke at the age of 65. He left behind an apartment filled with empty whiskey bottles and medication he had failed to take which looked like a tramps house. I fear that my husband (his son) has inherited the same gene - for working hard but failing miserably in life matters.

My personal opinion is that there are many millions of 'functioning' alcoholics who stay under the radar today as society in the main, sees alcoholics as tramps, living on the street.

I also think that times are a changing with many 'celebrities' being open about there demons. It wasn't that long ago that celebrities wouldn't admit they were gay due to potentially wrecking their careers and now they are quite often blase about having problems with alcohol and doing rehab. Elton John and Robbie Williams are just two who have spoken about staying sober. There are also far more documentaries on TV these days about addictions. The tide, I feel is definitely turning and alcoholism will be less of a derogatory term and more of a world wide epidemic that needs addressing.
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Old 01-11-2011, 04:39 AM
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I haven't read all the replies.
I think the word functional is used because a lot of literature describes the late stage alcoholic as not being able to keep his job or keep up with any other responsibilities. So, when you look at an A who is definitely an alcoholic but able to keep up with some semblance of a life, it is kind of functional in a dysfunctional kind of way.
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Old 01-11-2011, 05:13 AM
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Functional -

To me it means, working all day and at pretty much the same time most nights having a drink.
This person needs a drink pretty much every night until they black out but can get up in the morning, and go to work and pay the bills etc.

Functional -

To me means, not quite in trouble yet. Can still do things that most people see as normal. You know taking kids to basketball practice, going to work and cooking tea.

Its when you cant do these things without reminding yourself, its non functional.
JJ
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