The Functional Alcoholic


“He/She doesn’t look like an alcoholic!”

By Janee S. Parnegg, CAC

Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church, Inc.

Toll Free 866-306-1542

The functional alcoholic IS a:

 Husband   Doctor   Priest   Mother  
• Butcher  • Secretary  • Carpenter  • Son  
• Realtor  • Brother  • Mailman  
• The First Lady  • Blue-collar worker  
• The President  • High-school student  
• Daughter   Grammar-school student  

• College student  • Soldier  • Waitress  
• Ski instructor  • Wife  • Father  • Lawyer  
• Bishop  • Chief of police  • Boss  • Artist  
• Engineer  • Sister  • Laundryman  • Golf pro  
• Teacher  • Nurse  • Psychiatrist  • Dentist  
• Sailor  • Cousin  • Janitor  
• Movie star  • Minister  • Truck driver

...and everyone else.

The functional alcoholic DOES NOT NECESSARILY:

  • Get drunk every time he/she drinks
  • Drink a large amount
  • Have hangovers
  • Miss a lot of work
  • Drink during the day, week, or month
  • Look bleary-eyed
  • Have slurred speech
  • Stagger
  • Drink in the morning
  • Become physically abusive
  • Crave a drink
  • Show up late for work
  • Have any kind of withdrawal symptoms
  • Get a DUI
  • Ever look drunk
  • Have blackouts
  • Get unpleasant or belligerent with other people

The family usually sees the first symptoms but is frequently unable to evaluate what those symptoms mean and often attributes them to other causes.

The functional alcoholic DOES have personal problems that are caused by or related to the use of alcohol, such as:

  • Sleep problems
  • Flash anger problems
  • Relationship problems
  • Thinking problems
  • Mood problems
  • Health problems
  • Employment problems
  • Social problems
  • Spiritual problems
  • Financial problems
  • Sexual problems
  • Emotional problems
  • Self-esteem problems
  • Family problems
  • Legal problems

All these problems usually have alternative and very plausible explanations. How, then, does anyone identify a developing addiction problem? Certain things begin to happen and, when examined carefully, a pattern slowly emerges. The following list is by no means complete but includes indications of the types of things to look for. Remember, the alcoholic is often a brilliant super achiever, is employed, and frequently is an admired citizen, right there in the midst of his/her problem.

The Family sometimes notices that their functioning alcoholic MAY:

  • Drink the first couple of drinks quite rapidly, but that isn’t such a big deal, is it?
  • Fix a drink first thing upon arriving home to relax, to calm down, after a hard day. It seems to be an innocent enough ritual.
  • Require a drink before dealing with any family problems, e.g., Johnny’s report card, washing machine breaking down, Aunt Matilda coming to visit, etc.
  • Consume “a drink or two” more even after the others have quit.
  • Have a ritually important night-cap “in order to sleep.”
  • Frequently seem unable to have just one or two drinks but doesn’t seem to get really “drunk”.
  • Show discomfort in situations where no alcohol is available, e.g., dislikes going to restaurants where no liquor is served, avoids even fun activities where there is no chance of a drink.
  • Make an excuse to leave a party early where the alcohol flow is moderate, even though his/her companion is having a good time.
  • “Draw a blank” about conversations or happenings which occurred while drinking, which would normally be remembered (blackouts).
  • Explain his/her drinking even though no one asked.
  • Make a big deal out of not drinking for a few days, weeks, even months.
  • Make promises that aren’t kept.

The functional alcoholic MAY miss work, at first sporadically, because of:

  • The twenty four hour flu, especially popular on Monday
  • Sinus headaches
  • Food poisoning
  • “Allergy flare-ups”
  • Minor accidents (sprained ankle, broken toe type, he/she usually asks someone else to make the excuse call to the place of work)
  • Upset stomach
  • Severe illness in the family
  • Death in the family
  • Bad cold
  • Back pain
  • Car trouble
  • Migraine
  • Cramps
  • Toothache
  • Fractures from unusual falls
  • Illnesses that are often related to excessive use of alcohol but provide legitimate excuses all by themselves, e.g., ulcers, gastroenteritis, diabetic crises, carditis, hypoglycemia, colitis.
  • Illnesses where clear-cut medical determination cannot always be made. Most doctors are rather reluctant to say to the patient that the pain in the head, back, neck, shoulder, etc., does not really exist, even when they cannot identify the cause.

The functional alcoholic may have the family convinced that THEY are the cause of such symptoms as:

  • Disinterest in family projects - home repairs, gardening, meal preparations, auto upkeep, kid’s schoolwork or special school programs, going out or staying home
  • Irritability, or “throwing a fit” over trivial things; argumentativeness
  • Aloofness, sarcasm
  • Mood swings; super happy or very down
  • Melancholy and/or extremes of anxiety
  • Forgetfulness, appointments not kept, errands not done
  • Disinterest in sex or an aggressive attitude towards sex
  • Spending more time alone
  • Any change in personal appearance - weight loss, weight gain (bloat)
  • Skipping meals or picking at food
  • Annoyance over or evasion of any discussion of his/her drinking
  • Complaints over the use of or lack of money
  • Procrastination
  • Becoming more and more withdrawn and isolated

And still none of these signs may be directly connected to excessive drinking. There are always other explanations, such as the death of a friend or relative, job pressure, health problems, divorce or separation.

As the early-stage functional alcoholic slides into the middle stage, we begin to see MORE OBVIOUS SIGNS:

  • Flushed face or grayish pallor
  • Eyes less clear
  • Nervous symptoms, e.g., high-keyed, possible chain smoking, constant coffee drinking, a very uptight appearance
  • His/her drinking becomes less and less predictable. Sometimes drinks “normally,” sometimes really “ties one on”
  • He/she makes sure there is “enough” liquor in the house. Buys large economy sizes. He/She is very upset if it runs out, goes to elaborate and frequently inconvenient lengths to replenish the supply, might even arrange a sudden visit to a friend where drinks are sure to be offered.
  • He/She may be having more frequent memory blanks. (blackouts).
  • When confronted about his/her drinking, becomes irritable, defensive, angry, or belligerent and tries to blame the confronter.
  • Might have a morning drink — a beer or two “to get going”
  • Explains (rationalizes) his/her drinking, e.g.,
  • Drank on an empty stomach — it really hit him/her
  • By accident, had to switch drinks — gin to rum, etc., and those are fatal combinations
  • Someone spiked the drinks Wasn’t drunk — had low blood sugar
  • Not drunk — was coming down with the flu
  • He/she shifts the issue to you; if you weren’t so nagging, penurious, extravagant, thoughtless, picky, cold, demanding, etc., he/she wouldn’t be forced to drink so much!

Remember, normal drinkers don’t EVER have to try to control their drinking: they don’t EVER have to drink only beer or wine: and they can CONSISTENTLY PREDICT how much they will drink, where they will drink, when they will drink, and HOW IT WILL AFFECT THEM.


One 12 oz. beer has…………... .42 oz .of alcohol

One 4 oz. glass of wine has….. .40 oz. of alcohol

One 1 oz. jigger of liquor has…. .40 oz. of alcohol

In other words, a drink is a drink; alcohol is alcohol.


This page outlines symptoms of Alcoholism which in the end can cost the addicted loved one his or her life, freedom, and sanity. Many people mistakenly believe that the alcoholic is someone on skid row, but it is well known that most alcoholics are functional members of society; they have their homes, jobs, and families. Their addiction has not progressed to bring them to the courts, jails, mental health facilities, or the streets...yet. Identifying those individuals who are suffering from this deadly disease is the first step in helping them find recovery.


Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church is a national membership organization with a mission to those who, through addiction, have lost their health and freedom. Our ministry seeks to:

  • Help the addicted, and those who love them, connect with spiritual resources and find lasting recovery,
  • Witness to Christ’s unfailing mercy by welcoming unchurched members of Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs into the Episcopal faith community,
  • Raise the awareness of Bishops, other clergy and leaders about the disease of addiction and the redemption and grace found in recovery, 
  • Strengthen recovering Episcopalians in the work of their recovery and help proclaim the Gospel in the world and carry their recovery into the Church.

© 1990 Janee S. Parnegg

© 2007 Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church, Inc. All rights reserved. Unauthorized copying of this publication is a violation of the Copyright laws of the United States. Please request permission before copying or using this material in any way.