Dysfunctional vs Functional Alcoholics

functional alcoholicEveryone has heard the terms “functional alcoholic” and “dysfunctional alcoholic.” These terms are generally used to describe the difference between an alcoholic who can still meet responsibilities and one who cannot. These terms are used in a somewhat black and white way, as if every alcoholic fits into one of these two categories. I would argue that, not only is there nothing black and white about how functional an alcoholic is, but also that the entire concept of a functional vs. dysfunctional alcoholic is a false dichotomy.

The traditional definition of a functional alcoholic is one who is responsible by day and drunk by night. They are able to hold a job, go to school, have relationships and have a meaningful life. However, they have a deeply ingrained habit of escaping into alcohol on a regular basis. The term “functional alcoholic” implies that the alcoholism has no consequences. This is simply not the case.

The traditional definition of a dysfunctional alcoholic is a person who has lost their ability to be responsible to their alcoholism. They are unable to hold a job, go to school, care for the people in their life, manage money or care for their own health. They are self-destruction on legs. This term would indicate that the individual’s alcoholism has made them a throw-away person. This is also not the case.

The truth is that both terms are misleading. In reality, there are functional humans, and then there are alcoholics. Applying the adjective “functional” to any alcoholic is an oxymoron. Alcoholism is an addiction and a disorder. It is impossible for a person to be an alcoholic and not negatively affect some part of their life, even if it is just instilling fear and stress into their loved ones and lying to them about their habit. No alcoholic is free of dysfunction. An alcoholic’s level of dysfunction is based on a sliding scale, and the downward slide accompanies every level of alcoholism, from mild to severe.

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