The 4 Stages of Alcoholism for the Functioning Alcoholic
Functional alcoholism is a term that hits close to home for many families. But in most cases, the only person who truly believes they are “functioning” is the person in question. At Addiction Campuses, we believe that you can wait for that person to suffer consequences such as a job loss, DUI, or worse – or you can do something to keep it from progressing.
These are the four stages of alcoholism for the functioning alcoholic. Which stage are you in?
The Myth Of The “Functioning Alcoholic”
As long as I have been in recovery and working as a treatment specialist, I have heard the term “Functioning Alcoholic” used many times. I find that it is often used as an excuse not to get help. It is also a way for someone to differentiate themselves from being a stereotypical alcoholic. The reality is both a “functioning alcoholic” and a “stereotypical alcoholic” – are alcoholics. The “functioning alcoholic” is just waiting for the bottom to drop out.
I want to ask you, for a moment, to picture what an alcoholic looks like. Is this person a disheveled homeless man? Is he hanging in the alley with a liquor bottle in a brown paper bag, or asking for spare change on the street? Could it be a man sitting at the bar day after day nursing his whiskey and crying about his wife how has left him? Maybe you’re picturing an angry, drunken family member that you were told to stay away from as a child? Are you imagining a person that’s lost everything worthwhile in their life – like a home, a career, car, family, self respect? I ask because these are the images that went through my mind when I thought about an alcoholic.
When I compared myself and my drinking to these conjured figures, I certainly was not an alcoholic. I was young, vibrant, and a woman. I hadn’t totaled a car. I hadn’t lost my family. I hadn’t lost a career. I was a college student.
The truth is, I just wasn’t there yet. But I was on my way. Alcoholism is a progressive disease. We often compare the disease of addiction to cancer because no one chooses to get cancer, just like no one chooses to become an alcoholic. Both diseases need professional treatment and both diseases have stages.
Let me walk you through the 4 stages of alcoholism.
Stage #1: Binge Drinking & Increased Tolerance
Are you drinking to get drunk?
This may sound like an odd question. Who doesn’t drink to get drunk?
The truth is that the average drinker without the disease of alcoholism doesn’t aim become intoxicated when they drink. The average drinker doesn’t like to feel that loss of control; the feeling of oblivion. Alcoholics on the other hand, love it. When I was drinking, oblivion was the feeling I sought most. I continued to drink because it felt good to me. When I was hammered drunk, I felt normal.
When I was in Stage #1 I didn’t drink everyday. I went days, sometimes a few weeks without drinking. I performed in my daily life. Drinking didn’t consume my thoughts and my days were not based around when I could have something in my system.
When I did drink however, I had a purpose: to get intoxicated. I would embarass myself by falling down stairs, dropping my drink, and hanging on random strangers at the bar. Eventually, it started to take more and more alcohol at a time to get the feeling that I wanted to achieve. Where it used to take two beers and a couple shots to get me to where I wanted to be, I started to have to drink more to reach that feeling of oblivion.
In Stage #1, you may think that you’re a “functioning alcoholic” because you’ve kept your job, your car, your relationships with friends and family – but you’re not because once you take the first drink, you have little to no control over how much you will consume.
Stage #2: Drinking as a Coping Mechanism
Do you drink to feel better?
Drinking to unwind sounds perfectly reasonable. It’s not uncommon to want to unwind at the end of the day with a glass of wine or a cold beer. Relaxing with some girlfriends on Friday night over margaritas is a lot of fun. However, this isn’t what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is the mental obsession that comes before the drink.
When I was drinking, the only way that I could imagine relieving any amount of stress was by drinking alcohol. If my day at work was not going the way that I had planned, I couldn’t wait to clock out and have a beer. By the time Friday rolled around, my first thought was getting to the bar and tying one on. As soon as the alcohol began to metabolize in my body, I felt like I could finally take a deep breath. I honestly felt better when I had a buzz going.
Over time, I really began to have no other coping skills for life. There wasn’t any negative feeling that alcohol didn’t make better. On the flip side, when I was happy, alcohol increased my mood even more. Every Friday was a celebration.
Sure, I didn’t have to drink. I wasn’t physically addicted to alcohol. I didn’t shake in the morning. I made it to work on time every day. My appearance wasn’t altered in anyway. Sure, I was hungover a couple times a week, but who wasn’t? I just liked to party and cut loose.
In Stage #2, you might feel like you’re a “functioning alcoholic” because you still have your job – even though you’re hungover some mornings, you still have your car, and your relationships still seem intact. But you’re not a functioning alcoholic because drinking is your only coping mechanism. You are drinking to deal with stress. You are drinking to deal with success.
Stage #3: Isolation/ Legal Problems/ Depression
Do you have consequences yet?
Have people begun to question your drinking? Stage #3 is all about managing your drinking.
I had to start managing my drinking when the consequences started piling up: People were starting to question me about my drinking, my life, my state of mind, the people that I spent my time with. Alcohol was slowly becoming my only friend.
The problems vary by person, but this is what these consequences may look like to you.
- Isolation: Friends and family have made you feel uncomfortable about drinking around them. They have told you that your drinking concerns them. They worry about you getting behind the wheel after leaving the bar or a party. Maybe they have had to remind you about the night before because you can’t remember. You feel embarrassed and either chose to stay home and drink or go out by yourself.
- Legal Problems: Have you gotten your first DUI? This too can cause you to stay home and drink rather than go out. Or maybe you’re still driving intoxicated? Maybe you haven’t been pulled over yet – but there have been many times that you should have, and you chose to drive anyway. This experience is truly frightening… Waking up in the morning and wondering how you drove home and if you hit anyone with your car in the process.
- Depression: It begins to hit hard, too. Alcohol acts like a depressant inside of our minds and bodies. Alcohol in chemical form begins to make us feel down and sometimes hopeless. As I noted above, when alcohol becomes our only way of coping with stress and unhappiness, drinking more of it our depression only deepens.
I began my to attempt to manage my drinking. I made rules for myself. I wouldn’t drink when I was angry or sad. I would only drink beer. I would only drink wine. Instead of shots, fruit mixed drinks. I would only drink when when I didn’t have to work the next day. I changed my group of friends. I changed boyfriends. If I felt like my job was to blame, I would find another job. In fact, I thought to myself, I won’t even keep alcohol in the house.
I thought I was managing just fine. I was still able to go to work. I decided to take a few semesters off to figure out what I wanted to major in. I went to a psychiatrist who prescribed me antidepressants. I informed my family that I was clinically depressed. I was using alcohol to cope, but now everything was going to be fine. The truth was that I was falling apart inside and I couldn’t figure out why. I kept comparing myself to the homeless alcoholic under the bridge, surely that wasn’t me. I kept driving. Intoxicated.
In Stage #3, you might feel like you’re a “functioning alcoholic” because you still have a job – even though you may have changed jobs a few times, you still have your car – even though you may drive intoxicated, and you still have some relationships – even though they’re not the same. But you’re not a functioning alcoholic because now your life revolves around the problems and consequences, and managing your drinking.
Stage #4: Change in Appearance, High Blood Pressure, Liver Issues
How does your body look and feel?
Once you hit Stage #4, your body is no longer what it used to be.
When you are looking in the mirror, do you recognize yourself? There is nothing pretty about this stage. Outward appearances begin to really change. There is sometimes a flush to the skin. A distended stomach, or “beer belly.”
Have you been to the doctor lately? Have you been put on blood pressure medication yet? How are your liver enzymes? How does your stomach feel? When it gets late at night are you afraid that you won’t have enough alcohol to get you through? In the morning do your hands shake? Has your doctor put you in prescriptions for heartburn, high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, or diabetes?
No one should drink everyday. It’s not healthy. Many people feel that they are functioning at this stage because they still get up in the morning and go to work. Maybe they are a little buzzed from the night before, but they get there. Men especially hang their hat on the fact that they still go to work everyday and bring home a paycheck.
In Stage #4, you may think you’re a functioning alcoholic, but let me ask you:
- You might still have a job, but what is your performance like?
- You might still have a family, but are you present for them?
- Your body may still be working, but for how much longer?
- You might think you’re a “functional alcoholic” but is that all you want to do with your life, just “function?”
In Stage #4, you’re not a “functioning alcoholic” because you’re not performing well at work, you’re not present for your family, your body is deteriorating, and it takes everything in you just to “function.”
Alcoholism is a progressive disease. People with alcoholism don’t just wake up and find themselves at Stage #4. It takes time to get there, and depending on the person, the time spent at each stage can vary from weeks to months to years.
It doesn’t have to get worse before it gets better. You can catch it before using alcohol as a coping mechanism, before the DUIs, before the isolation, and before the distended stomach.
The only way to do this is to stop fooling yourself into thinking you’re a “functioning alcoholic,” – because a functioning alcoholic is STILL AN ALCOHOLIC.