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Am I living with an alcoholic?

Living with someone who is struggling to control their drinking can be physically and emotionally exhausting. If you think someone close to you is showing signs of alcohol dependence, you might feel helpless. Stressed, anxiety and depression are all common responses to caring for a loved one whose drinking is affecting their life and yours.

It can be difficult to know how to differentiate heavy drinking from alcoholism, especially if a person is still able to manage their day-to-day life. The terms 'functioning alcoholic' or 'high-functioning alcoholic' are often used to describe people whose drinking is problematic but hasn't reached the point where they're incapacitated by it. They're often able to hold down successful jobs, maintain a social life and play their part in family life, to a degree.

But this term can be misleading, and is often replaced with 'currently-functioning' by professionals who understand the progressive nature of alcoholism. They may be able to function for now, but this won't last forever and things will get worse, sadly.

Signs you’re living with a currently-functioning alcoholic

If someone you love has a drinking problem, you are not alone. It's estimated that for every alcoholic, there are at least five other people affected by their disease. For this article, we talked to people with first-hand experience of living with an alcoholic, and they shared some of the warning signs that may help you to identify if the person in your life is addicted to alcohol.

  • Their drinking patterns are abnormal - drinking alone, in secret, with attempts to hide evidence of their drinking

"I would often go to bed earlier than my partner, and it took me a while to realise that the reason they wanted to stay up late without me was so that they could drink more on her own. I'd find empty bottles in the recycling bin outside, rather than in the kitchen bin. I found bottles stored at the back of cupboards, under the bed and even in the laundry basket. I knew then that the problem was worse than I thought." - George

"My husband would always find excuses to pop to the kitchen in the evening, and I know now that it was because he'd be sneaking more drinks from the fridge so I wouldn't see. It meant that for a long time he was drinking far more every evening than I realised. By the end of his drinking, he'd put alcohol into a mug in the morning so it'd look like he was drinking tea or coffee, when it was really booze." - Joanne

  • Drinking alcohol affects their temperament - they experience mood swings and seem to change when they drink, and become defensive or make jokes when challenged

"I used to describe mum as Jekyll and Hyde, because the change in her personality after she'd been drinking was so extreme. Sober, she was kind, funny and gentle, but when she drank she became argumentative, aggressive even. Then in the morning she'd be sweet and apologetic, but she just couldn't seem to see that it was the alcohol that did this to her." - Emily

"My girlfriend would joke that she was an alcoholic, and said that everyone who worked in her profession was. It was like she deliberately made reference to her heavy drinking so that others couldn't - she knew she drank too much but wasn't in denial, because she admitted it. But she was in denial - she just couldn't see it at the time. When I would challenge her, she would be incredibly defensive and point to other people's drinking to normalise her own." - Jamie

  • They struggle to cope with life's challenges without drinking, or drink in response to stress, trauma or loss

"My partner has an incredibly stressful job, and always blamed his drinking on the effect that this had on him. He worked long hours, so he always argued that he needed to drink to cope with the pressures of working in such an intense environment. He said that the thought of a drink was the only thing that got him through a day, sometimes. That was a really difficult stance for me to counter- his job is very demanding, and so I felt like I had no right to challenge his drinking in response to that." - Adam

"My wife's mother died suddenly when our children were very young, and I know that she struggled to process the loss while being a stay-at-home mum. She felt like she didn't have time to grieve properly, and was so focused on raising our girls during the day that she often drank to blackout when they'd gone to bed. She was exhausted, and felt under enormous pressure to maintain a family while battling with a traumatic bereavement. Drinking became her coping mechanism, but quickly developed into full-blown alcoholism." - Stewart

  • They display physical withdrawal symptoms when they don't have access to alcohol, and have an increased tolerance to alcohol, meaning they need more to feel its effects

"I can remember watching my sister's alcohol consumption gradually increase. We used to drink roughly the same on a night out, but then she started to outpace me, even trying to make me drink more than I wanted to so her drinking seemed normal. She moved to drinks with a higher alcohol percentage, and began to drink heavily before any social occasion so that people wouldn't realise how much she drank." - Louise

"When dad couldn't drink alcohol he became irritable and restless. He became reluctant to go anywhere where he'd have to stay sober to drive home, and clearly resented the times when our family life got in the way of his drinking. It put a huge strain on my mum, who had to shoulder the responsibility of parenting because he chose drink above us all. On the few occasions he'd tried to stop, he would get headaches and feel nauseous - but he would always deny that this was anything to do with drinking." - Chris

There's one word in Chris' last sentence which is often fraught with difficulty for those living with an alcoholic - denial.

Many people who struggle with alcohol continue to drink despite the risk factors associated with heavy drinking. Despite the best efforts of family members and friends, they cannot acknowledge that they've developed an alcohol addiction, and often lie to cover up their drinking to avoid the reality of their situation.

Alcohol abuse and alcoholism are pernicious conditions, and what's crucial to remember about denial is that the alcoholic in your life is not only lying to you - they're lying to themselves. This is, sadly, the nature of addiction: they're simply not able to recognise the damage they're doing to themselves and to others. Common defences offered by so-called functioning a alcoholics include:

  • Pointing to their professional success/career/job as evidence that they aren't financially affected by their drinking

  • Comparing their drinking to others in order to normalise the amount they drink (although problem drinkers tend to gravitate to like-minded people, so they may well socialise with others who drink heavily)

  • Using their family and friends as evidence of a life that is manageable (even if their drinking is having a detrimental effect on those around them)

Often, this denial is rooted in a deep-seated - if unacknowledged - fear. A person whose drinking is out-of-control will often be terrified of the prospect of stopping drinking, and this fear may cause them to act in irrational and inconsiderate ways.

At Montrose, we understand that living with someone who is in the grip of alcoholic addiction can feel overwhelming. Support is crucial for those who are caring for loved ones affected by this disease, and our expert team can help you navigate this difficult time as a family. We know that every family is unique, and together, we can help to reduce the stress and anxiety by providing coping strategies that support you and your loved one in their journey towards recovery.

Contact us to discuss how we can create a bespoke programme that can have a life-changing effect on you, your loved one and your family.

Photography by Keira Burton, Kindel Media and Rodnae Productions at Pexels.

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