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Convincing A “Functional Alcoholic” To Go To Rehab

Brenda Munnerlyn, RN, BSN

Medically reviewed by

Brenda Munnerlyn, RN, BSN

March 4, 2019

Convincing a loved one to go to rehab is a difficult task that takes plenty of love, understanding, and patience. It is important to encourage them to seek treatment rather than forcing them into it. This guide outlines a few basic steps an individual can take to get their loved one into treatment.

Proper and safe alcohol use is often a socially acceptable way to have fun. However, many people in this situation develop what is referred to by many as “high functioning” alcoholism. People who commonly are thought to be high functioning in their addiction are often successful people who have slowly developed alcoholism and have adapted their life to deal with it as best they can to maintain success.

Even if this addiction doesn’t seem to impact their life, people with high functioning alcoholism are still doing serious damage to their body and mind and may end up suffering from severe personal problems later on. If you suspect that your loved one may have developed this kind of alcoholism, you must address the problem as soon as possible.

Getting your loved one into rehab will require a careful approach, one that is filled with love and respect. By the end of this article, you will know how to convince your loved one to go to rehab. You will also better understand the nature of their problem, where it begins, and how to hold an intervention. It won’t be easy, but we know you can do it and are here to help.

Identifying The Signifying Traits Of A “Functional Alcoholic”

Although we don’t like to use the term “alcoholic” (as it identifies the person by their addiction, rather than as a person), the term “functional alcoholic” is often used to describe a person who suffers from alcoholism and who also functions on a routine basis in life. Understanding the signifying traits of this problem can help you understand whether or not your loved one has fallen a victim to addiction.

First of all, those with functional alcoholism likely go to work every day and behave in responsible and productive ways. They aren’t struggling with legal or financial problems and are living a life that is comfortable and happy. However, if they are truly suffering from alcoholism they are unfortunately doing serious damage to their body and their mind and may end up developing more serious problems.

Addiction expert Robert Huebner, from the National Institute On Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism, states that “[Nobody] can drink heavily and maintain major responsibilities over long periods of time. If someone drinks heavily, it is going to catch up with them.” The surprising truth is that about 20 percent of all people who suffer from alcohol addiction can be considered high functioning.

What are the traits of a person who is suffering from functional alcoholism? These will vary depending on the person and sometime are not always stereotypical, but they typically include denial of the problem, using alcohol as a reward for a hard day of work, drinking to relieve stress, a happy personal life and good social connections, and a sparkling personality that contrasts with a life of addiction that may be increasingly difficult for them to maintain. Typically, they have a hard time having a single drink and may obsess over their next chance to drink or behave in uncharacteristic ways when they drink.

This double life may force your loved one to hide alcohol around the house, spend excessive time at the bar, drink when alone, keep excessive drinking from the family, and carefully separate their social and work lives. They may be struggling to avoid “hitting rock bottom” and are perhaps defensive about their drinking habits.

If you believe that your loved one’s personality traits fall under these descriptions, they may have “functional” alcoholism—though it should be noted that this is in no way an official medical term or diagnosis. It is worth understanding how this problem develops to give you better knowledge of the influences on their addiction.

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How A Person Becomes A “Functional” Addict

Obviously, a case of alcoholism doesn’t develop overnight. It can take years or even decades for a person to develop alcoholism on a functional scale. There are many influences on whether or not a person will develop this problem. According to the National Institutes On Health, one-third of those with functional alcoholism have a family history of alcohol addiction and a quarter will suffer from some form of depression.

Another major influence is how often a person drinks and how early they begin. Neuroscientists have found that alcohol seriously affects chemicals in the brain—called neurotransmitters—and changes the way the brain absorbs them. Regular doses of alcohol will cause the mind to adapt to its presence and make it alter these neurotransmitters to function more smoothly in the presence of excessive alcohol. Though this is obviously a defensive mechanism designed to protect the brain, it has the unfortunate side effect of increasing tolerance and creating dependence and addiction.

This isn’t the only way that functional alcoholism begins. A person who starts drinking early or who comes from a family where heavy and regular alcohol consumption is normal and acceptable is more likely to develop functional alcoholism. This is known as the “behaviorist” influence, as it develops due to learned behaviors. A person who has seen family members go through the rigors of functional alcoholism may be more likely to justify them later on in their life.

Addressing The Problem Carefully

If your loved one is in denial of the problem, he might still subconsciously understand that he is struggling with addiction. As a result, you may need to be gentle when you address the situation.

The first step is to approach your loved one during a time when they are sober. Your best chance might be during events with their children, as they may not want to drink in front of them. Start by simply and honestly expressing your concerns and discussing the ways that their addiction has affected you and other people in their lives. Use real and concrete examples to ensure that your loved one understands.

Compassion is important here, as is an understanding of their needs. You must be empathetic to their situation and express that you understand how difficult it is for them. Let them know that you forgive them for the problems their drinking has caused and that you only want the best for them. Chances are they will be suffering from a heavy emotional and even spiritual load from their addiction and will be willing to open up to suggestions.

Make sure to pull back a little if the discussion gets heated and to drop it if they seem agitated or aggressive. There’s no point in causing a serious fight because it might take multiple attempts for your suggestion of rehab to be accepted. It will be difficult to wait for this epiphany to strike, but patience is necessary here. Beating an addiction isn’t easy, so even one with functional alcoholism might not want to go through this process.

When your loved one is completely reluctant, it is time to break out the big guns and hold an intervention. A good intervention will include the support of multiple people, including friends, family members, children, romantic partners or spouses, co-workers, bosses, and a professional interventionist. All of these people will work together to make your loved one understand the grave nature of their addiction and to help them face the reality and the necessity of rehab.

Interventions can be very touch-and-go situations and holding one successfully requires a thoughtful approach and a loving atmosphere that respects the needs of your loved ones and gives them the fire and inspiration they need to complete treatment.

Staging A Successful And Positive Intervention

Interventions are a surprise meeting with friends and family members during which your loved one will be faced with an ultimatum: go to rehab and make a serious effort to quit or face negative consequences. Holding a successful intervention will surround them with love and support. Keeping a cool head is important in an intervention.

It is also important to hold an intervention following the proper steps. This makes sure that your loved one’s problem is address in a constructive manner. Stage a successful intervention by following these steps:

  • Do your research – Start by gathering information about your loved one’s behaviors, including when they use, where, and why. You also need to identify people who you think will be useful as support members during the intervention process.
  • Talk to an interventionist – Reach out to a professional interventionist who can guide you through the process. They will find a place to hold the intervention, give you lessons on approaching the process positively, and serve as a mentor.
  • Practice the day before – A good intervention typically takes two days to implement. Practice your intervention the day before to get an idea of how it will flow. This gives everyone the chance to hear how they sound and give a structure to what they want to say.
  • Bring your loved one to the intervention site – Make sure your loved one is sober the day of the intervention and bring them to the site without telling them what’s happening. Let them know what is happening immediately using positive and supporting language.
  • Discuss their choices – Let them know right away that they have two choices in the matter. They can either go to rehab or incur a negative consequence. This consequence must be something that matters to them, such as losing contact with important family members.
  • Express your love and affection – Interventions must feel loving and supportive or your loved one might react in a negative way. Everyone must express to them how their behavior has changed, the problems it has caused, and how badly they want them to beat their addiction.
  • Let them react – Give your loved one time to react to everything that has been said. There will be a lot to take in, and they’ll need some time to think things through before making a choice.
  • Execute their decision – The last step is following through with whatever decision they make. If they decide they want to go to rehab, immediately help them in getting admitted. If they don’t choose rehab, it’s necessary to execute the negative consequence. This is unfortunate, but it has to be done in an effective intervention. Thankfully, most people accept help in an intervention.

By honestly and thoughtfully expressing your love, devotion, and support for your loved one in an intervention, you can help them accept rehab as an important part of their personal recovery. You are surrounding them with inarguable evidence of the negative side effects of their addiction and proof that they are loved and respected.

What To Expect During Recovery

There are many misconceptions about rehab, but modern drug rehabilitation is an evidence-based and scientific approach that is designed to treat addiction at all levels.

It is possible that your loved one is worried about relapsing after finishing rehab. The truth is, relapse isn’t a failure, but a learning experience. It will help your loved one understand what drives their alcohol addiction and how to beat it. While relapse is obviously not ideal, it can still be used in positive ways. Interestingly, studies show that 50 to 60 percent of those who finish rehab stay sober after a year, and those who relapse achieve success when they go back to rehab.

Perhaps they are worried about suffering from the pains of serious detoxification. While it’s true that unassisted detox can result in vomiting, withdrawal seizures, hallucinations, delirium tremens, and other serious problems, this isn’t likely in a rehab center. They will receive medications to help ease them off of alcohol and through withdrawal. Other medicines, such as alcohol antagonists, may be prescribed to make it impossible for them to drink during recovery.

The next step after detox is the rehabilitation process. This includes a variety of psychotherapy methods, such as individual counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, and group therapy. These methods will identify negative life experiences and thought patterns that contribute to addiction. Skills lessons will be taught to teach them how to fight relapse cravings and avoid falling back into addiction. They will identify their triggers and learn ways to cope with them in a safe and healing environment.

Other treatment methods may include religious support to help strengthen their spiritual focus. Yoga and meditation are often taught to give them a healthier way to cope with the negative influences and stresses of life. Adventure therapy is a fun option for many, as it thrusts them into the wild and forces them to learn new survival and coping skills in an all-natural environment. Luxury rehab can often feel like a vacation, as they will have access to highly comfortable living environments, pools, exercise areas, massages, and even computer access should they want to stay on top of their business needs.

Which of these methods will be used in their treatment? Whatever treatments they and their addiction experts believe are best for their individual recovery. Your loved one will have a say in every aspect of their treatment and can pick methods that appeal to their unique personal needs. Best of all, all the treatment methods in a good rehab center have been scientifically-tested and approved for addiction recovery. Your loved one will have a holistic or whole person recovery that supports every step of their personal health and recovery.

Once they walk out the doors of rehab, though, it is up to them to maintain sobriety for the rest of their lives. A good rehab center will help set them up with a support group, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, to drive their success. Halfway houses are often available, if necessary, as are outpatient visits directly with the clinic. In this way, your loved one can stay in touch with people they trust at the center and use those positive emotional connections to beat relapse cravings.

Recovering from functional alcoholism is a serious journey and one that requires a first step. Making the decision to attend a rehab center is one that they will be glad they made for years to come. It takes an open heart and mind to beat addiction and a dedication to learning a life of sobriety that may be new to them. However, recovery is one of the best ways to ensure that their life is positive and successful.

There Is Hope

Now you know that it is possible to address your loved ones “functional” alcoholism in a healing and loving manner. It may take several weeks or even months to fully plan a successful recovery, but that planning is all worth it when your loved one steps into rehab and comes out clean and committed to their health. With your help, the path to recovery will be present in no time.

Please reach out to us at if you need help with any step of this process. We can assist you in finding a devoted interventionist who will get you and your loved one through to the next step in this journey. Our experts are available for getting you in contact with the best alcohol treatment facilities and making sure your loved one is in good hands during rehab. Contact us today, we are here to help you!

Psychology Today - - Characteristics Of High-Functioning Alcoholics -

Psychology Today - - Ways to Approach The High-Functioning Alcoholic In Your Life -

WebMD - Are You A High-Functioning Alcoholic?

WebMD - Understanding Alcohol Abuse Treatment

National Institutes Of Health - Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes

National Institutes On Alcohol And Alcoholism - Neurobiology of Alcohol Dependence: Focus on Motivational Mechanisms

Psych Central- - How To Help A High-Functioning Alcoholic In Denial -

The National Association for Christian Recovery - Crisis Intervention and Mistakes Families Make

Unity Behavioral Health - The Essential Guide To Best Alcohol Rehabilitation

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