18/10/2012 19:25 BST | Updated 18/12/2012 05:12 GMT

'Functional Alcoholics' - An Oxymoron Fuelling Denial

Flickr: alex ranaldi

If you are alcoholic you cannot function as a whole person. That is one definition of the condition. There is a behaviour in place (alcohol) that compensates for an emotional need (eg stress, self esteem, intimacy) that has become a need in its own right (continued drinking) so that this emotional need does not leak into the real world. Thus the person is not really known by those 'close' to them, as they perpetuate an image, a version of themselves, that is not quite the truth, all the while bolstered by alcohol. So do they function? Or do they only function?

Last week's press commented on a middle class population drinking themselves into ill health and I believe these are the very same 'functional alcoholics'. The commuters, workers, mums in the school yard - these are today's problem drinkers it seems 'responsible for 10 times the costs of young drinkers' according to Alcohol Concern, 'unwitting[ly]... taking serious risks with their health' and drinking their stresses and exhaustion away. Only it doesn't go away, it sits there ignited into its own need for more alcohol. To drink alcohol to compensate for emotional need is to make a monster.

And this functional behaviour, is this to appear civilized, all the while arguing and stressing behind the scenes?

I meet children of functional alcoholics who are often scapegoated into addictive behaviour themselves. Mutinous they sit in my rooms, often with a parent wringing their hands, bemoaning their loss of potential. And when these children start talking they are angry. They have often been given money to fix emotional need, as it is the currency that enables the parent to feel functional. They have been placed second to the drinking. The lies and secrets that they have been silently asked to keep so that the alcoholic status quo can rule has left them no alternative but to act out, or act in. Welcome to ACOA - the adult child of an alcoholic: self sufficient yet insecure, these children also often feel guilty about their feelings of anger and sense of neglect as they can see their parent is working 'so hard' or is 'so damaged' or that the child is 'given everything' so wherefore this sense of loss, of anger?

But sadly it does not surprise me. The denial in our society is supreme. Drinking is endorsed, celebrated as a badge of strength - caner's pride - or brushed under the carpet (again) with bullish denial that shames the concerned into silence: 'it wasn't that bad', 'everybody does it', 'lighten up', or 'do you want me to stop drinking and stay at home every night?' Or some such variation on a theme that employs tactics that minimize, exaggerate, universalise, generalise - whatever they do they ameliorate the fact and park the issue one more time.

It is so very very hard for a family member to bring a concern about a loved one's drinking - so hard that most people miss the opportunity for early intervention, coming to someone like me when they are on their knees - can you save my marriage / my job / have I ruined my children? But I need to say that the shame, fear and regret does not have to be such a burden if you get help sooner!

Catch the problem at the point of abuse - alcohol abuse, drug abuse, verbal or physical abuse: none of these are worth tolerating in someone you love as it enables them to be a lesser person, and they wont thank you for it. Help them to address whatever it is that is driving the abusive behaviour so that they can return to 'normal living'. What I can tell you is that if you leave it until it becomes an addiction, a force in its own right, then we are looking at a life of abstinence as an essential part of the medicine.

Early intervention is a blessed gift! It makes my job easier, the treatment is less painful and intrusive, you will lose less self respect and your children will know the meaning of 'no means no', as they will see you do the right - albeit unpopular- thing.

That child who has had to barometer test a room before entering to know how to position themselves; that child who has received smacks and insults instead of love, wads of cash instead of time; that child who picks up after the parent, who gets their own tea, who doesn't go to the park or have friends back on a regular basis; that child whose life has no regularity to it at all as unmanageability rules and they begin to stop asking; that child whose mother makes excuses for their father (or vice versa)... that child is our future.

Introduce me to the functional alcoholic and I will also show you the co-dependent partner, often exhausted, taken for granted and resentful. I will show you the future of the child through the lens of the parental relationship and I ask you - you may function at one level, but is it really enough?