While most people have likely heard the term ‘functional alcoholic’, Thembekile Msane from the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (SANCA) says the term is not used in a clinical sense when describing Alcohol Use Disorder.

“The myth of ‘functional alcoholism’ is one that we continuously try to dispel,” Msane says. “By educating people about AUD. People who consider themselves social drinkers or ‘functional alcoholics’ should be warned that this could develop into a more severe substance use disorder if their drinking patterns become more frequent or intense.

“Many young people start experimenting with alcohol from as early as ten years old. Alcohol use disorder happens in stages, and if children start to drink this early in life, they are at risk of progressing from mild to severe alcohol abuse disorder by the time they are in their twenties.”

Symptoms and health consequences of alcohol dependency

The health consequences of alcohol dependency include arthritis, gout, nerve and liver damage, irreversible brain damage, larynx cancer, and heart failure. Alcohol abuse can increase a person’s risk of sexual abuse and violence, and a risk of contracting STIs and HIV/AIDS. The following symptoms can also be identified from someone who suffers from AUD: trembling hands, numbness, a loss of memory, hallucinations, and dementia.

Some of the warning signs of alcohol use disorder include appearance changes, weight fluctuations, mood swings, secretive behaviour, aggression, and borrowing money from colleagues, friends, and family. Employers should look out for absenteeism and the inability to stick to deadlines often as these could be signs that the person is struggling with alcohol use disorder.

“People who consider themselves to be ‘functional alcoholics’ will often give different reasons of why they drink, like they are releasing stress, they still able to fulfil their duties that they are responsible for and as the behaviour continues they will start to distance and isolate themselves from friends and family,” Msane says.

“If a loved one lies about their drinking, their behaviour and drinking patterns changes from taking alcohol on a monthly basis to every day and often experiences a hangover or blackouts which becomes dangerous, this kind of pattern and behaviour requires an intervention and this would be an opportunity to address the matter and get help.”

Monitoring behaviour and addressing alcohol abuse

Communication is the start of a life-changing journey as it allows a family to discuss the problem and find a solution together, Msane adds. “Keeping record or observing the person’s drinking behaviour of how often it occurs will assist in getting professional help for them. This type of monitoring enables a family to access the proper referral channels if they need to resort to involuntary admission for the co-occurring disorder.

“Involuntary admission should be pursued if the alcoholic can no longer help themselves and they are at risk of endangering themselves or others.”

Tips for young adults

No under-18s are allowed to purchase or drink any form of alcohol as it is illegal. Most drugs are illegal, and a person could receive a criminal record when caught in possession of such substances.

Msane advises young people to evaluate their thoughts, feelings, and values about what leads them to start drinking alcohol or using drug. “Be aware of the impact of peer pressure, and don’t let friends influence your choices. Don’t drink or use any substance on the spur of the moment because you want to please your friends or wanting to fit in.

“Decide what could be the worst thing that could happen if you had to become intoxicated or drunk. Weigh-up what you stand to lose if you become addicted or dependent on alcohol or any other drug.”

To get help, the SANCA can be contacted on www.sancanational.info, via email sancanational@telkomsa.net, or via phone on 011 892 3829. A 24-hour Substance Abuse Hotline is run by the Department of Social Development on 0800 12 13 14. The suicide helpline number is 0800 567 567.