Despite being universally accepted, alcohol is a dangerous and addictive drug. Although not as habit-forming as nicotine, heroin or cocaine, alcohol dependency still affects roughly 17 million Americans. Alcohol is also responsible for over 88,000 fatalities every year, making it the 4th largest cause of preventable death in the United States. In general, alcohol is also a major burden on society, with alcohol-induced violent crimes, accidents and hospital admissions costing taxpayers almost $300 billion per year.

With documentaries and fiction often recording or portraying alcoholism, it’s easy for myths and misconceptions to become part of the public psyche; however, this is dangerous, as it often makes it difficult to properly identify and address the addiction. Understanding alcohol dependency is key, as it can have a profound effect on your life or the life of someone you care about.

Myth: Alcoholics are Easy to Spot

When many of us picture an alcoholic, we think of someone like Barney from “The Simpsons” — a disheveled, uncoordinated and lethargic shell of a person. While Barney’s iconic belch is great for a laugh, he represents the minority of alcoholism cases.  In fact, only about nine percent of alcoholics display outward signs of addiction

The other 91% are what we colloquially refer to as “functioning alcoholics.” Unlike their physically and socially disrupted counterparts, these individuals appear to perform normally. They can hold jobs, socialize and superficially “keep it together.” In reality, however, their physical and mental health are suffering substantially. It’s this sense of personal cohesion that leaves most functioning alcoholics in a perpetual state of denial. Unfortunately for them, this lifestyle could last indefinitely, making it less likely that they’ll seek help until their behavior really starts to cause problems.

Myth: Alcoholics Drink All the Time

Many alcoholics aren’t compelled to drink constantly. They don’t consume whiskey with breakfast, drink on the job or get blackout drunk the second they arrive home from work. They often force themselves to control their urges to drink in order to provide some sense of imaginary control. Consequently, they trick themselves into believing that they don’t have a problem.

Myth: Alcoholics Belong to the Lower Class

It’s easy to think that only those who are “down on their luck” become alcoholics, but nothing could be further from the truth. Many rich individuals use or have used alcohol heavily. For instance, artists like Samuel L. Jackson, Daniel Radcliffe, Stephen King and Anthony Hopkins are all self-admitted recovering alcoholics. Some have been proudly sober for decades.

Myth: Alcoholics Mainly Harm Themselves

While the physical and mental consequences of alcoholism are limited to the addict, it’s impossible to claim that those around him or her don’t suffer just as heavily.

10% of children live with at least one parent experiencing alcohol dependency — functional or otherwise. Considering how alcohol can increase violent tendencies in some people, it’s not uncommon for these children to suffer physical or emotional abuse. Spouses and partners also fall victim to such behavior, resulting in criminal charges or even death.

If anything, it’s the people around addicts who suffer the most. Outsiders have to endure the frustration of seeing their friend or loved one live this destructive lifestyle, unable to convince them to seek help. Addicts, on the other hand, can live under the mistaken assumption that they don’t have a problem.

Nobody wants to become an alcoholic, so we should never ostracize or shun them. Alcohol abuse can be triggered by all kinds of things, such as genetic predisposition, depression or trauma. The key is to show understanding and support to guide addicts through their struggle and — hopefully — steer them to recovery.