What is a High Functioning Alcoholic?

What is a High Functioning Alcoholic?

Alcohol addiction can take many forms. Here, learn what a high functioning alcoholic is so you can determine whether you or a loved one needs treatment.

Substance use disorders can ruin the lives of those who have them. Oftentimes, people who are alcoholics or drug addicts will show strong signs that they are struggling with addiction. But sometimes, addiction can be more subtle.

Definition of High-Functioning Alcoholic

Alcohol is one of the only mind-altering substances that is legal for recreational use in this country. Because of this, many people are able to abuse alcohol without others knowing the full extent of their addiction. People who are able to maintain a relatively normal work and personal life despite meeting the criteria for being addicted to alcohol are called high-functioning alcoholics.

High-functioning alcoholics are also called ‘functioning alcoholics’ or ‘working alcoholics’. While many people suffering from alcohol use disorder show obvious signs of their problem, functioning alcoholics do not. They may be able to hide their addiction from work colleagues, friends, and even family. Yet, long-term alcohol abuse has near-certain health consequences.

Just because someone who is a high-functioning alcoholic does not seem like their life is falling apart, does not mean there is no problem. Someone like this could be right on the edge of a disaster such as getting in a car accident while under the influence, or suffering from heart failure or liver failure.

The risks of alcohol abuse are many, and while some addicts may be capable of hiding their problem from others, there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ or ‘under control’ addiction to alcohol.

Signs of a Functioning Alcoholic

If you suspect someone close to you may be a high-functioning alcoholic, but you aren’t sure enough to approach them about it, there are some signs you can look for to make a more informed decision.

Here are 10 Telltale Signs of a Functioning Alcoholic:

  1. Drinking in the morning
  2. Drinking alcohol to gain confidence in social situations
  3. Drinking more heavily than others often
  4. Blacking out when drinking
  5. Drinking in order to relax or ‘feel better’
  6. Drinking alone
  7. Drinking and driving, operating machinery, or engaging in otherwise ill-advised behavior when under the influence of alcohol
  8. Making jokes or backhand comments about having a drinking problem
  9. Getting defensive or angry when questioned or confronted about alcohol consumption
  10. Missing school or work more often than usual for being ‘sick’ or not feeling well

Not everyone with an alcohol problem falls into either a ‘functional’ or ‘dysfunctional’ category. In fact, scientists from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) found that there are five main types of alcoholics. In the same study, they found that around 20 percent of all people with an alcohol use disorder were very functional people who were well-educated and earned plenty of money. 

If no one knows that an individual is a heavy drinker, and that person sees no substantial impact on their work or personal life, then they might not feel motivated to stop drinking. But keeping their addiction a secret puts high-functioning alcoholics in a dangerous position. With no one to talk to about their problem, it is only likely to get worse. 

Most of these common signs of high-functioning alcoholics are not enough evidence on their own to assume someone has a drinking problem. However, if someone displays more than a few of these signs, this may point to an issue. 

How to Tell if Someone is an Alcoholic

In some cases, high-functioning alcoholics are so good at hiding their behavior that they will not show any of the above signs. In these cases, there is often a family member or a close loved one who has a feeling that something is just not right. With persistence and some close observation, loved ones can usually get to the truth about an alcohol problem.

If someone is addicted to alcohol, they will be physically and mentally dependent upon drinking.

  • Physical dependence means that they will go through withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking or significantly reduce their drinking suddenly.
  • Mental dependence is a broader term that encompasses all the different mental aspects of addiction. These include cravings for alcohol as well as feeling depressed, anxious, or abnormal without alcohol. 

The important takeaway here is that even a high-functioning alcoholic will undergo a lot of discomfort – both physical and mental – if they stop drinking.

If they insist on being alone at suspicious times, or seem to be reclusive or resistant to spending too much time together, they could be hiding an addiction.

Look closely for unhealthy drinking habits, and be persistent when trying to find out if someone close to you is drinking excess alcohol. You could be the catalyst for them seeking the treatment they need and turning their life around before any major damage is caused by their habit.

Treatment for High-Functioning Alcoholics

Getting a high-functioning alcoholic into treatment can be difficult. By nature, this kind of drinker will avoid treatment because they are still hiding their problem from others and, sometimes, from themselves. But high-functioning alcoholics cannot continue to live forever without any consequences from their excessive drinking.

Eventually, drinking too much will catch up with a person. Even the mildest cases of alcohol use disorder have major consequences if left untreated. Alcoholism is a progressive disease, meaning it gets worse as time goes on if it is left untreated. 

Continuing to drink alcohol excessively has many negative long-term health effects.

Physical & Mental Health Risks for Alcoholics

  • Pancreatitis
  • Liver disease
  • Heart problems
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Cancer
  • Brain and nerve problems
  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Memory loss
  • Immune system problems
  • Bone problems

These are just the long-term health concerns associated with heavy drinking. This list does not include the immediate risks of drinking heavily, such as accidents, traumatic injuries, and poor decisions. 

There is no shame in recovering from alcohol addiction. At a treatment center, resources such as therapy, medications, and support groups will help addicts to gain control over their drinking. It might seem overwhelming or embarrassing to seek out treatment, but it is always worth it.

Some treatment centers even offer highly private, anonymous services so you can get the help you need without exposing yourself to others.

If you or someone you love has a drinking problem, do not hesitate to call for help. A small problem can become serious very quickly, and there is no such thing as an alcoholic who has their drinking ‘under control’. Make the call to our treatment specialists today!

Written by Spring Hill Editorial Team

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This page does not provide medical advice.