10 Signs & Symptoms Of A High-Functioning Alcoholic

Written by Theresa Valenzky

& Medically Reviewed by Nanci Stockwell, LCSW, MBA

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Last Updated - 09/12/2023

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Updated 09/12/2023

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There are many misconceptions about alcoholism that make it sound like an alcoholic is an easy person to spot, however, many alcoholics function effectively and lead relatively normal lives. These people are known as the functional subtype.

Just because someone is high-functioning doesn’t mean they’re not at risk of hurting themselves or others as a result of their drinking. It’s important to treat high-functioning alcoholics just like all other addicts by helping them realize the severity of their addiction and encouraging them to seek treatment.

10 Signs Of A High-Functioning Alcoholic

1. They Drink Instead Of Eat

It’s not uncommon to see high-functioning alcoholics replace meals with a few drinks. They tend to lose all interest in food, and instead, use mealtime as an excuse to start drinking again.

2. Their Behavior Changes Significantly While Drinking

A high-functioning alcoholic’s behavior may change significantly while drinking. For example, a usually calm person may become outgoing, aggressive or even impulsive while consuming alcohol.

3. They Can’t Just Have One Drink

Despite saying they’re going to have “just one drink,” high-functioning alcoholics are unable to limit their alcohol consumption. They tend to drink heavily while at a party or bar, and when it comes time for last call, they quickly down their drink then run to the bar to order another. Also, high-functioning alcoholics will finish the drinks of others and never leave a drink on the table.

4. They Frequently Blackout After Drinking

Many alcoholics take part in activities that they have no recollection of the next day – such as dancing on bars, going home with strangers, doing drugs, having sex, and more. At the time, they may not seem extremely intoxicated, but when asked about their behavior the next day, they’re unable to remember what happened.

5. They Always Have An Explanation For Why They Drink

Many alcoholics use denial or aggression as their chosen mode of avoidance, but others have a seemingly rational explanation for their behavior. They say things like, “I drink because there’s so much stress at work,” or “my kids are driving me crazy.” It’s always something that causes them to drink, whether it’s stress at work, problems at home, or an abundance of social activities.

6. They Frequently Joke About Alcohol

High-functioning alcoholics typically joke about their drinking habits. They say things like, “we can’t let these drinks go to waste” or “rehab is for quitters.” They laugh about how much alcohol they consume on a daily basis and try to make light of a serious situation. In reality, they’re in deep denial about the reality of their addiction.

7. They Hide Their Alcohol

When they know other people are going to be around, high-functioning alcoholics may sneak a drink early, drink before going out to the bar or club, or drink alone. They also may sneak drinks from a bottle in their desk or car. This hidden drinking and secretive lifestyle is a huge red flag when it comes to alcoholism and shouldn’t be ignored.

8. They Experience Shame Over Their Behavior

Because concealment is a huge part of their addiction, high-functioning alcoholics often feel shame or remorse after incidents where their behavior is sloppy after drinking. This type of reckless behavior isn’t part of the image they’ve worked so hard to create, and in turn, they work harder to avoid mistakes in the future.

9. They Separate Sections Of Their Life

Another common sign of high-functioning alcoholics is that they are able to separate their drinking from other parts of their life. Who they are when they’re at home, work, or with casual acquaintances is completely different from who they are when they’re in the routine of drinking.

10. They Try To Quit But Always Fail

At some point, a high-functioning alcoholic has tried to quit drinking but failed in their attempt. This pattern is often repeated, and you may notice that they go through periods where they drink heavily and then make an attempt to quit. Even though they continuously go through this cycle, they still refuse to seek treatment. This is part of their personality where they feel like they can handle their drinking on their own without getting help from others.

Risk Factors For Alcoholism

Gender and age are just a few factors that can influence a person’s risk for alcoholism. Other factors can include:

  • Peer influence
  • History of trauma
  • An impulsive personality
  • Family history of alcoholism
  • History of other substance abuse
  • Presence of an underlying mental health disorder
  • Drinking at an early age, such as before the age of 15. The CDC’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that among high school students, during the past 30 days, 29% drank alcohol and 14% binge drank. In Colorado, where we’re located, SAMHSA estimated that 42,000 people aged 12 – 17 had drunk alcohol in the past month, according to a study from 2016 – 2017.

Find the Help You or Your Loved One Needs

If you’re concerned that you or your loved one is a high-functioning alcoholic, it may be time to seek help. Get started with one of our free and confidential assessments:

If it’s time to seek help, contact us to learn about our treatment approach and facilities. We have a long history of providing successful substance abuse treatment at our Palmer Lake, Colorado facilities.

Sources

NIH. “Alcohol Alert.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, July 1997. Accessed July 23, 2021.

NIH. “Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes.” National Institutes of Health, June 28, 2007. Accessed July 23, 2021.

Glauser, Wendy. ““High-functioning addicts”: interven[…]before trouble hits.” CMAJ: Canadian Medical Association Journal, 2014. Accessed July 23, 2021.

Gilbertson, R; Prather, R; Nixon, S. “The Role of Selected Factors in the Deve[…] Alcohol Dependence.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2021. Accessed July 23, 2021.

CDC. “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, October 27, 2020. Accessed August 3, 2021.

SAMHSA. “Colorado – National Survey on Drug Use[…]alth, 2016 and 2017.” 2017. Accessed August 3, 2021.

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