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Misconceptions about alcoholism can make it sound like someone with alcoholism is easy to spot; however, many can 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 due to their drinking. It’s important to treat someone with high-functioning alcoholism just like all other people addicted to alcohol by helping them realize the severity of their addiction and encouraging them to seek treatment.
While no medical definition exists for a functioning alcoholic, characteristics can indicate that someone may have functioning alcoholism. A person with functioning alcoholism may show some of the criteria as someone with alcoholism but does not have the same repercussions in their life.
For example, this person may drink to excess, blackout or drink daily, but they can maintain their relationships and job and not have any adverse health issues due to their drinking. It can be hard to identify someone with functioning alcoholism because there are no clear indicators that alcohol use negatively impacts them.
The term “high-functioning alcoholic” can be harmful when trying to identify someone who may fall into that category. When we say high-functioning, it may lessen the seriousness of excessive and frequent alcohol consumption. If someone maintains their home life and work responsibilities and does not seem like the “typical” alcoholic, their drinking and the hazards that accompany drinking may be overlooked.
Different signs can point to someone having high-functioning alcoholism. Each person’s experience can be different, and no specific set of criteria exists. These are 10 common signs of someone with high-functioning alcoholism.
It’s common to see those with high-functioning alcoholism 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.
The behavior of someone with high-functioning alcoholism may significantly change while drinking. For example, a usually calm person may become outgoing, aggressive or even impulsive while consuming alcohol.
Despite saying they will have “just one drink,” someone with high-functioning alcoholism cannot limit their alcohol consumption. They tend to drink heavily while at a party or bar, and when it comes time for the last call, they quickly down their drink and then run to the bar to order another. Also, a person with high-functioning alcoholism may finish the drinks of others and never leave a drink on the table.
Many people with functioning alcoholism participate in activities they do not recall the next day — such as dancing on bars, going home with strangers, doing drugs, having sex and more. They may not seem extremely intoxicated at the time, but when asked about their behavior the next day, they cannot remember what happened.
Many of those with functioning alcoholism 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.” Something always causes them to drink, whether it’s stress at work, problems at home or an abundance of social activities.
Individuals with high-functioning alcoholism 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 daily and try to make light of a serious situation. In reality, they’re in deep denial about their addiction.
When they know other people will be around, a person with high-functioning alcoholism 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 for alcoholism and shouldn’t be ignored.
Because concealment is a huge part of their addiction, someone with high-functioning alcoholism often feels 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; in turn, they work harder to avoid mistakes in the future.
Another common sign of those with high-functioning alcoholism is that they can 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.
At some point, a person with high-functioning alcoholism 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.
Although a person with functioning alcoholism may not be easy to spot, the impact of too much alcohol consumption is very real. There are not only mental and physical complications, but everyday responsibilities, work and relationships may suffer when someone has functioning alcoholism.
A person with functioning alcoholism will try to hide their drinking habits from their loved ones and may become secretive or isolated from people. They may also lie about their drinking or refuse to recognize their drinking. All of these behaviors can cause issues in relationships.
Someone with functioning alcoholism may be able to hold a steady job, but they may have issues concentrating at work, showing up on time or completing tasks.
The mental and physical effects of diagnosable alcoholism can still apply to those with functioning alcoholism. Symptoms of excessive drinking, such as depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and other health concerns, can all become issues.
If you think someone you love falls into the category of a functioning alcoholic, there are ways you can help them address their drinking. The first step is confronting your loved one about their drinking habits and opening up the discussion. They may not realize that anyone else has noticed their drinking, so speaking to them from a place of compassion and concern rather than judgment is helpful.
You might also speak to others close to your loved one to assist with an intervention. You can come together and talk to them about their drinking habits and support them throughout their recovery if they choose to get help. Recommending groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can also be helpful when approaching someone with functioning alcoholism. They may not realize their drinking habits are harmful, and speaking with others who have had similar experiences could help them come to terms with their drinking.
Many different treatment options are available for those with functioning alcoholism, depending on the severity of their drinking and their personal needs. Inpatient treatment may be appropriate if your loved one requires a lot of assistance to stop drinking. Outpatient options, such as therapy, group therapy, support groups and intensive outpatient treatment, are also available for someone needing more flexibility in their recovery.
If you’re concerned that you or your loved one is struggling with high-functioning alcoholism, it may be time to seek help. Get started with one of our free and confidential assessments:
The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake is a state-of-the-art drug and alcohol treatment facility that treats functioning alcoholism. With many treatment options, licensed medical professionals, recreational activities and mental health resources, we can help your loved one on their road to recovery. 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.
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.
Because alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous – and even kill you – make sure you have medical advice from your doctor or a rehab facility when you decide to stop drinking.
Alcohol has both short and long-term risks, including addiction. The side effects of regular alcohol use can impact your mind, body, and social wellbeing.
In a recent study by The Recovery Village, 44% of respondents reported abusing alcohol in an attempt to ease uncomfortable feelings that stem from underlying anxiety.
Drinking more than three drinks in a single sitting will temporarily cause your blood pressure to rise, but extended binge drinking or regular alcohol consumption can cause a permanent increase in blood pressure.
An alcohol abuse problem can include binge drinking, having negative consequences such as hangovers with your drinking but continuing anyway, and drinking despite the desire to stop.
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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.
The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.
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