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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Gender and age are just a few factors that can influence a person’s risk for alcoholism. Other factors can include:
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.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a 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 provider.