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What is a Closet Alcoholic?

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

August 21, 2023 (Originally Published)

May 21, 2024 (Last Updated)

Table of Contents

Someone who attempts to conceal their alcohol abuse is sometimes informally labeled a closet alcoholic.

Oftentimes, a closet alcoholic goes to considerable lengths to hide their alcohol consumption from loved ones. Regrettably, this often leads to even more patterns of drinking like heavy drinking or binge drinking that may lead to alcohol addiction.

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Regardless of whether the person is hiding their alcohol consumption due to feelings of shame or stigma, or whether they are in denial that they have a problem, closet alcoholism can be damaging in many ways.

The primary danger is that someone who hides their alcohol abuse will be highly unlikely to engage with the treatment they need. With SAMHSA data showing that only 7% of those with alcohol use disorder get professional addiction treatment, today’s guide to closet alcoholism could help you initiate a dialogue with a loved one who is abusing alcohol and concealing that abuse.

Getting Help for Closeted Alcoholism

For those struggling with closeted alcoholism, the first step to getting help is simply acknowledging that you have a problem with drinking. Reaching out to friends, family, or professionals can be incredibly helpful, and can relieve the burden of secrecy you’ve been carrying. 

Conversations with empathetic and understanding listeners, or attending support groups with others in recovery can help you feel less alone as you begin your journey to recovery from alcohol addiction. Remember that seeking help is an act of strength, not weakness, and can lead you to a life-changing transformation and healthier future, free from the damaging consequences of addiction. 

(If you’re struggling with alcoholism, our confidential, free addiction hotline is available to you. Call 866.330.9449 today to speak with an addiction recovery specialist today.)

Closet Alcoholic Definition

Before we highlight how to identify the patterns of stealth drinking, a more thorough look at the closet drinker meaning.

Anyone who attempts to hide their alcohol abuse can be considered a closet alcoholic. This is a non-clinical descriptor with many variants, including:

  • Closet drinker
  • Functioning alcoholic
  • High-functioning alcoholic

While the amount of alcohol consumed and the patterns of consumption may vary, concealment is central to all cases of closet alcoholism.

Despite the name, a closet alcoholic may not be an alcoholic. Alcoholism is a chronic and relapsing condition formerly known as alcohol use disorder. Physicians and mental health specialists use DSM-5-TR to diagnose alcohol use disorder as mild, moderate, or severe, depending on the criteria present. DSM-5-TR is the most current edition of APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

One criterion for alcohol use disorder is an inability to control or discontinue alcohol use despite the issues it is causing personally and professionally. Many closet alcoholics do not manifest this symptom, although they satisfy other criteria.

Many closet alcoholics consume more alcohol recommended in CDC guidelines for moderate drinking. Many closet alcoholics also engage in patterns of binge drinking – consuming large quantities of alcohol within a short period. While both of these forms of alcohol consumption increase the risk of alcohol use disorder, they do not necessarily always co-occur.

Only a medical professional can accurately diagnose someone with an alcohol use disorder, but you can use the following red flags to determine whether a loved one you suspect of closet alcoholism is concealing their alcohol abuse or not.

Closet alcoholics often exhibit the follow behaviors:

  • Blacking out after excessive alcohol consumption.
  • Resisting any feedback or criticism concerning their drinking patterns.
  • Drinking alcohol before or after events to mask how much alcohol they are consuming.
  • Spending lots of time drinking alcohol alone.
  • Hiding supplies of alcohol.
  • Denying that a drinking problem exists due to lack of demonstrable adverse consequences.
  • Continuing to drink alcohol even though it inflames physical or mental health conditions.
  • Feeling guilty or ashamed if discovered when intoxicated.
  • Maintaining a well-groomed appearance.
  • Functioning in a professional capacity despite abusive drinking habits.
  • Ability to consume large amounts of alcohol without appearing intoxicated.
  • Drinking in potentially dangerous situations – before driving, for instance.
  • Consuming alcohol at lunchtime when working.
  • Lying to others about the amount of alcohol they consume.
  • Experiencing cravings for alcohol.
  • Using alcohol as a reward or a coping mechanism.
  • Drinking excessively on occasion but not drinking alcohol every day.
  • Compared themselves favorably to others they perceive as displaying more damaging patterns of drinking.
  • Attempting to control alcohol consumption.

Now you have a basic overview of some of the most common markers of closet alcoholism, we’ll explore some of the most overt signs of a closet alcoholic.

Signs of a Closet Alcoholic

  1. Engages in heavy drinking patterns
  2. Often denies the existence of a problem with alcohol abuse
  3. Conceals supplies of alcohol
  4. Consumes alcohol as a coping mechanism
  5. Rarely seems to suffer from hangover
  6. Compartmentalizes their life
  7. Experiences alcohol-induced blackouts
  8. Becomes intoxicated unintentionally
  9. Exhibits isolating behaviors

1) Engages in heavy drinking patterns

If a man consumes more than four standard alcoholic drinks daily or more than fourteen standard alcoholic drinks weekly, this is classified as heavy drinking. If a woman consumes more than three alcoholic drinks daily or more than seven alcoholic drinks weekly, this is also considered heavy drinking.

Although you may not know exactly how much alcohol your loved one is consuming, they could already be developing alcohol use disorder if they are habitually drinking heavily, and they could also be hiding the extent of their consumption.

An image of a Closet alcoholic

2) Often denies the existence of a problem with alcohol abuse

Perhaps you have already tried and failed to raise the topic of your loved one’s alcohol intake.

In many cases, a closet alcoholic will deny outright that they have any form of problem with alcohol abuse.

Instead of being frustrated at what you see as blanket denial of an obvious problem, consider this – in the first phase of alcohol use disorder, a progressive brain condition, the person may genuinely feel they do not have a problem with drinking. Over time and as the problem starts to become more obvious, some closet alcoholics find it easier to deny the existence of a problem than to deal with it.

Denial is central to many cases of alcohol use disorder, especially among closet alcoholics.

3) Conceals supplies of alcohol

If you suspect that a family member is hiding stashes of alcohol around the house, this is one of the most common indicators of closet alcoholism.

Many closet alcoholics appear normal at a glance, but this outward appearance is often grounded on maintaining a constant supply of alcohol.

4) Consumes alcohol as a coping mechanism

Most people who use alcohol as a coping mechanism have some form of problem with alcohol.

The specific reason for the use of alcohol is not important. Whether someone is self-medicating the symptoms of depression with alcohol, drinking to de-stress after a busy day at work, or drinking in the face of relationship problems, using alcohol as a crutch will typically lead to more serious problems developing, alcohol use disorder in particular.

5) Rarely seems to suffer from hangover

Chronic alcohol consumption often leads to physical dependence developing. This occurs when the function of the brain changes to accommodate the presence of alcohol. Over time, brain function can alter to the extent that it operates more efficiently with alcohol present.

Although a closet alcoholic who has developed physical dependence may not experience hangovers, adverse withdrawal symptoms will manifest around eight hours after the last alcoholic drink.

6) Compartmentalizes their life

Many closet alcoholics manage to conceal their alcohol consumption by rigidly compartmentalizing their lives.

Someone engaging in this pattern of alcohol abuse may limit themselves to a couple of beers when at the bar and then return home to consume more alcohol alone.

7) Experiences alcohol-induced blackouts

Many closet drinkers experience frequent blackouts, especially when they engage in heavy drinking or binge drinking.

If your loved one often seems to forget what happened during a drinking session, they could be drinking more than you realize.

An unfortunate by-product of blackouts is that an inability to remember adverse outcomes can mean the person feels no guilt for their actions. This can inhibit their desire to engage with treatment for alcohol use disorder.

8) Becomes intoxicated unintentionally

Sustained alcohol consumption causes tolerance to build so the person requires more alcohol to achieve the same effects. Tolerance is a precursor to dependence forming and often leads to addiction in the form of alcohol use disorder.

Once the person reaches this stage, they may often drink more than intended or drink alcohol for longer than intended – this is one of the criteria for alcoholism.

9) Exhibits isolating behaviors

If you feel that your loved one is spending increasingly lengthy spells alone, this could mean they are consuming alcohol surreptitiously. As with all the potential warning signs of closet alcoholism, this can be tough to isolate and may not necessarily mean your loved one has a drinking problem. When several of the above markers co-occur, though, it might be time to connect your loved one with the alcohol addiction treatment they need.

Alcohol Rehab at Renaissance Recovery

Whether you are a closet alcoholic contemplating treatment or you have already been diagnosed with alcohol use disorder, we offer a wide variety of therapies at differing levels of intensity at Renaissance Recovery.

Our alcohol use disorder treatment programs include:

  • OP: traditional outpatient program (2 to 3 hours of therapy sessions per week).
  • IOP: intensive outpatient program (12 to 15 hours of therapy sessions per week).
  • PHP: partial hospitalization program (30 to 35 hours of therapy sessions per week).
  • Virtual IOP: remote therapy allowing you to engage with online treatment for alcoholism.

For all those struggling with alcohol use disorder and a co-occurring mental health disorder, our dual diagnosis treatment program provides integrated treatment of both conditions.

Regardless of the appropriate level of treatment for your alcohol use disorder, you will have access to these therapies and interventions here at Renaissance:

  • Individual counseling
  • Group counseling
  • Psychotherapy (both CBT and DBT are effective for treating alcoholism)
  • MAT (medication-assisted treatment)
  • Family therapy
  • Holistic therapies

Once you complete your treatment program, you either move to a less intensive form of programming – from a PHP to an OP, for instance – or you transition directly back into daily living. Equipped with relapse prevention and management strategies along with the right level of aftercare, you will leave our beachside facility with a firm foundation in place for your ongoing sobriety.

To move from a closet alcoholic to recovery, call our friendly admissions team today for immediate assistance at 866.330.9449.



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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