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What is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

May 4, 2023

Table of Contents

Many who abuse alcohol believe themselves to be high-functioning alcoholics, this is a negative line of thinking. While they may be able to get through the day with their habits, it is not a healthy lifestyle and addiction treatment should still be the goal.

Almost 15 million Americans have alcohol use disorder, according to the 2019 NSDUH (National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Today we’ll go over some ways to identify characteristics of a high-functioning alcoholic and how to help a high-functioning alcoholic.

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What is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

Stereotypically, people with compulsive or otherwise problematic drinking habits struggle to function effectively day-to-day. This is understandable with any addiction –  the substance takes center stage and other responsibilities become progressively harder to meet.

Other drinkers, though, seem to maintain a semblance of normality and balance. These high-functioning alcoholics – also known as functional alcoholics – appear to continue performing strongly in their personal and professional lives even while they’re drinking to excess. Some functional alcoholics seem immune to physical side effects even as they drink heavily, and some continue avoiding any legal issues and it turns into an addiction.

Research into functional addictions is lacking, mainly because people in this position are far less likely to seek treatment. By definition, they are still functioning and far from the rock bottom that prompts some heavy drinkers to enter alcohol rehab.

Now, to the outside observer, a functional alcoholic may appear normal, even if they’re under the influence of alcohol. Tolerance is often higher in high-functioning alcoholics.

Maybe you drink heavily and experience a total loss of emotional control, marked personality changes, and possibly even blackouts. A functional alcoholic, on the other hand, appears to escape unscathed. “Appears” is the operative word, though. Even if the person in question doesn’t present any outward signs of addiction, they may be burdened by the same problems as a heavy drinker unable to function as well.

How can you pick up on the early warning signs and characteristics of high-functioning alcoholism then? We’ll explore this next before we examine how to identify and help a high-functioning alcoholic in your life.

Characteristics of a High-Functioning Alcoholic

Alcohol use disorder is a chronic and relapsing disease. There’s no cure for AUD, but it is treatable.

Unfortunately, alcohol is also among the most commonly abused substances. Even worse, alcohol is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States. More than 90,000 people die each year as a result of alcohol. Alcohol might be socially acceptable, and AUD may not garner the same press coverage as the opioid epidemic, but it remains a clear and present danger when abused.

How can you determine if you or a loved one is drinking to the extent of dependence sets in and alcohol use disorder developing, then?

Well, according to DSM-V (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the following are the most common signs of AUD:

  • Consuming more alcohol than originally intended
  • Inability to reduce alcohol intake
  • Spending inordinate amounts of time drinking and recovering from drinking
  • Getting strong cravings for alcohol
  • Failing to meet obligations at home, work, or school as a result of alcohol use
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms
  • Building a tolerance to alcohol
  • Using alcohol in dangerous situations
  • Giving up preferred activities in favor of drinking
  • Drinking in the face of physical or mental health issues linked to drinking
  • Continuing to drink alcohol despite serious and ongoing interpersonal problems related to your alcohol use

Meeting 2 or more of these criteria in any 12-month period means you might benefit from a more thorough, formal assessment to determine whether alcohol use disorder could be an issue?

Now you have a general overview of what markers indicate a possible alcohol use disorder, how can you establish if someone is a high-functioning alcoholic.

We’ll walk you through that now so you can more easily decide if a loved one needs your help.

Signs of a High-Functioning Alcoholic

 When it comes to high-functioning alcoholism, and alcoholism in general, there are a number of different identifiable signs that you should look for if you believe that your or a loved one has a problem with alcohol.

1) Gets drunk unintentionally

When you notice a loved one frequently getting drunk even if they didn’t intend to drink heavily, this could be a sign of functional alcoholism.

Initially, the person may think that their drinking has no effect on their behavior. Having a few drinks is a socially acceptable means of relaxing, right?

For some people, drinking regularly causes tolerance to build so that more and more alcohol is needed to deliver the same effect. By this stage, dependence is building. While addiction does not necessarily follow, it sometimes does. At this point, the person concerned really doesn’t intend to get drunk, but once they start drinking, it typically continues to the point of no return.

As with all the possible warning signs of functional alcoholism, this may mean nothing in isolation. If you spot this in combination with any of the following red flags, though, you might consider speaking with your loved one about alcohol use and abuse.

2) Frequently denies having a problem with alcohol

Maybe you’ve already tried to broach the subject of your loved one’s alcohol consumption without any joy.

Perhaps they outright denied having any kind of problem.

This is not surprising. In the early stages of an alcohol use disorder, the person often genuinely doesn’t feel they have a problem. By the time it starts becoming apparent, denying the existence of the problem is easier than dealing with it. Indeed, denial is a symptom of alcoholism. Even when prepared for the abstract concept of quitting, few alcoholics want to say goodbye to their favorite substance. For all of these reasons and more, encountering denial is commonplace among those with alcohol use disorder, functional alcoholics in particular.

3) Secretive about supplies of alcohol

Keeping caches of alcohol away from prying eyes is one of the classic indicators of functional alcoholism.

While many high-functioning alcoholics appear outwardly normal, this is predicated on maintaining a steady supply of alcohol. If you encounter secret stashes of booze around the house, it could be that your partner is a functional alcoholic.

4) Easily angered

It’s almost impossible to approach any high-functioning alcoholic about their drinking without risking an angry outburst.

The fact the person is concealing the amount they drink is enough to suggest there could be a problem. Pointing this out often results in either outright denial or an indignant and angry reaction.

5) Drinks as a coping mechanism

If you suspect that a loved one is drinking as a coping mechanism, this typically indicates they have some form of problem with alcohol.

The reason here is not important. Whether someone is downing a couple of bottles of wine over dinner as a means of de-stressing from hectic work life, or they’re drinking to deal with their relationship problems, they could be developing a more serious problem.

While many high-functioning alcoholics manage to keep going at work, it’s often the stress of a demanding career that leads to drinking as a coping mechanism.

6) Imposes limits on drinking

If you notice a loved one imposing arbitrary limits on their drinking while socializing, this could indicate a problem with alcohol is building. 

If you’ve ever heard your friend or relative say, “I’m only drinking beer tonight”, this could be a tactic to convince themselves that they remain in full control of their drinking, even if they don’t appear to care what anyone else thinks.

7) Makes any excuse to drink

A high-functioning alcoholic will seize any occasion as an opportunity to drink. From a work lunch to an office party to a night out, any excuse will do for someone dependent on alcohol.

Even if you notice someone drinking moderately at totally inappropriate times – first thing in the morning, for instance – this could be an early warning sign of a building problem.

8) Seemingly immune to hangovers

Functional alcohol seems immune to the ravages of heavy drinking.

The damage is still occurring under the surface, though. When someone is drinking heavily long-term, they may not experience hangovers anymore. Indeed, rather than waking up feeling too sick to drink, an active alcoholic will feel sick if they don’t drink.

They may be functioning in general, but a high-functioning alcoholic doesn’t function well unless alcohol is involved.

9) Isolating behaviors

It can be tough to spot this type of behavior. Functional alcoholics often appear in total control socially, yet they may also spend extended spells drinking alone, whether at home or in bars.

Since high-functioning alcoholics don’t want others in their business, it’s common for them to prevent people from visiting their homes for fear of their drinking habits being betrayed.

10) Compartmentalizes life

Often, functional alcoholics keep their consumption of alcohol hidden by strictly compartmentalizing their lives.

 This type of drinker might never have more than a couple of beers at the bar, but they may return home and attack a bottle of whiskey.

Again, this type of behavior is hard to pick up on, but keep an eye out for any unexpected changes to your loved one’s routine, especially if they tend to be absent for extended spells.

11) Regularly demonstrates poor memory

If one of your loved ones often finds they can’t remember what they did the previous day as a result of drinking, they are experiencing blackouts.

While it might seem like an annoying excuse when you confront them about an incident and they deny all knowledge, they may genuinely not remember what happened.

Unfortunately, this blotting out of memory means functional alcoholics don’t experience guilt over the consequences of their actions if they can’t remember doing anything wrong. Resultantly, they are less likely to seek treatment for alcohol use disorder.

12) Seems to have a split personality

Does your loved one exhibit dramatic mood swings, sometimes to the extent of appearing to have a split personality?

Functional alcoholics can appear stone-cold sober most of the time, but then you’ll occasionally catch them blind-drunk.

To reiterate, none of the above signs in isolation guarantee that your loved one is a functional alcoholic. If, however, you notice a pattern of these behaviors, it’s worth starting a dialogue with your loved one. How can you go about starting that conversation, though?

How to Help a High Functioning Alcoholic

If your loved one is presenting any of these signs and symptoms of a high-functioning alcoholic, they might deny they have a problem, or they may simply state they have their drinking fully under control.

For anyone who has tried and failed to broach this subject before, or for anyone attempting to initiate the addiction and recovery conversation for the first time, these pointers should help you maximize your chances of success. Here are tips on how to help a high functioning alcoholic in denial :

  1. Wait until they are sober: If you attempt to speak with a functional alcoholic while they are under the influence, you’re wasting your time. Wait until they are sober so you can help them to fully understand the ramifications of their drinking
  2. Be compassionate: Leave judgment at the door and be compassionate. Don’t get stressed and don’t get angry even if you feel that way. These emotions will inflame the situation. Empathy goes a long way when you’re trying to persuade someone to seek treatment for addiction
  3. Focus on how their drinking is affecting others: By highlighting specific examples of how your loved one’s behavior is impacting the people they most care about, you could help them to realize the extent and severity of the problem
  4. Be honest about your suspicions: Explain to your loved one the signs and symptoms of functional alcoholism that led you to approach them
  5. Accept no excuses: If your loved one continues denying there is a problem, do not validate this by accepting their excuse. Indeed, you should rebut it.

If your loved one becomes confrontational at any stage, walk away. You can always resume the conversation when tempers are less frayed.

Treatment for Functional Alcoholism at Renaissance Recovery

If you get your loved one to admit that they have a problem, what comes next?

Well, the team at Renaissance Recovery specializes in helping those with alcohol use disorder get help from an alcohol addiction treatment program. With the right help and support in place, there’s no reason your loved one can’t put the alcohol away and begin functioning fully rather than being compromised by addiction.

To get things started, reach out to Renaissance’s California alcohol rehab any time. You can call us at 866.330.9449 and we’ll guide you through the next steps.



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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