How to Identify a High Functioning Alcoholic?


The word “alcoholic” often sparks a picture of someone whose life is falling apart because of an alcohol addiction. You may envision an alcoholic as someone who is sloppy and unable to hold down a job or maintain relationships. Perhaps they even have legal issues from driving under the influence or making poor decisions while intoxicated.

However, the reality is that many people who abuse alcohol don’t fit into this stereotype. These individuals are called high-functioning alcoholics, or functional alcoholics.

It is much harder to spot the signs of alcoholism in these individuals. But their drinking tendencies can have an extremely negative impact on their lives. 

What Is A High Functioning Alcoholic?

A high-functioning alcoholic is a person who abuses alcohol but is still able to maintain their life. The “high-functioning” status contrasts with a typical picture of an alcoholic.

High-functioning alcoholics struggle with problem drinking, heavy drinking, or constant cravings for alcohol. However, this usually doesn’t disrupt their life. Because of this, high-functioning alcoholics often deny their alcoholism. 

It can be harder to identify a high-functioning alcoholic because they can maintain their job, relationships with friends and family, and finances just fine. They could even be a high achiever or a successful individual in a position of power. 

For a high-functioning alcoholic, drinking typically doesn’t get in the way of their everyday life. Perhaps they miss an occasional day of work or event due to a hangover, but for the most part, their drinking habit does not affect their life.

Since they can maintain their life despite their alcohol abuse, addressing their addiction may not seem very important. However, drinking heavily will eventually catch up to them. They will not be able to maintain the façade forever, and there can be some serious risks involved in alcohol abuse.

Signs Of Alcoholism in a High-Functioning Alcoholic

Though it is harder to spot, there are telltale signs that someone is a high-functioning alcoholic. The CDC defines excessive drinking as “binge drinking, heavy drinking, and any drinking by pregnant women or people younger than age 21.” 

Binge drinking means that someone consumes excessive amounts of alcohol on a single occasion. For women, four or more drinks are considered binge drinking. For men, it is five or more drinks on a single occasion.

Heavy drinking is another sign of alcoholism. For women, this means consuming eight or more drinks in a week; for men, the number is 15 or more drinks.

Red Flags of High-Functioning Alcoholics

There are many red flags that may indicate that an individual is a high-functioning alcoholic. High functioning alcoholics will often:

  • Make excuses for their drinking or use alcohol as a reward
  • Hide alcohol or lie about how much they drink
  • Fail to maintain responsibilities at work or school
  • Have issues maintaining relationships with friends or family members, but continue to drink despite these issues
  • Make jokes about being an alcoholic
  • Run into legal issues, such as a DUI or an arrest for public intoxication
  • Rely on alcohol to relax or feel confident
  • Drink in the morning or by themselves
  • Get angry when confronted about drinking
  • Have difficulty stopping drinking
  • Obsess about their next drink or outing that involves alcohol
  • Drink alcohol instead of eating meals
  • Get blackout drunk and forget what happened the next day
  • Get drunk without intending to

Any of these behaviors can indicate that an individual is dealing with alcoholism. Luckily, there are resources available to help them overcome their addiction.

Resources for Alcoholism

There are many resources available for people dealing with alcoholism. Support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and SMART Recovery, exist to help people deal with their alcoholism.  

These can be a great resource for those who need social support on their road to recovery. However, people with a severe dependency on alcohol should not quit cold turkey. There are many withdrawal symptoms from sudden alcohol cessation, including:

  • Mood issues: anxiety, nervousness, depression, irritability, or mood swings
  • Physical issues: dilated pupils, an increased heart rate, headaches, nausea or vomiting, pale skin, shakiness, tremors, or sweating
  • Other difficulties: loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, fatigue or tiredness, or an inability to think clearly 

These symptoms can make overcoming an alcohol addiction incredibly unpleasant. Because of this, alcohol detox is often the first step to recovery. Having support during the initial detox phase from alcohol allows control over the unpleasant symptoms and increases the chance of successfully recovering from addiction.

Alcohol Rehab with SoCal Sunrise

Clearly, alcoholism is not something that should be ignored, even if someone is a high-functioning alcoholic. There are serious risks involved, which is why learning to spot the risks and address the addiction is essential.

If you or someone you know is a high-functioning alcoholic, Southern California Sunrise Recovery Center has individually tailored care plans to assist with the detox phase of recovery. Contact us to take the first step toward recovery.

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