High Functioning Alcoholics

High-functioning alcoholics live a double life. Learn how to identify functioning alcoholics and how to intervene for treatment. More here.

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ARTICLE OVERVIEW: Almost 20% of problem drinkers are high-functioning alcoholics who are well-educated, have a good job, and stable family. What are the signs of functioning alcoholism, and how can you help them? We review here.



Do you drink too much but seem OK on the outside?

Definition: Are You A High Functioning Alcoholic?

When you say that someone is an “alcoholic” or has a drinking problem, many images come to mind. You might imagine an alcoholic as a sloppy person who cannot keep up with commitments, who misses work, creates a bad atmosphere, has a bad relationship with family…Indeed, the usual stereotype of alcoholism is a person who:

  • Cannot hold their job.
  • Drinks no matter how it affects their health.
  • Is divorced with bad family relations.

Yes, this is the stereotype of an alcoholic.

However, there is another type of problem drinker known as a ‘high functioning alcoholic’. While these people may not fit the stereotype, their drinking still causes problems for themselves and others.

These people drink frequently, often in large amounts, while their life on the outside seems steady on a professional and social level.

But, alcoholism always has a dark side…

You may function even though you drink a lot. But the pain you suffer is just as deep and real. Almost 20% of people who are alcoholic are high-functioning alcoholics who are not aware that they have a drinking problem because they don’t fit into the standard image of a problem drinker.

According to National Institutes of Health, 19.5 % of problem drinking Americans are high-functioning alcoholics, usually middle-aged, well-educated with stable jobs and families. [1] This is why, in 2007, researchers officially recognized this subtype of alcohol use disorder and have namedpeople within it “functional alcoholics.”

Alcoholism always has a dark side.

What Alcoholism is Like

As defined by the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, NIAAA, all types of alcoholism are a kind of chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by:

  • Compulsive alcohol use.
  • Loss of control over alcohol consumption.
  • Negative emotional state when under influence. [2]

Alcohol affects the central nervous system as a depressant. It affects the inhibition of neurotransmitters, and interacts with the serotonin and dopamine receptors causing relaxation and good mood.However, long term alcohol use changes the way how your brain functions, making this organ adapt to alcohol as normal. Overtime, a drinker may begin to respond differently to alcohol by building high tolerance, and becoming dependent. [3]

According to the 2016 National Survey of Drug Use and Health more than half of people aged 12+ are current alcohol consumers, while 86% of all people reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their life. [4] But, not all drinkers develop alcohol use disorder. In fact, of 136 million people who drink, an estimated 15.1 million Americans can be diagnosed as alcoholic. That’s a little more than 5% of the population, or one in 18 people aged 12 or older. [4]

Can keep up? Call us. Alcoholism is treatable.

Signs of High Functioning Alcoholism

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition lists 11 criteria for diagnosis of addictive behavior. [5] However, functioning alcoholics do not meet the standard criteria. Still, this group of people will show some signs of drinking too much such as:

  • Acting differently when they are drunk compared to when they are sober.
  • Always having excuses for drinking.
  • Becoming angry during confrontations for their heavy alcohol use.
  • Drinking to boost relaxation/confidence.
  • Drinking when they hadn’t intended to.
  • Drinking at every social event.
  • Experiencing blackouts occasionally.
  • Having difficulties in controlling how much they drank at one setting.
  • Having memory lapses while drinking.
  • Joking about alcoholism or about having a drinking problem.
  • Lying about how much they drink.
  • “Morning drinking” or drinking alone.
  • Telling friends and family that alcohol is a reward/stress reliever for heavy work

Functioning alcoholics are hard to spot, even though they have drinking problems. Instead, they are still viewed as within ‘normal’ social norms. In fact, friends or colleagues may see their high tolerance as normal, and even approve of it.

It can be difficult to identify a high-functioning alcoholic.

Personality, Behavior, and Traits

Personality is connected to drinking behavior. Many theoretical personality models have shown a link between effects of personality on alcohol use and problems. [6]The most common personality traits associated with alcohol abuse include the level of impulsivity or disinhibition a person demonstrates. These Five-Factor traits can also be related to drinking:

  • Agreeableness.
  • Conscientiousness.
  • Extroversion.
  • Neuroticism.
  • Openness to experience.

However, these models are neither all-inclusive nor mutually exclusive. Many of the trails are overlapping and building upon each other. So, how does a high-functioning alcoholic act? How do they behave?

A high-functioning alcoholic is alcohol dependent but manages to maintain life responsibilities. They are well-educated, have a good job, perform well, and even they are executives or own a high-ranking job. Moreover, they have sustained and stable friendships, and good family relations as well as a good romantic relationship.

A high functioning alcohol can manage responsibility while drinking constantly.

Because of this, they are in denial about their drinking habits, and are usually not diagnosed by the standard health care procedures. Living a ‘double life’ without knowing it, functioning alcoholics are accepted by society.

Tired of living a double life? Give us a call 24-7. You are not alone.

Confronting a High-Functioning Alcoholic

It’s hard to confront a high-functioning alcoholic mainly for two reasons:

  1. They are hard to identify.
  2. They are in denial of their drinking problems.

Always consult with an addiction professional who can help you understand how to recognize a high-functioning alcoholic. Please call us to learn more about this process.

Once you have recognized a drinking problem, it is important to talk with them immediately about drinking patterns and their behavior. The best way is to stage an intervention with a help of a certified interventionist.

Interventions guided by a certified specialist are most effective.

An intervention is a process when a group of people confront an individual who has drinking issues in order to convince them to seek treatment. The group is usually led by family members, close friends, loved ones, or colleagues. The aim of any intervention is to:

  • Help the person see their drinking problem.
  • Help the person find an alcohol rehab program.
  • Help the person follow through by setting up consequences.

A planned ahead intervention with an intervention specialist is a successful intervention. You can find certified interventionist via these professional associations:

Or, call our hotline to learn more about successful intervention.

Life without drinking is possible.

High Functioning Alcoholics are Often in Denial

Many high-functioning alcoholics are seen as successful because they have over-achieved throughout their lives. These achievements may lead to increasing denial in both the alcohols and their surroundings.

Q: What is denial?
A: Denial is the refusal or unwillingness to accept an unpleasant reality.

Functioning alcoholics have a problem seeing themselves as alcoholics because they don’t fit the stereotypical image of people with alcohol use disorder. Moreover, they don’t believe that they have a drinking problems because they are successful in their lives. They believe that alcohol is their reward for hard-working.

However, there is a way to break the wall of denial.

As mentioned before, an intervention led by a trained specialist can help a functional alcoholic see, admit, and seek help for their drinking problems. The fact is that many high-functioning alcoholics don’t see they have a problem until they try to cut down or completely stop their drinking. If withdrawal symptoms surface, or if they cannot quit completely … then, reality can hit.

Are you prepared to help?

Alcoholism is a treatable condition.

Treatment and Help

Breaking the chains of alcohol dependence is challenging, and hard.

But, it is possible!

The first step is admitting that you have a problem. The sooner, the better. Then, once you decide to seek help, you’ll need to determine which level of treatment is best for you. Alcohol rehab centers typically offer two types of rehab: outpatient and inpatient programs.

Outpatient programs offer services for a few hours several days per week. Patients come and go to the center as needed. These programs are created for people who deal with mild dependence, and are highly motivated to quit alcohol. Moreover, their surroundings, friends, and family offer enormous support that plays a huge role in beating alcoholism. Some of the services included in an outpatient program include:

  • Talk therapy sessions.
  • Community support.
  • Educational sessions.

Inpatient programs provide 24/7 medical supervision, as well as accommodation to their patients. The main difference between outpatient and inpatient treatment is this kind of residency. Inpatient programs may be required if you have a moderate and severe dependence on alcohol. Residential rehab can truly help you to turn your life around. A change of surroundings and focusing on living alcohol-free can be just what you need.The most common services of inpatient programs include:

  • Medical detox.
  • Individual psychotherapy.
  • Group therapies.
  • Network support.

But no matter which type of program you choose, it will change your life for better. In fact, research shows that one-third of people who finished alcohol rehab program have no further symptoms one year later, while the rest reported that they reduced their drinking, and have fewer alcohol-related issues. [7]

So, are you ready to take control of your life?

Call us for more info on treatment options.

Don’t wait until it’s too late! The earlier you seek help, the better. And you don’t need to struggle on your own. Medical treatment will make the process of long term recovery achievable and within reach.

Stop living a lie.

Get help and call us today.

Drinking problems only get worse. Call us to start your path to recovery….today!

 Reference Sources: [1] NIH: Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes
[2] NIAAA: Alcohol Use Disorder
[3] NIAAA: Neuroscience: Pathways to Alcohol Dependence
[4] SAMHSA: The National Survey on Drug Use and Health of 2016
[5] Psychiatry.ORG: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5)
[6] NCBI: The Multiple, Distinct Ways that Personality Contributes to Alcohol Use Disorders
[7] NIAAA: Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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