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High-Functioning Alcoholic: Finding the Way Forward and Routes to Healing

A functioning alcoholic suffers from a complex and often misunderstood condition. In most cases, the people around them aren’t even aware of their condition, as they’re able to maintain appearances pretty well.

When we think of alcoholism, we associate it with stereotypical depictions where they’ve abandoned their responsibilities, and their appearance is a dead giveaway. In reality, a high-functioning alcoholic can appear incredibly successful, excelling at work and maintaining friendships. Delve into the hidden realities of alcoholism and its profound impact on health on this site – Beyond the stereotypes, many high-functioning individuals battle alcohol addiction silently, jeopardizing their well-being despite outward success.

The functional alcoholic definition describes someone who drinks heavily but maintains a seemingly “healthy” lifestyle. Beneath the surface, they struggle with a debilitating dependency.

If you know someone who may be a functioning alcoholic, understanding the nuances of their condition can feel tricky.

In this guide, we’ll outline a few major steps, from identifying alcoholism to considering an intervention.

Functioning Alcoholic


Identifying a High-Functioning Alcoholic

Recognizing this concealed condition requires you to keep an eye out for common signs of a high-functioning alcoholic. Here’s what these signs can look and sound like.

Common Signs of a High-Functioning Alcoholic


Rationalizing Alcohol Consumption

Saying, “I only drink to relax.” or “I can handle my alcohol.”

Using Alcohol as a Reward or Relaxant

Celebrating every achievement with excessive drinking.

Dependency on Alcohol in Social Settings

Using alcohol to feel confident in social events.
Maintaining Appearances

Excelling at work while secretly battling alcohol addiction.

Hiding or Sneaking Alcohol

Hiding an alcohol stash from your family and friends.

High Tolerance

Needing more and more drinks to feel the effects.
Neglecting Responsibilities

Missing family events due to being under the influence.

Withdrawal Symptoms when Not Drinking

Becoming irritable or sick when not drinking.

Self-Assessment: Am I a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

While it may be easier to recognize signs of a functional alcoholic in another person, it can be trickier to learn how to know you’re an alcoholic. Signs of alcoholism in physical and behavioral aspects can feel easy to deny when you’re the one dealing with them. Here are a few more obvious symptoms of alcoholism to help you self-assess.

  1. Rationalizing Alcohol Consumption: It can be a cause for concern if you often find yourself explaining or justifying your alcoholic consumption. You may rationalize that you’re drinking to de-stress and can stop anytime.
  2. Using Alcohol as a Reward or Relaxant: Having a few drinks at a celebration is normal behavior. But it can get concerning if celebrations become an excuse for you to drink excessively.
  3. Dependence on Alcohol in Social Settings:  Better known as a “social drinker,” many alcoholics also rely on heavy drinking for social functioning. It can be a red flag if you drink in every social setting.
  4. Denial of Problem and Defensiveness: A 2020 study found that 30% to 50% of AUD subjects will deny having an alcohol problem. Defending yourself aggressively when questioned about your drinking can also be a cause for concern.
  5. Mood Changes: Functioning alcoholics can experience mood changes when they don’t have access to alcohol. If that sounds like you, it’s worth looking into.
  6. Inability to Drink in Moderation: In some cases, you may promise yourself or others that you’ll drink less than usual. If you end up drinking more than intended every time, it can show a loss of control.
  7. Engaging in Dangerous Behaviors: Teenagers are likelier to show aggressive behavior when under the influence. Engaging in dangerous behaviors like drinking and driving can also indicate alcohol abuse.

Daily Drinking and Alcoholism

Many assume you can’t have a problem with alcohol if you don’t drink every day. In reality, this condition is measured by how alcohol impacts one’s life and not how many drinks they have daily. This impact can manifest in the form of alcohol withdrawal symptoms, loss of control, and decline in mental/physical health.

This can make you wonder, “Are there different types of alcoholics?” While “standard” alcoholics may drink smaller amounts on a daily basis, binge drinkers tend to consume a higher amount periodically. For example, they may drink heavily just on weekends or social events.

This is a clear indicator that alcohol use patterns are multifaceted. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to functioning alcoholism, especially when recognizing their symptoms is tricky enough to begin with. Understanding that alcoholism isn’t confined to daily drinking is the first step to identifying the problem.

The Transition to Alcohol Use Disorder

It’s hard to know exactly when high-functioning alcoholism turns into alcohol use disorder (AUD). As the victim’s dependency escalates and consequences get more adverse, their transition to AUD becomes evident. This also leads to greater alcohol consumption, loss of control, and high tolerance levels.

The National Insitute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism describes it as “an impaired ability to control alcohol use despite adverse consequences.” For a high-functioning alcoholic, this transition can be subtle. They may keep up appearances and meet expectations even on their worst days.

Of course, no one reason causes individuals to fall victim to AUD. Whether it’s genetic predisposition, social environment, or stress, each person may be dealing with a different battle that worsens their condition. Anxiety and depression are also major contributing factors to a worsening addiction.

Quantifying Alcoholism: How Much Is Too Much?

It’s easy to blur the lines between a few drinks and too many drinks. You may have questions like, “How many drinks a day is considered an alcoholic? How much is too much?”

While there is no clear threshold for when drinking turns into alcohol abuse, you can follow certain guidelines for the sake of your health.

Moderate Drinking Low-risk consumption Up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks for men
Heavy Drinking Increased risk of health issues Eight or more drinks per week for women and 15 or more drinks for men
Binge Drinking High-risk, short-term excessive drinking Four or more drinks within two hours for women and five or more drinks for men
Alcohol Use Disorder Clinical diagnosis of alcohol addiction Different standards determined by a healthcare expert

Assisting a High-Functioning Alcoholic

Identifying the signs of high-functioning alcoholism in someone you know can be a disheartening discovery. But that is the moment to take action. There are a few things you can do to not let their disorder go unnoticed and assist them in seeking help.

Addressing Denial

It’s not uncommon for alcoholics to defensively deny their problems with drinking when confronted. Here’s how you can address denial in a safe and empathetic way.

  • Avoid Talking to Them When They’re Drunk: It’s always better to confront anyone about their drinking problems when they’re sober. It fosters a safe environment for both parties.
  • Remain Non-Judgmental and Empathetic: Conversations about addiction can feel uncomfortable or embarrassing for the AUD victim. Use this opportunity to present your concerns in a non-judgmental way.
  • Express a Willingness to Tackle the Problem Together: When someone you love is dealing with an AUD, remember that it’s not you against them. It’s you and them against the addiction.
  • Avoid Condescending or Angry Behavior: Criticism, blaming, and anger can cause functioning alcoholics to hide their drinking problem even more. Foster a calm and respectful conversation.
  • Refrain from Collusion or Enabling: There’s a thin line between empathy and enabling. Make sure you’re not making excuses for their behavior and allowing their alcohol abuse.

Considering an Intervention

Early intervention can prevent long-term physical and psychological damage from alcohol abuse. Use this as a guideline when you’re considering an intervention.

  • Exploring Different Intervention Models: The Johnson Model, the Systemic Model, or the ARISE Model are just a few different ways to approach intervention. The choice depends on what the individual is failing to see and your specific situation.
  • Johnson Model Example: The Johnson Model is careful and structured. The goal is to be on-judgmental but firm while outlining consequences in the lives of everyone involved. This example aims to motivate the individual to seek treatment.
  • Preparation and Support: An unplanned intervention can be confusing and often disastrous. It’s better to gather a support team and rehearse what you’ll say to the AUD victim.

Coping with Life Alongside a High-Functioning Alcoholic

The road to recovery from an addiction is not linear, easy, or perfectly smooth. There will be relapses, emotional turbulence, and even extreme withdrawal. Here’s how you can be a supportive entity in their life while protecting your own mental health.

  • Building a Robust Support Network: High-functioning alcoholics can benefit from a robust support network to count on when recovery gets tough. It’s the best way to reduce setbacks and relapses, as friends and family can keep them accountable.
  • Embracing Opportunities for Respite: While caring for an AUD victim, it’s easy to forget about your own well-being. Take breaks to reduce stress related to the alcohol problem and recharge.
  • Maintaining Your Physical and Mental Health: If a loved one is dealing with a severe drinking problem, it can also impact your mental and physical health. Don’t forget to eat well, exercise, and get enough rest.
  • Being a Positive Influence: Encourage your loved one to seek help, but don’t enable their behavior. Maintain a positive outlook without giving them excuses to continue drinking.

Support for High-Functioning Alcoholics

Alcoholism recovery, support, and treatment come in all shapes and sizes. Since the causes for this addiction vary greatly, the support options vary, too.

The Role of Support Groups

Support groups are among the most common and effective ways to help high-functioning alcoholics battle their addiction. In fact, individuals in support groups can reduce their chances of relapse by 7% to 24%. Those who make it to two years without a relapse are most likely to make it ten years alcohol-free.

A great example is Al-Anon Family Groups, which can serve as a safe haven for struggling addicts. It’s a non-judgemental space to share their experiences and learn from others’ struggles.

Exploring Treatment Options

Depending on the severity and type of alcohol addiction, there are a few different types of treatment options to explore. It provides more hope for AUD victims since they can change their treatment style if one option isn’t working for them.

  1. Alcohol Detox: High-functioning alcoholics can opt for an alcohol detox, especially if they have more trouble with withdrawal symptoms. You’ll have medical supervision and support throughout the program to keep you safe and accountable.
  2. Rehabilitation Programs: Rehab provides structured recovery, with treatment, counseling, and therapy from experts in alcoholism. This is the place to address the physical and psychological aspects of the addiction.
  3. Therapy: More often than not, alcoholism stems from an underlying issue. Therapy gets to the root of the problem to produce long-term results. Common approaches include cognitive-behavioral (CBT), motivational enhancement (MET), and family therapy.
  4. Encouraging Dialogue with a Medical Professional: If you or a loved one are struggling with alcoholism, seeking guidance from a medical professional is highly encouraged. They’ll assess your health and offer solutions best catered to your situation.


Exploring the nuances of high-functioning alcoholism can shed some light on how the victim may conceal their struggle. If you or someone you know identifies with the signs of functioning alcoholism, take action. Our guide includes every step you should take, from diagnosis to recovery.

The road to recovery isn’t linear, but it’s always achievable. Whether you rely on a robust support group or benefit from rehab programs, help is available in every way. Seek help today and start your journey toward an alcohol-free life.