Signs of a High Functioning Alcoholic
Alcoholic is not a professionally recognized term. People associate it with stigmas and preconceived notions. The clinical name for struggling with alcohol consumption is alcohol use disorder (AUD).
No one challenges stereotypes about drinking more than high functioning alcoholics.
Instead of a person at rock bottom who looks disheveled and seems consumed by getting their next drink, functioning alcoholics often present themselves as the opposite in day-to-day life. Some people with alcohol use disorder hide and control their drinking for years; they can hold a job and maintain professional and personal relationships without noticeable deterioration.
In reality, almost 20% of adults in the United States fit the criteria of being a functioning alcoholic.
Many people dependent on alcohol won’t receive help until their addiction has taken over their lives. Learning the signs of high functioning alcoholism and getting help before it’s too late can prevent addiction from escalating and ultimately save lives and relationships.
What Is a High Functioning Alcoholic?
High functioning alcoholics are masters of disguise— they manage to keep up the appearance of success while still drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. A functional alcoholic doesn’t seem to hide their drinking or suffer any consequences due to drinking and often jokes about their drinking habits.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) data shows that nearly 20% of alcoholics are highly functional and well-educated with good incomes. A quarter of them have struggled with mental illness at some point.
The overlap between mental health and alcohol use disorders is essential to recognize, especially in high functioning alcoholics. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), people who struggle with anxiety are up to four times more likely to develop a substance use disorder, often from self-medicating.
High functioning alcoholics might feel like their drinking contributed to their success, and they cannot succeed or function without it. However, their achievements are a testament to their persistence and intelligence despite their alcohol use disorder.
This same misdirected thinking also leads habitual drinkers to believe that they need alcohol in social situations to feel confident, fun, and exciting; they stop being able to separate their true personalities from the effects of alcohol.
High functioning alcoholics can rarely maintain their lifestyle and drinking habits alone; their families, friends, and co-workers frequently enable them by picking up the slack or making accommodations to continue without consequences.
Dr. Steven Melmis, who specializes in addictions and mood disorders, states that most people only hit bottom “because the people around them are just fed up” and asserts that the “job is always the last thing to go” because it is the primary thing funding the addiction.
Signs of a High Functioning Alcoholic
One of the main signs of a high functioning alcoholic is the amount they drink and their tolerance to alcohol. People who consistently drink, whether in small amounts throughout the day or frequent binge drinking, need more to feel the effects of alcohol but show fewer signs of intoxication.
Appearing unaffected or in control with a high blood alcohol content is the literal definition of a “functioning alcoholic,” but it is not safe or healthy.
One drink a day and two a day for men is considered moderate drinking for women. The United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) classifies heavy drinking as eight drinks weekly for women and 15 or more for men. Many people with high functioning alcohol use disorder will have that many drinks over a couple of days.
Most people have a narrow and incorrect idea of how a person struggling with alcohol and substance abuse looks and behaves. The signs of a functioning alcoholic do not fit in the limited scope that many people have. The friends and families of high functioning alcoholics have often been around the behavior so long they don’t realize it is a problem or chalk it up to being part of the drinker’s personality.
Signs of functioning alcoholics include:
Getting Defensive or Making Excuses for Their Drinking
Many people who struggle with alcohol are aware of it but believe they have it under control. If you attempt to confront them about their drinking, they will become aggressive and defensive, sometimes turning the argument around to list other people’s faults.
Often they will attempt to explain that they are expected to drink in certain situations, don’t want to seem rude by turning down a drink, or that it is how they relax and enjoy themselves. These excuses are to convince themselves as much as the person who confronted them.
Hiding and Lying About How Much They Drink
Most people are aware of acceptable social behaviors and expectations, including the adequate amount of alcohol and not drinking at specific events or times of the day. To maintain the illusion or out of shame, the drinker will lie about how many drinks they’ve had or mix alcohol into other beverages like their coffee or soft drinks, making it harder for other people to tell they’re drinking alcohol. Sometimes they will drink alone or in secret to avoid suspicion altogether.
Planning Their Routine Around Alcohol
Heavy drinkers often start their day with a drink. Despite cute names like “the hair of the dog” or “eye-opener,” this is to prevent alcohol withdrawal syndrome and symptoms.
Drinking during lunch, a daily happy hour after work, several nightcaps, or drinking before events that don’t include alcohol become obvious warning signs once you start paying attention.
Losing Track of Time and Experiencing Memory Loss
Getting caught up in having a good time is different than prioritizing drinking to the point that hours fly by without realizing it.
Drinkers frequently need to be reminded of how many drinks they’ve had, things that happened as recently as an hour ago while drinking, or when they sober up the next day, they can’t remember details.
It can be hard to tell when a functioning alcoholic is blacked out because they appear normal or only slightly buzzed when you interact with them.
Comparing Themselves to “Real” Alcoholics
Functioning alcoholics will often deflect and point to the fact they can hold down a job and social life or are drinking “good” alcohol instead of whatever they can get their hands on. They will joke that they aren’t that type of alcoholic that goes to Alcoholics Anonymous or has legal issues because of their drinking.
Some functioning alcoholics don’t drink every night; instead, they binge drink. They will use the fact that they can go for short periods without drinking to illustrate they are not out of control.
Continuing to Drink Despite Health Issues
Long-term alcohol abuse affects physical, mental, and behavioral health. Eventually, even people with high functioning personalities will start to lose weight, have trouble sleeping, suffer mood swings, and many other side effects directly related to drinking. Still, people dependent on alcohol will continue to drink despite their health issues.
Regardless of how a person’s life appears externally, alcohol abuse will eventually catch up in the form of liver damage, kidney damage, brain damage, and other conditions that can be fatal. These are just some of the physical consequences of alcohol use disorder. The mental health and emotional toll of drinking on people and their families can be devastating.
Am I a High Functioning Alcoholic?
It can be challenging to step outside of yourself and be honest about your drinking. If you are questioning whether you are a high functioning alcoholic or have tried to quit drinking but have been unable to, you are most likely struggling with an alcohol use disorder.
If you recognize yourself in any of the behaviors described above, it is time to talk to a medical professional to help treat alcohol use disorder. Using established criteria for diagnosing substance use disorders, they will be able to assess how severe your addiction is and the best treatment programs to help.
Another way to gain perspective on your drinking habits and behavior is to open yourself up to honest conversations with your friends, family, and loved ones. Ask them how they feel your drinking has impacted their lives. Candid conversations with your loved ones can be difficult, but they are an essential step in overcoming the hold that alcohol has on your life.
Evidence-Based Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines alcohol misuse as more than one drink per day for women and more than two drinks per day for men.
The best way to beat alcohol abuse and addiction is to get ahead of it before hitting your rock bottom. If you feel your drinking is taking over your life, help is available. You are not alone.
At Northridge Addiction Treatment Center, we understand how exhausting it can be to balance addiction and the demands of everyday life. Our private residential treatment facility removes the stress and pressures involved in your daily life so you can focus on healing and taking the first steps on your path to lasting recovery.
Through evidence-based treatments and therapies, our experienced and caring team helps you develop the skills needed to help you identify your triggers and use the learned strategies to prevent relapse. Our on-site medical detox and dual diagnosis programs ensure you can safely withdraw from alcohol dependence and receive proper treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders.
Reach out today. We are eager to help you find the treatment you need.
Our caring and compassionate specialists are eager to help you comfortably navigate this journey to recovery. Our individualized treatment plan, programs, and therapies may be a perfect match for you or your loved one. Let us assist you in living the happy life you deserve. It starts with a phone call.