Many alcoholics succeed at work and in school and have great relationships. Nevertheless, high-functioning alcoholics have an addiction disorder which requires treatment.
What Are High-Functioning Alcoholics?
According to a government survey, about 20% of alcoholics in America are high-functioning alcoholics. High-functioning alcoholics defy the stereotypes of alcoholism. They have stable, well-paying jobs and large groups of friends. They take care of their families, always pay their bills, and avoid trouble with the law. Most high-functioning alcoholics are mature, middle-aged adults. In fact, their families and friends might not even know they are alcoholics if they show no signs of having a substance use disorder. Some high-functioning alcoholics will even keep their alcoholism a secret or fail to recognize it themselves.
Why Is High-Functioning Alcoholism Dangerous?
No matter how well high-functioning alcoholics conceal their addiction or maintain their careers and relationships, they are still alcoholics. Therefore, they are living with the risks and effects of alcoholism. Many high-functioning alcoholics in recovery have testified that someone can only live a normal life with alcoholism for so long until the disorder starts to affect their health and behavior. For example, high-functioning alcoholics are at greater risk for driving under the influence and committing other alcohol-related crimes. Even if a high-functioning alcoholic never suffers any legal or professional consequences from alcohol abuse, their body will still suffer. Long-term, chronic drinking damages a person’s brain, heart, liver, and other vital organs. For this reason, all forms of alcoholism are potentially lethal. High-functioning alcoholics who drink for decades risks developing cirrhosis, cancer, and heart disease.
How Can You Tell That Someone Is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?
Since drinking alcohol is a normal activity, high-functioning alcoholics often blend in with their friends and co-workers who also drink regularly, but who are not alcoholics. Some high-functioning alcoholics never binge drink and rarely become drunk.
There is a difference between someone who suffers from high-functioning alcoholism and someone who simply enjoys drinking alcohol. The difference is addiction. Alcoholism is an addiction disorder, a true disease. High-functioning alcoholics crave alcohol, develop tolerance to it over time, and experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking. High-functioning alcoholics drink because they “need to drink,” not always because they want to drink.
If you suspect that you or someone you know is a high-functioning alcoholic, here are some common signs for watch out for:
- Drinking alone
- Drinking at work, while driving, or in other situations where alcohol is inappropriate
- Being drunk regularly without intending to be drunk
- Drinking at unusual times, especially in the morning
- Drinking alcohol to relax, focus, or feel confident
- Exhibiting tolerance to strong liquor and large amounts of alcohol
- Joking often about drinking too much
- Borrowing money to pay for alcohol
- Breaking promises to stop drinking
- Hiding alcohol and drinking secretly
- Stocking up on alcohol to make sure there’s “always enough”
- Drinking alcohol as a “reward” for success and hard work
Another major sign that someone is a high-functioning alcoholic is the fact that alcohol is an important part of their life. They frequently have alcohol, talk about it, and spend money on it. They drink alcohol with every meal and often carry alcohol with them. Alcohol becomes a daily necessity, almost a part of who they are.
The Power of Denial: Why High-Functioning Alcoholics Resist Treatment
Unfortunately, high-functioning alcoholism, as a secret or undiagnosed disorder, can be more dangerous than obvious, debilitating alcoholism. This is because high-functioning alcoholics are often in denial about their addiction, so they are less likely to seek treatment. Since they’re not stereotypical alcoholics, they do not know or they will not admit that they have a serious problem with alcohol. They do not believe they need treatment until they start to suffer the consequences of drinking or “hit rock bottom.” High-functioning alcoholics sometimes makes excuses like “I’m still in control” or “everyone else drinks too.” The first step to overcoming alcohol addiction is recognizing the problem. Denial prevents this first step and sustains addiction.
Without treatment, high-functioning alcoholics will not recover. Regrettably, in many cases, other people in their lives affirm their denial by agreeing with their excuses and encouraging them to drink more. Spouses and family members of high-functioning alcoholics sometimes makes excuses for them as well and continue to keep alcohol at home. Although people who know high-functioning alcoholics are sometimes afraid to confront them with the truth, high-functioning alcoholics need honest support from friends and family to make the decision to seek help.
How to Help a High-Functioning Alcoholic
If you know a high-functioning alcoholic, you have the power to make a difference. The best way for someone to help a high-functioning alcoholic is to have a forthright conversation with them about their addiction. Your conversation should happen when the person you are trying to help is sober. Most importantly, while you should avoid being judgmental or accusatory, you should also be honest about how alcoholism is affecting you and the alcoholic. The person may offer excuses or attempt to explain away their addiction, but stay firm and offer to help the person start treatment. If possible, get other family member and friends involved and stage an intervention.
If you are a high-functioning alcoholic and you know it’s time to overcome your addiction, tell your family and friends that you’ve decided to quit alcohol and separate from people who will not support your recovery. Until you check into rehab, avoid bars, liquor stores, and other places where alcohol and drinking abound. Finally, be willing to admit that you have a problem and firmly resolve to make a change in your life. Thousands of people have conquered alcoholism and you can do it too.
Get Help Today
There are many rehab centers and support groups, both online and in-person, for people who are working to achieve sobriety. If you’re ready to get started, please contact a dedicated treatment professional today for a free consultation to learn more about rehab centers which can help you break free from alcoholism.
- Medical Reviewer — Last Reviewed: October 2, 2019
Benton, S.A. (2009). Ways to Approach the High-Functioning Alcoholic in Your Life. Psychology Today. Retrieved on August 27, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-high-functioning-alcoholic/200906/ways-approach-the-high-functioning-alcoholic-in-your-life
Benton, S.A. (2009). Why High-Functioning Alcoholics Need Help. Psychology Today. Retrieved on August 27, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-high-functioning-alcoholic/200901/why-high-functioning-alcoholics-need-help
Bienvenu, M. (n.d.). Are You a High-Functioning Alcoholic? WebMD. Retrieved on August 27, 2019, from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/high-functioning-alcoholic#1
Buddy T. (updated 2018). Signs of a Functional Alcoholic. verywellmind.com. Retrieved on August 27, 2019, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-functional-alcoholic-67879
Nall, R. (n.d.). High-Functioning Alcoholic. Healthline. Retrieved on August 27, 2019, from https://www.healthline.com/health/can-you-function-alcoholic
National Institutes of Health. (2007). Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes. Retrieved on August 27, 2019, from https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/researchers-identify-alcoholism-subtypes
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