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What is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

A high-functioning alcoholic (or functional alcoholic) is not a formal diagnosis. It is a term used to describe someone who is dependent on alcohol but can still function in society.

High-functioning alcoholics are typically able to manage areas of life, including jobs, families, and homes. Their personal life may seem fine on the outside.

They may appear physically and mentally healthy. However, they struggle with uncontrollable cravings, troubles with quitting alcohol, and obsessive thoughts about drinking. These are all typical of an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

With time, an alcohol use disorder can lead to many health problems, including liver disease and high blood pressure.

7 Warning Signs of a High-Functioning Alcoholic

Here are some common warning signs of a high-functioning alcoholic:

1. Drinking Alcohol to Cope

Some people drink alcohol as a coping mechanism. If you or a loved one is drinking to cope with a stressful situation or negative emotions, this may be a sign of an alcohol use disorder.

Even if you tell yourself that your habits are not an alcohol use disorder, these signs are a red flag. If you drink to cope with your daily life, you may require professional help.

2. Drinking in Every Situation

Moderate drinking can become a problem when you drink in every situation. This includes needing a drink to sleep, wake up, calm down, or when you are anxious. High-functioning alcoholics often wonder about their next drink.

You may believe alcoholism is limited to drinking too much alcohol in one sitting, otherwise known as binge drinking. However, it can include drinking a moderate number of drinks daily.

3. Drinking Alone

Drinking alone can be a sign of high functioning alcoholism. When drinking alone, it is more challenging to limit the amount you consume. Take note of how often you drink alone. 

If you find yourself buying a bottle to drink alone a few times a week, you may need to seek help.

4. Drinking Too Much

If you drink too much, this may be a sign of high functioning alcoholism. It is essential to note that functional alcoholics may not get into trouble, engage in risky behavior, or behave poorly even if they drink too much.

They may still care for their family, keep up with tasks at work, and not show any negative emotions or behaviors like depression, anger, or low self-esteem. 

If you notice you are drinking a lot, you may have a problem.

5. Developing Tolerance

If you drink alcohol often, your body will build a tolerance for it. This means that with time you will have to drink more to reach a specific level of intoxication. 

Drinking often creates a cycle of dependence, and you will begin to crave alcohol.

6. Experiencing Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

If you drink alcohol often, once you stop for a couple of days, you will experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms. You may feel depressed, anxious, irritable, or nauseous. You may also have difficulty sleeping and experience mood swings.

In some cases, alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening.

7. Denying the Problem

Many high functioning alcoholics use denial to avoid a conversation about their drinking problem. They may say they drink because they are stressed out at work or come up with another excuse.

Find Help For Your Addiction

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What Responsibilities Can High-Functioning Alcoholics Maintain?

Many high-functioning alcoholics can function at work and in social situations. They may still be able to manage their homes and families. However,  in many cases, they cannot hide their alcohol use problem from the people closest to them.

High-Functioning Alcoholics and Relationships

Alcohol addiction is a harmful and damaging disease that takes a devastating toll on the lives of the people it touches. High-functioning alcoholics often damage their personal relationships and spiral other people’s lives into chaos.

Married to a Functional Alcoholic 

Alcoholic husbands and wives may be abusive or emotionally distant. The disease can put a strain on a marriage. Every individual who loves someone with high functioning alcoholism faces challenging decisions when figuring how to help. 

Dating a Functional Alcoholic 

A functional alcoholic may seem fine on the outside, but this does not mean they are not experiencing personal or business-related issues. Being in a relationship with a high functioning alcoholic can bring severe psychological and emotional damage to someone.

Friend of a Functional Alcoholic

Friends and people close to a functional alcoholic can also experience problems with the relationship. Friends and family members may develop mental health issues from dealing with a high-functioning alcoholic.

Children of a Functional Alcoholic 

High alcohol consumption can have a profound psychological impact on children. Alcohol addiction can make a child’s upbringing more complex and painful than other kids’ experiences.

A child who grows up watching their parent’s addiction unfold may not understand or be able to engage in normal behavior. They may develop self-esteem problems or feel different from others because of the way they were raised.

How to Manage Relationships with a High-Functioning Alcoholic

There are various ways to manage relationships with high-functioning alcoholics:

How to Help Your Loved One 

It can be challenging to watch someone you love struggle with substance use problems. If you are related to or are in a relationship with a functional alcoholic, there are resources you can give to them that can help them reach lifelong recovery.

These resources may be as close as their local doctor’s office or include addiction treatment facilities or peer groups. These resources all may be effective in an individual’s aim to reduce or stop their unhealthy drinking behaviors.

Peer support or self-help groups can be valuable in reducing or stopping heavy drinking problems and can improve a person’s health and emotional well-being. 

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a twelve-step fellowship providing meetings globally to help people stop drinking.6 SMART Recovery is a peer support group that promotes abstinence by applying evidence-based principles in meetings.7 Women for Society helps women address emotional problems linked with a drinking problem.8

An intervention can also help diagnose individuals with alcohol problems and encourage them to seek treatment and help. If performed early enough, it can help prevent further progression in the severity of their disease.

Early intervention may also stop the development of other alcohol-related mental disorders or negative health consequences.

What Not to Do

Many spouses, friends, and children of high-functioning alcoholics fall into the trap of codependency. During codependency, friends and family members of high-functioning alcoholics protect the individual suffering from alcoholism from the negative consequences of the disease.

Friends and family members sacrifice their own needs to maintain a sense of normalcy at home. Classic codependent behaviors include making excuses for a high-functioning alcoholic’s actions. For example, you might say that they are too sick to attend a party or gathering.

Other codependent behaviors include covering a high functioning alcoholics’ expenses. You may pay for traffic tickets, legal fees, or fines that the individual incurred. You may also hide the negative consequences of heavy drinking, such as cleaning up messes or washing ruined clothes before the individual is sober enough to see them.

It is essential not to fall into codependency to help the individual receive the help and treatment they need instead of pretending that their alcohol problems do not exist.

How to Find Support Groups 

It can be challenging having a functional alcoholic in your life. Al-Anon is an example of a support group for the friends and families of individuals suffering from alcoholism. 

Al-Anon is a mutual support group for people whose lives have been affected by another person’s drinking habits.9 By sharing experiences and applying the Al-Anon principles, friends and families of high functioning addicts can bring positive changes to their unique situations. This is whether or not their loved one admits a drinking problem or seeks help.

Alateen is part of the Al-Anon Family Groups. It is a fellowship of young people (primarily teenagers) whose lives have been affected by the drinking problems of family members or friends, whether they are currently in their life drinking or not. By participating in Alateen, teenagers can meet other young people with similar experiences. 

When to Step Away

Choosing to step away from a friend or family member abusing alcohol is challenging. However, walking away may be essential for your own well-being if they continue to refuse to accept they need help or seek treatment.

Before you step away, try to sell your loved one on an intervention. Take the time to learn the knowledge you can use during an intervention. Speak with a local professional interventionist or substance use rehabilitation counselor.

These experts will help you learn what you may need to change in yourself to help your loved one addicted to alcohol. They can help you understand someone else’s alcoholism more and how the disease progresses.

With this understanding, you can develop a support group from friends and family members who will help you sell your loved one an intervention.

The Challenge of Helping Functional Alcoholics

The challenge of helping functional alcoholics is that they are often not viewed as alcoholics by their loved ones, society, or even themselves. This is because functioning alcoholics do not fit the typical stereotypes of an alcoholic, like being unemployed or unemployable, slurring their speech, smelling like alcohol, and more.

As high functioning alcoholics seem to perform well, their alcohol problem does not appear to be an issue. Because of this, high functioning alcoholics are often not approached by their family, friends, or colleagues concerning their drinking behaviors.

Likewise, these individuals often lack insight into how or if drinking many alcoholic beverages disrupts their lives. There is typically failure to understand that their alcohol use is an issue leading to inability to receive help.

Treatment Options for High-Functioning Alcoholics 

Alcohol addiction treatment is provided in various settings. The setting is dependent on the unique needs and requirements of each individual. 

Inpatient treatment is provided in a setting where the individual stays in a facility for the whole duration of the treatment. Staff members offer consistent monitoring and care, including detox addiction medicine treatment.

Outpatient treatment allows a patient to continue to live at home without taking time away from school or work. They receive treatment ranging in intensity depending on the individual’s needs.

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Resources

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Alcohol alert, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH), October 2020, https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa28.htm 

Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes, National Institutes of Health, June 2007, https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/researchers-identify-alcoholism-subtypes 

Becker, Howard C. “Alcohol dependence, withdrawal, and relapse.” Alcohol research & health : the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism vol. 31,4 (2008): 348-61, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3860472/ 

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); Office of the Surgeon General (US). Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health [Internet]. Washington (DC): US Department of Health and Human Services; 2016 Nov. CHAPTER 3, PREVENTION PROGRAMS AND POLICIES. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK424850/?report=classic 

Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction, National Institute on Drug Abuse, January 2019, https://www.drugabuse.gov/sites/default/files/drugfacts-treatmentapproaches.pdf 

What Is A.A.?, Alcoholics Anonymous, https://aa.org/pages/en_US/what-is-aa 

About us, Smart Recovery, https://www.smartrecovery.org/about-us/ 

New Life Program, Women for Sobriety, https://womenforsobriety.org/new-life-program/ 

What Is Al-Anon and Alateen?, Al-Anon Family Groups, https://al-anon.org/newcomers/what-is-al-anon-and-alateen/

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