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High Functioning Alcoholics and Relationships

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What is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

A high-functioning alcoholic is not a formal diagnosis. It's a term for someone who drinks alcohol heavily but can still function in society.

High-functioning alcoholics often appear physically and mentally healthy. They may hold jobs, own homes, and have families.

This can make it difficult to tell if they have an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

With time, AUD can lead to many health problems, including liver disease and high blood pressure. Therefore, it's important to know what some of the warning signs are.

8 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. This is often in response to stressful situations, such as work or relationship conflicts.

If you or a loved one is drinking excessively 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 or even celebrate victories, you may require professional help.

2. Drinking in Every Situation

When you need alcohol to function in daily activities, you may be experiencing alcohol use disorder.

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 in one sitting (otherwise known as binge drinking.)

There is another pattern of drinking called heavy drinking. For women, this is having more than three drinks a day or seven a week. For men, four or more per day or 14 a week is considered excessive. If you drink more than this daily or weekly limit, you’re at risk.

3. Drinking Alone

Drinking alone can be a sign of high-functioning alcoholism. Some people even drink in secret. When drinking alone, it's harder 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's 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 needing to drink progressively higher amounts to reach a specific level of intoxication. 

This dependence can lead to cravings and addiction.

6. Experiencing Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

If you drink alcohol often, once you stop for a couple of days you'll experience alcohol withdrawal.

Some alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Nausea
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Tremors
  • Nightmares

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.

They may also joke about their condition, in order to deny the reality of the situation.

8. Separate Social Circles

If someone has friends they only spend time with while drinking, this may be a sign the person is trying to keep this area of their life secret from others.

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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.

Romantic Relationships

Alcoholic romantic partners or spouses may be abusive or emotionally distant. This can put a strain on a relationship or marriage.

It can also lead to various mental health problems for either party, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

Friendships

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

Parent-Child Relationships

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 

Alcohol addiction is considered a family disease because it affects the alcoholic and those close to them, including their children. If you're related to or are in a relationship with a functional alcoholic, there are various resources to help them reach lifelong recovery.

Peer Support Groups

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. 

These include:

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

An intervention can also help diagnose those with alcohol problems and encourage them to seek treatment and help.

If performed early enough, it can help prevent further progression in disease severity.

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.

Codependents protect the person suffering from alcoholism from the negative consequences of the disease. They 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
  • Covering expenses for the functioning alcoholic (ex: traffic tickets, legal fees, or fines)
  • Hiding the negative consequences of heavy drinking (ex: cleaning up messes or washing ruined clothes)

Other warning signs of codependency include performing regular life duties, like running errands, and trying to justify an addict’s negative behaviors to other people.

It's essential not to fall into codependency to help the person 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 people suffering from alcoholism. 

Al-Anon is a mutual support group for people whose lives have been affected by another person’s drinking habits.

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.

Within Al-Anon is Alateen. It's a fellowship of young people whose lives have been affected by the drinking problems of family members or friends.

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. Speak with a local substance use rehabilitation counselor. 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.

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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 person. 

These include:

Inpatient treatment

Inpatient treatment is provided in a setting where the person 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

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 person's needs.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

MAT involves using medication to manage withdrawal symptoms during detoxification. It may also be paired with counseling to reduce cravings and prevent relapse.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is an evidence-based form of behavioral therapy that aims to address any mental health issues that may lie at the root of an addiction.

Updated on May 17, 2022
7 sources cited
  1. About Us.” SMART Recovery.
  2. New Life Program.” Women For Sobriety, 24 Nov. 2021.
  3. Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes.” National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 29 Sept. 2015.
  4. Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.” Www.drugabuse.gov, National Institute on Drug Abuse.
  5. What Is A.A.?” Alcoholics Anonymous.
  6. What Is Al-Anon and Alateen and Are They Right for Me?” Al-Anon Family Groups, 3 Dec. 2018.
  7. 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 : 348-61.

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