India's #1 Addiction & Recovery Online Resource

Generic filters
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Browse Centers Recovery Resources

High-Functioning Alcoholic — A Comprehensive Guide

December 29, 2020
Reviewed by: Lisa Misquith
High-Functioning Alcoholic

The following blog has been reviewed by a Psychologist. If you are reading the blog on a mobile phone, you can see the reviewer’s profile at the end of the blog. Please see our editorial policy here.

For most people, hearing the word ‘alcoholic‘ means someone whose life is in disarray because they are drinking too much. However, not all alcoholics fall under this stereotype. High-functioning alcoholics often seem to have a balance between their work, relationships, and other responsibilities but drink too much. As high-functioning alcoholics achieve success, it often makes them believe that their drinking problems are under control.

Who Is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

They are people who, while being addicted to alcohol, tend to function normally. Numerous functioning alcoholics manage to hold their lives together, but persistent consumption can cause dependence and lead to harmful consequences. Sometimes, they also encounter mental issues that other people can not see. 

High-functioning alcoholics continue to display a certain pattern of behaviour, such as:

  • Posing self-restrictions for the choice of alcohol, drinking period and situations
  • Encouraged by friends and family, who cover-up drinking consequences
  • Being social and outgoing at work, while they prefer drinking alone at home
  • Missing personal commitments but attending various family gatherings and occasions
  • Struggling with mental health issues

Symptoms and Signs of High-Functioning Alcoholics

Each person experiences different symptoms and side effects of alcohol abuse. They can be categorised as either highly functional or dysfunctional.

Since high functioning alcoholics try to keep their addiction a secret and they still fulfill some of their responsibilities, it is hard to recognise their traits. They may not be willing to  accept that they need to be  helped as they are usually in denial of their addiction . Often, only a few friends or family members who know about their drinking habits recognise these signs.

Signs of High-Functioning Alcoholics

  • Drinks for relaxation or gaining confidence 
  • Drinks alone and in large amounts
  • Drinks in the morning or any time of the day
  • Black outs while drinking
  • Avoids going to work deliberately
  • May miss family obligations
  • Becoming hostile when confronted about their alcohol problem

The three distinct indicators of a high-functioning alcoholic are the following:

  • Unable to restrict consumption to one drink in a single session
  • Replace food with alcohol
  • Attempt to conceal alcohol consumption

How Do You Become a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

Many genetic and environmental factors influence the chances of a person becoming addicted which are also responsible for the severity level.  These factors allow a high functioning alcoholic to stay rooted to their addiction for long before experiencing health and social issues.

Genetics of a person majorly impact a few aspects like the effect of alcohol on the person, hangovers, associated risky behaviour, and prolonged use of alcohol. The genetics behind alcoholism is only complex. However, environmental factors are easy to understand as it mostly relates to where a person resides. If they live in an area where alcohol is easily accessible, they are more likely to develop the addiction. 

While some people develop addiction quickly, others develop it over time. Underage people are most vulnerable to becoming an addict and exhibit symptoms of substance abuse in a short time.

Risk Factors

  • Stressful or toxic home environment
  • Work life balance
  • Family history of alcohol or other substance abuse
  • Stress exposure
  • Genetics
  • Religious or cultural norms
  • Peer pressure
  • Unhealthy and toxic relationships

How to Live With a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

As high-functioning alcoholics tend to keep their addiction seemingly under control, it may become difficult to confront. Betrayal and lies resulting from their alcohol problems may severely harm relationships with the people living with them.

Living with a high-functioning alcoholic can be a painful existence sometimes. Your relationship with them can affect your mental well-being, especially when there are children at home. Since people with alcoholism may not devote ample time with family and remain emotionally distant, it can cause emotional and relationship problems. Sometimes, distancing yourself from an alcoholic becomes a wise choice for you to live a better life.

People who love and live with an addict may have to face the difficult choice between living with them or parting ways. While distancing may seem selfish, you also have to look out for your mental well-being.

Here are certain things you can do while living with a high functioning alcoholic:

Avoid Codependency

Most of the partners, children, and parents fall into the codependency pit of high functioning alcoholics, shielding the alcoholic from various ill effects. They also neglect their life to keep a mask of normalcy at home. Some typical codependent behaviour includes making an excuse for the alcoholic’s bad actions, covering their expenses, trying to control their drinking habits, or pretending the needs of the family or self are not a priority.

It also encourages the alcoholics to maintain their status quo and continue drinking in a more relaxed manner.

If it has become your habit to defend your loved one, consciously or unconsciously, you are encouraging them for their drinking habits. While most high functioning alcoholics earn well, this habit may deteriorate the mental health of people around them and destroy relationships. This can also result in emotional or physical abuse.

One of the solutions for codependency is to have a strong sense of self and build financial independence. You can also visit individual or couple therapy or a combination of both to solve various issues. 

Find Support Groups

It is equally essential for you to seek help as it is for your high functioning alcoholic loved one. There are many support groups, NGOs, and other organisations that offer assistance in such cases. Specialised programs like 12-step programmes along with AA (Alcohol Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) support groups offer hope and encouragement to people. They also offer advice to the people directly affected by the functioning alcoholic.

Alcoholism affects not only a person but a household. In most cases, it also increases the risk of emotional and physical violence, including substance abuse.

Therefore, it becomes imperative to deal with the problem at the earliest. Visiting a de-addiction therapist can be the first step towards dealing with the issue followed by enrolling your partner into an addiction recovery programme

Hold Interventions

When your loved one refuses to recognise their problem with alcohol, it may be the best time for an intervention. You can start with a planned meeting where you and other loved ones voice the alcohol abuse issues and your desire for them to get well. While doing so, you can show them ill effects of the substance abuse, and how negatively it is affecting your relationship.

You can set the goals of the intervention such as allowing the alcoholic to know how it has affected their loved ones, presenting them with a recovery plan, showing the consequences of not taking the treatment, and helping them take the right steps for appropriate treatment. The invention can include participants like spouse, children, friends, partners and family, who have been directly affected by their alcoholism.

It may be difficult at first, but they may start understanding your perspective on how their drinking is causing grave relationship or family issues. Take note here that the conversation must be constructive to make them realise the issues related to high-functioning alcoholism and get them the right treatment.

Do High-Functioning Alcoholics Require Treatment?

Treatment is typically required for a high-functioning alcoholic. Without any treatment or therapy, sooner or later, a high functioning alcoholic will become non-functional due to addiction being a progressive disease. Since they are always in denial, it may become difficult to hold interventions or convince them to get proper treatment. Chronic health issues do arise due to excessive consumption of alcohol despite not showing any visible signs. You can involve a doctor to get the high functioning alcoholic tests for liver, kidney, and other body parts done to reason with them based on scientific evidence that they require immediate help despite not showing signs of deteriorating health.

Some high-functioning alcoholics may never undergo significant problems, but they also never live their lives to the fullest. Even in this case, high alcohol consumption becomes a matter of concern for friends and family, which can also lead to depression or anxiety disorders.

The family members or partners of high-functioning alcoholics must be careful not to develop codependency on them as it can become toxic in future. Individuals codependent on a functioning alcoholic may tend to miss work or friends and family gatherings due to the hidden fact of their partners being an alcoholic.

When treatment starts, the person is likely to experience withdrawal effects as it involves detoxing and a complete end to drinking. Detoxing from alcohol requires medical supervision because it can cause severe health issues like seizures, rapid heart rate, nausea, shaking, disturbed sleep patterns, anxiety, and more. It is advisable to visit a hospital in such cases. Everyone does not experience the same withdrawal symptoms but they are all likely to happen. You can consult your doctor if you experience either of these symptoms while undergoing detoxification treatment. They may prescribe some medications to manage the same. 

There is more to alcohol addiction than physical dependency. It often is an escape door from stress or other life problems, which a high-functioning alcoholic seems to easily. It is the reason why psychological counselling is also essential during treatment for better recovery. 

You can also contact your family doctors for suggestions on appropriate treatment programs.

Understanding the Stigma of High-Functioning Alcoholics

Often the primary concern of a high-functioning alcoholic for receiving treatment is disrupting work or damaging their reputation. It is understandable as people can be judgemental when a person struggles with addiction or mental health issues. The stigma of suffering from alcohol addiction is typically less than the stigma of becoming an addict in free fall. Regardless, stigma can be the reason a high functioning alcoholic suffers in silence and fears confrontation, thereby, continuing in addiction and damaging their health and relationships.

Early intervention is the only way to ensure your high-functioning alcoholic loved one does not suffer long-term effects of alcoholism. They might do a good of hiding their addiction around other people at present but they may not realise they are concealing symptoms of their disorder.  

Just because a high-functioning alcoholic has succeeded so far may not mean they will continue holding things together in the future.

The good news is recovery is possible. Various examples in our world have previously suffered from alcohol addiction and recovered to achieve higher success.

If alcohol is causing problems in your life, seek treatment. If your loved one has an alcohol problem, look out for them,  rather than helping them hide their alcohol problem, help them face it with the courage to come out of it clean. Be their strength by understanding the problem while empathising and encouraging them into recovery.