There is a common misconception in our culture that someone who is an “alcoholic” or “addict” is non-functional, living on the streets or in rehab. However, many people struggle with alcohol abuse who you might not know are alcoholics. These people may hide their alcohol abuse and could deem themselves a “functional alcoholic” or a “high-functioning alcoholic.”
High-functioning alcoholics might act and live like they have their lives together and can somehow function despite heavy drinking. Most functioning alcoholics don’t “look” like the addicts we’ve gotten used to seeing in the media. You might be surprised by the extent of their struggles with alcohol use disorders or substance abuse. (1)
High-functioning alcoholics often have great jobs, lots of friends, and a busy life. However, their high-functioning appearance is usually a mask, hiding their struggles.
What is High-Functioning Alcoholism?
High-functioning alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a particularly hazardous condition. It’s essential to recognize that AUD is not merely excessive drinking; it’s a complex mental health disorder that affects behavioral health as well. It impairs a person’s cognitive abilities, emotional regulation, and ability to engage effectively in social and professional situations due to excessive alcohol consumption. (2)(3)
People living with AUD might exhibit seemingly ordinary behavior on the surface, but beneath the façade, they grapple with this hidden turmoil.
These individuals often work hard to keep their alcoholism concealed or experience severe health repercussions that aren’t always immediately noticeable to others. However, there are negative consequences of this. AUD is a challenging and dangerous disorder, not only for the affected individual but also for those close to them. (4)
The harmful consequences of AUD can be emotionally and socially overwhelming, leading to serious health problems and the need for medical advice and alcohol treatment.
It is smart to understand that functioning well in society does not negate the severity of the disorder, and those struggling with high-functioning alcoholism need support and treatment to address their condition effectively.
Key Warning Signs to Look For
You may know people in your life who drink heavily, but you’re not sure if the behavior is problematic or just a poor health decision they make from time to time.
- Education: They are educated, usually at a college level or beyond.
- Structured: They have very structured drinking habits, like only drinking in certain places or situations or only drinking certain types of alcohol.
- In denial: They believe that their drinking is normal for them and that the level they drink is just their regular habit, which may vary from other people’s habits.
- Good, stable employment: They have good jobs, are friendly with co-workers, and usually have decent incomes, which allow them to afford the alcohol they drink.
- Mental health issues: They may have other mental health issues, such as anxiety, anger, depression, and low self-esteem. Often, alcohol is a way to self-medicate.
- Anti-social: They like to drink alone. This ensures that no one can see the extent of their alcohol abuse and the effects of alcohol.
- Uphold an image: They are careful about who sees them drinking and who sees them when they’ve drunk too much so they can try to stay in control of their image in other people’s eyes.
- Rarely single: They are married or partnered, and they often have children or a family.
These individuals may display remarkable resilience in managing their daily responsibilities while concealing their alcohol addiction. However, the ongoing struggle with high-functioning alcoholism can lead to severe consequences over time.
In the long term, their alcohol abuse can damage relationships with friends and family, causing strain and emotional distress. As the addiction progresses, it might become increasingly challenging to maintain these relationships.
High-functioning alcoholics may also experience diminished job performance, which can jeopardize their career prospects.
Risk Factors of High-Functioning Alcoholism
High-functioning alcoholism, while often concealed, is influenced by a complex interplay of various risk factors. These risk factors can encompass societal, environmental, and genetic elements that may predispose someone to develop this form of alcoholism.
Understanding these factors is crucial for recognizing and addressing high-functioning alcoholism effectively.
- Genetic Predisposition: A family history of alcoholism can significantly increase the risk of high-functioning alcoholism. Genetic factors can make some individuals more vulnerable to alcohol addiction, and they might find it challenging to control their drinking once they start. (6)
- Early Exposure: People who are exposed to alcohol at a young age are at a higher risk of developing high-functioning alcoholism. Early exposure can normalize alcohol consumption, making it more likely for individuals to continue this behavior into adulthood.
- Stress and Coping Mechanisms: High levels of stress or the lack of effective coping mechanisms can contribute to the development of high-functioning alcoholism. Some individuals turn to alcohol as a means of coping with life’s challenges, which can lead to dependence.
- Environmental Factors: A person’s social and environmental surroundings play a significant role. High-functioning alcoholism can be more prevalent in environments where alcohol consumption is common, such as certain professions or social circles. (7)
- Mental Health Conditions: Co-occurring mental health issues like anxiety, depression, or trauma can increase the risk of high-functioning alcoholism. Some individuals may use alcohol to self-medicate or alleviate emotional distress.
- Societal Pressures: Societal pressures, such as expectations related to performance, success, or image, can lead individuals to turn to alcohol as a way to cope with the demands placed on them.
- High Tolerance: People with a naturally high tolerance for alcohol may be at an increased risk of developing high-functioning alcoholism. This tolerance allows them to consume large amounts of alcohol without displaying severe physical impairment.
- Lack of Awareness: High-functioning alcoholism often goes unnoticed because individuals manage to hide their addiction. The absence of awareness or acknowledgment of the problem can delay intervention and treatment.
Why Many Don’t Recognize Their Alcohol Abuse
Functioning alcoholics are common, which has led to many cultural misconceptions about what it means to struggle with alcohol abuse and alcoholism and also be a high-functioning member of society.
The following common misconceptions about high-functioning alcoholics have perpetuated the idea that these individuals can safely manage their use, or that they don’t need as much help as poorly functioning addicts:
- You can’t tell they’re an alcoholic. It might be hard to tell if a high-functioning alcoholic is struggling with a substance use disorder. However, if you look beyond the exterior of a high-functioning alcoholic, you will undoubtedly find signs of a problematic relationship with alcoholic beverages.
- You can just call them heavy drinkers: Heavy drinkers differ from high-functioning alcoholics. While misuse or overuse of alcohol is never good for a person’s health, there is a difference between a heavy drinker and someone who is legitimately addicted to alcohol. (8)
- High-functioning alcoholics are actually in control of their addiction. By definition, someone who is addicted to alcohol is not in control of their usage—the substance is controlling their behavior. Even high-functioning alcoholics cannot get their alcohol use under control.
- They don’t need any help. Any person who is struggling with substance use deserves and needs help. High-functioning alcoholics can benefit from addiction treatment, rehab, or professional medical help like any substance abuser, and they may need serious medical supervision to help them stop their use.
Am I a High-Functioning Alcoholic? – Take Our Quiz
Answer the following questions to see if you might be a high-functioning alcoholic. If you find yourself answering “yes” to at least two of the following questions, it may indicate an alcohol use disorder. You could benefit from seeking professional assistance.
- Has alcohol ever caused me to miss school or work?
- Do I drink to relax or destress?
- Do I drink before social events to feel more confident?
- Has my use of alcohol ever ended up causing an argument between me and a loved one?
- Do I have a routine regarding my use of alcohol?
- Do I ever try to hide my drinking? Will I lie about how much I’ve drank to make it seem like I’ve consumed less than I actually have?
- Have I ever tried to cut down on drinking excessively, but it’s been unsuccessful or only temporary?
- Do I feel guilty about the way I use alcohol?
- Do I ever blackout from drinking alcohol?
- Is alcohol affecting my financial situation in any way?
- Do people consider me a heavy drinker? Do I have the reputation of being a drinker in social situations?
- Have I ever told someone I wasn’t drinking, when I was planning to later or already had?
- Has drinking ever resulted in me engaging in risky behaviors, like driving while drunk or going home with a stranger while impaired?
- Has my use of alcohol ever caused any legal issues for me?
- Have any loved ones removed themselves from my life because they are worried about or disapprove of my drinking?
- Have I ever asked someone close to me to lie about the amount I’ve been drinking?
- Have I ever told people I was ill when I missed events, but I was hungover?
If you’ve answered yes to two or more of the above questions, there’s a good chance that you are misusing alcohol. Consider consulting a medical professional or recovery specialist. If you can be open about your drinking, they may be able to help you safely get on the path to sobriety.
This is especially valuable since withdrawing from alcohol can be dangerous or even deadly if you try to stop on your own.
Recovery and Treatment Options
The journey toward recovery from high-functioning alcoholism is a challenging yet essential one. It typically involves a comprehensive approach that addresses both the physical and psychological aspects of alcohol dependence.
Below are the various alcohol withdrawal and recovery treatment options available to individuals seeking to overcome high-functioning alcoholism.
- Detoxification (Detox): The first step in alcoholism recovery often involves detoxification. This medically supervised process allows individuals to rid their bodies of alcohol while managing withdrawal symptoms safely. Detox helps stabilize the individual’s physical condition and prepares them for the next phases of treatment. This can be done via inpatient or outpatient. (9)
- Therapy and Counseling: Various therapeutic approaches are beneficial in addressing the underlying causes and consequences of high-functioning alcoholism. Individual and group therapy sessions provide a platform to explore the psychological factors contributing to alcohol dependence, develop coping strategies, and set achievable goals for recovery.
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is a widely used therapeutic approach for alcoholism recovery. It helps individuals identify and modify harmful thought patterns and behaviors related to alcohol use, fostering healthier decision-making and coping skills. This is considered a great treatment program. (10)(11)
- Support Groups: Participating in support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can be highly effective. These groups offer a sense of community, shared experiences, and an opportunity for individuals to work through their struggles with peers who understand their journey.
- Medications: In some cases, healthcare providers may prescribe medications to assist individuals in managing their alcohol cravings or to deter alcohol use. Medications like naltrexone, acamprosate, or disulfiram may be recommended as part of the treatment plan.
- Lifestyle Changes: Recovery from high-functioning alcoholism often necessitates substantial lifestyle adjustments. These changes may include avoiding environments or social circles that encourage drinking, establishing healthy daily routines, engaging in physical activity, and adopting a balanced diet.
- Long-Term Recovery Plans: Successful recovery from high-functioning alcoholism involves more than initial treatment; it’s an ongoing process. A long-term recovery plan, such as a 12-step program, is vital, often consisting of continued therapy or support group participation to maintain sobriety. (12)
- Family and Social Support: Involving loved ones in the recovery process can be invaluable. Family therapy and rebuilding relationships can be essential aspects of recovery. Social support helps individuals navigate challenges and maintain sobriety.
- Dual Diagnosis Treatment: High-functioning alcoholism can often be accompanied by co-occurring mental health disorders. Dual diagnosis treatment addresses both conditions concurrently to ensure comprehensive care.
- Aftercare Programs: Aftercare programs and alcohol rehab programs offer ongoing support and resources for individuals post-treatment. These programs help reinforce the skills learned during treatment and reduce the risk of relapse.
Recovery from high-functioning alcoholism is a personalized journey, and the treatment plan should be tailored to the individual’s unique needs and circumstances. Recognizing the importance of seeking professional help and support is the first significant step to recovery.
The combination of medical guidance, therapy, and lifestyle changes plays a crucial role in helping individuals break free from the grip of drug abuse and high-functioning alcoholism to achieve lasting sobriety in daily life.
How to Help a Functioning Alcoholic
If you’re not worried about your own alcohol use but you have a feeling that one of your family members or someone you love is a high-functioning alcoholic, you may want to step in to do what you can to help them.
A person has to want to get sober to get and stay sober. And often, high-functioning alcoholics aren’t ready to admit they have a problem and stop drinking or seek treatment.
If you want to help a high-functioning alcoholic in your life get on a path to a safer, healthier, happier existence, there are some ways you can offer your support.
1. Don’t Enable Their Drinking
It’s easy to slip into a codependent relationship with a high-functioning alcoholic. A codependent relationship involves you enabling their drinking. If you’ve determined that you love a high-functioning alcoholic, avoid the following behaviors to ensure they confront their problem:
- Don’t make excuses for how they act when intoxicated.
- Don’t try to convince the alcoholic to stop drinking with emotional threats or passive-aggressive behavior.
- Don’t try to control their drinking by purchasing alcohol and monitoring how much of it they consume.
- Don’t neglect your own needs to ensure the alcoholic stays as safe, healthy, and comfortable as possible. The best thing you can do in this situation is to take care of yourself.
- Don’t pay for the alcoholic’s expenses. Don’t buy the alcohol, pay court fees or fines, etc. Make sure the addict feels the full financial effects of their drinking.
2. Get Support From Others
It can be tempting to keep someone’s drinking a secret if they are high-functioning. But to stay healthy and get the addict the help they need, you need to seek out the support of others.
Confide in a loved one or friend. Go to a support group for people who love alcoholics, like Al-Anon, or speak to a mental health professional. Getting support can ensure you stay healthy and safe while you do your best to encourage your struggling loved one toward recovery.
3. Consider an Intervention
With the help of a professional, you may be able to hold an intervention. At an intervention, loved ones confront an addict and demand they seek treatment. During the intervention, people explain to an addict how their drinking has affected everyone’s lives.
They also lay out the consequences of what will happen if the addict refuses to seek recovery (e.g. they may cut off contact with the addict, refuse to let the addict into their home or work, etc.)
If an intervention is led by a professional interventionist who knows how to control a high-stakes, highly emotional confrontation like this one, it can be very successful for those with a drinking problem.
Worried About Alcohol Use Disorder? Get Help From Zinnia
If you aren’t quite sure if you or your loved one has the signs of a functioning alcoholic or you’re considering treatment at a treatment facility for a functioning alcoholic, consider recovery with Zinnia Health today.
We treat a wide range of individuals struggling with addiction—whether they are addicted to alcohol, drugs, or other harmful behaviors or substances.
Our experts at Zinnia Health can help walk people through their journey to sobriety, teach them how to withstand physical discomfort from withdrawal symptoms (or treat it medically), offer support, and demonstrate how to rebuild a truly fulfilling life that doesn’t include alcohol.