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Surveys suggest that one in eight individuals in the United States are alcoholics. When most people picture such “alcoholics,” they imagine someone so intoxicated that they cannot maintain a job or healthy relationships because of their relentless drinking habits. Most of these people are not familiar that having an alcohol use disorder does not always make a person incapable of functioning in everyday life. Some of them suffer from what experts call high-functioning alcoholism, which allows them to work, talk, walk, drive, and live without any visible alcohol-led damage but suffer from cravings and withdrawals when they do not get a drink.
If you or someone around you is habitual of sneaking in a bottle of alcohol now and then or indulging too much in alcohol, it is essential to find out if they are a high-functioning alcoholic. Catching the issue in time can allow you to seek timely help and get over it before it starts causing visible destruction.
What is a Functioning Alcoholic?
For most people, the hallmark of alcohol addiction is an inability to get anything done in life, from maintaining a job to establishing healthy relationships. However, many such addicts never hit rock bottom but continue to drink while maintaining control over this habit. Such people, also known as high-functioning alcoholics, are perfectly capable of holding their work life, personal life, and health despite their addiction to alcohol and compulsion to drink to keep cravings at bay. 
For instance, an alcoholic who is high functioning may never impair their work quality and continue to perform their job with top performance. They may never get into a fight with their partner over their alcohol use or get in trouble with the law for driving under the influence. Many even maintain excellent health and only begin to experience consequences as they age. A functional alcoholic may keep drinking throughout the day but never to the point that it interferes with their ability to perform their duties. Their moderate drinking is only an attempt to ward off cravings and keep withdrawal symptoms at bay.
While many people believe that the ability to drink alcohol while maintaining all life responsibilities does not cause any harm, it can lead to alcoholism sooner or later. Such type of alcoholism is even dangerous as it may keep the high-functioning alcoholics in denial that something is wrong with them and they need help for it.
Signs of High Functioning Alcoholism
It can be tricky and sometimes confusing to spot alcohol abuse, especially in high-functioning alcoholism, as the individual appears normal without any obvious signs of difficulty. Many of these individuals continue performing well at work, have extraordinary social lives, and have pristine appearances that may not make anyone doubt them for alcoholism even for a second.
While such people may seem normal to the external world, some of them may experience warning signs and alcoholism symptoms in other aspects of life. Some of these high-functioning alcohol signs to look out for include the following:
- Drinking excessively and heavily
- Justifying their drinking habit as a celebration or reward
- Drinking secretly, in solitude, or at unconventional times
- Inability to socialize without drinking alcohol
- Claiming to only drink expensive alcohol to prove that they do not have an underlying addiction
- Avoidance of social scenarios where alcohol is not available
- Using alcohol to deal with anxiety, stress, depression, trauma, or loss
- Experiencing blackouts or memory blocks regarding past events due to heavy drinking
- Storing alcohol secretly in unusual places, such as cars, garages, clothes, or sheds
- Becoming short-tempered, aggressive, or impulsive following a drinking session
- Adopting a flippant attitude about drinking habits
- Becoming angry or defensive upon receiving criticism for their alcohol habits
- Experiencing restlessness or irritability if alcohol is unavailable
- Experiencing an increased tolerance to alcohol, i.e., the need to drink more and more alcohol to feel its intoxicating effects
- Facing withdrawal symptoms when alcohol is unavailable, such as nausea, fatigue, headache, shivering, vivid dreams, and shakiness.
Risk Factors Indicative of a High-Functioning Alcoholic
According to the National Institute of Health, as many as 20 percent of people who suffer from alcoholism are highly functioning. Most of them are well-educated and have high-paying jobs. But what determines the risk of someone becoming a high-functioning alcoholic? Consider the following situations, which can easily make anyone vulnerable to developing this issue.
- People who are constantly under high levels of stress at home or work or suffer from mental health struggles that they do not seek treatment for can ultimately end up becoming high-functioning alcoholics.
- Depression and alcoholism share an inextricable link, with one condition feeding into the other. If you have depression or another similar mental health disorder, you may feel tempted to use alcohol to improve your life, ultimately becoming a high-functioning alcoholic.
- Frequently exceeding the weekly recommended amount for alcohol use also increases the risk.
- Genetics is also an essential determinator of an individual’s risk of alcohol addiction. People who have a close family member struggling with similar issues are, therefore, at higher risk of alcoholism, which may take become high functioning.
Seeking Help for High-Functioning Alcoholism
As with anyone struggling with alcoholism, the first and most crucial step is acceptance. From here, there are plenty of things such people can do to get on a path to recovery. Another essential tip to remember is to discuss and share the issues with others who understand and support them. If you feel like it, consider speaking to a family member or a close friend about your high-functioning alcohol addiction, and they may offer you support and love when you are the most vulnerable. Remember that having a support network of loved ones around you significantly improves the chances of recovery.
Read Also About Signs Of Alcoholism At Work
Additionally, do not be afraid to seek professional treatment when you feel like your problem is getting out of hand. A healthcare professional can assess the severity of your symptoms and offer the most appropriate next steps. They may refer you to certain rehabilitation centers where you can meet other people with similar problems and work towards overcoming your addiction.
While the treatment plan for a high-functioning alcoholic may vary from one person to another, it generally involves the following levels of care:
This process helps you get rid of all addictive substances under medical supervision. The process is led by highly-trained detox experts who provide emotional and medical support to keep you comfortable and safe while effectively managing the detox symptoms.
Residential Alcohol Addiction Treatment
Residential or inpatient treatment places you in a rehab center where you can safely work toward recovery in a supportive and non-judgmental environment. Throughout your stay in such treatment, you will get a chance to participate in therapy, counseling sessions, support groups, and various other wellness activities. A typical residential program may continue for 28 days but can extend to 3 months.
Therapy aims to help people deal with underlying issues while learning to manage feelings and move past traumatic memories through psychoeducation. Additionally, it also enables you to identify triggers and acquire healthy coping skills to start life afresh. Therapy may take place in individual one-to-one sessions or in groups with other participants and family members.
Aftercare and Secondary Care
Recovery from high functioning alcoholism can be a lifelong process; hence, aftercare services are essential to treatment. These services include continued access to therapy and support groups to help you maintain and remember whatever you have learned during formal treatment. Additionally, aftercare aims to help to recover alcoholics and prevent relapses by reducing cravings.
Can a high-functioning alcoholic maintain responsibilities?
A high-functioning alcoholic describes a person with alcohol addiction but without the obvious consequences of their heavy drinking habits. They may experience some level of impairment from time to time, but it is usually not severe enough to limit them from fulfilling their duties and responsibilities. In other words, such people can easily maintain jobs and excel at them. They may also successfully avoid the social and legal repercussions of their drinking habits, at least for some time.
How can you tell if someone around you is a high-functioning alcoholic?
Almost all alcoholics have a stereotype of being constantly intoxicated with an inability to keep their life together. However, for a high-functioning alcoholic, things may seem a bit different than usual. Such people are often tricky to identify because they are highly secretive about their drinking habits and levels. This type of alcoholism often comes with a very high level of denial and many suffering from it believe that because they can hold a job and maintain relationships, they do not have any problems. Hence, most high-functioning alcoholics are never able to identify their problems and usually their loved ones do it for them.
Who is most likely to become a high functioning alcoholic?
Everyone who drinks alcohol is likely to become a high-functioning alcoholic; however, only 20 percent of them end up with this type of alcoholism. Experts have noticed various trends in such people, such as most of them are usually the ones who started drinking alcohol in their late teenage years but did not fully become addicted until their late 30s. Such people are usually the ones who drink at least five or more alcoholic drinks per sitting, and most of them also hold a college degree.
How is high-functioning alcoholism an issue?
While high-functioning alcoholics may not face any issues in terms of employment or relationships, they are still using alcohol heavily, which makes them vulnerable to various health issues. Many of these people continue drinking heavily for years, increasing their risk of developing liver disease and certain types of cancers. Years of alcohol abuse can also make them deficient in an essential vitamin, leading to a condition called wet brain.
A wet brain is an extremely dangerous consequence of prolonged alcohol consumption, leading to permanent brain damage and memory loss. Even high-functioning alcoholics are at risk of strained relationships and poor work performance even though they may not struggle from these issues in the initial years of use. What makes things worse is the denial these individuals face that prevents them from getting the help they need, as they constantly believe that there is nothing to worry about.
1 Morawska, K., & Chodkiewicz, J. (2019). High-functioning alcoholics–a separate type? The search for common features in current alcoholism typologies. Journal of Psychiatry and Clinical Psychology, 19(4), 411
2 National Institute of Health.(2007) Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes.