High Functioning Alcoholism

Estimated reading time: 31 minute(s)

When we think of alcoholism, most people have a stereotypical image of someone struggling with controlling how much they drink per day. In most minds, this person is someone who has a bottle of alcohol in one hand all the time, rarely has a hangover-free day, and cannot recall what happened to them the night before. It is someone whose life clearly seems to be falling apart, yet they cannot keep their drinking habit under control. While highly stereotyped in most people’s minds, experts now believe that alcoholism or alcohol use disorder falls in a spectrum with variable intensities, ranging from mild to severe.

People with severe alcohol use disorders may closely match the description most people have in mind, but those with mild to moderately severe addictions may not show obvious signs of alcoholism. Most of them may be seen holding down good jobs, paying their bills on time, and maintaining relationships with family and friends, all while drinking more heavily than a regular person. Such people are said to be suffering from high functioning alcoholism, a condition that causes a person to consume more alcohol than an average person does yet can mask this habit and its effects.

A highly functioning alcoholic continues to drink but never lets it impair their work or life quality. They may never get in fights with their spouse over excessive drinking and perform all duties expected of them in time. Because of no obvious negative effects, many people presume high functioning alcoholism to be safe; however, it may sometimes end up doing more harm to a person than regular, severe alcoholism.

Common Signs of High Functioning Alcoholism

It can be extremely difficult to spot the signs of high functioning alcoholism in people as most of them may continue to lead perfectly normal lives without any obvious disruptions. Many victims perform well at work, maintain pristine appearances, and have good social lives without making anyone doubt their drinking habits, even for a second. As a result, the external world may treat a high functioning alcoholic as a regular person.

Mentioned below are some common signs to confirm high functioning alcoholism in people:

Lying about drinking frequency and amount

Sometimes, a loved one or coworker may catch a high functioning alcoholic drinking too much alcohol, for example, at a party or during office hours, and may question it. When confronted, most high functioning alcoholics may lie about the number of drinks they consume by lowering the number significantly. Such people are also likely to control their drinking habits in public and prefer consuming more alcohol privately.

Requiring a higher amount of alcohol to get drunk

While most high-functioning adults initially begin drinking to seek some buzz, they may develop tolerance with time. This tolerance requires them to drink a greater amount of alcohol every time to feel that high.

Needing alcohol as an eye-opener

Many high-functioning alcoholics need alcohol first thing in the morning to wake up and go about their day normally. This is particularly true if they had a rough night before as they believe having more alcohol the following morning will help the body regulate itself and overcome the hangover more easily.

Suffering from memory lapses

Sometimes, high functioning alcoholics may experience memory issues, especially if they drink a lot. For instance, people may reference a recent conversation they had with a high functioning alcoholic, but the latter may not be able to recall them as they were intoxicated when the discussion took place. Research suggests that these blackouts’ frequency and severity may vary depending on a person’s makeup.

Getting defensive about drinking habits

If someone notices a high functioning alcoholic drinking too much and points it out, they may quickly become defensive and try to prove how alcohol has no impact on their life. Such people often go to great lengths to prove that their life is free from the mental and physical health effects of alcohol.

Engaging in risky behaviors

High functioning alcoholism may cause people to become overconfident and overestimate their ability to perform tasks even under the influence of alcohol. They may consider it safe to operate machinery or drive following a drinking session, putting themselves and everyone else at risk. It is imperative to understand that while such people may not feel as drunk due to high tolerance, the high blood alcohol concentration in high functioning alcoholics can impair their judgment without making them aware of it.

Inability to stop drinking

If someone has tried cutting back on how much they drink or quitting altogether without success, it may be because of an underlying alcohol use disorder. Such people are unable to give up on alcohol because its long-term use has changed their brain, and now it needs the beverage for survival, just like water and food.

High-Functioning Alcoholics and Relationships

The life of a high functioning alcoholic can be extremely stressful as these people constantly need to present an image to outsiders while burying or hiding their over-reliance on alcohol and the associated issues that seem to be taking a toll on every aspect of life. This constant stress can eventually hurt their relationships, causing fissures and cracks, which may destroy all links and cut all contacts if nothing is done. Eventually, partners and other loved ones may find out about a high functioning alcoholic’s increased dependence on alcohol, and fights over this pattern of drinking may begin. If the alcoholic loses their temper when they are intoxicated, some of these fights may culminate in domestic violence.

Fighting and arguments may not be the only issue at play for people married to high functioning alcoholics. Some partners may follow the lead of such people, denying the problem altogether and pretending as if nothing is wrong. Some may feel the temptation to enable, forcing them to buy liquor for their partner or join them as they drink. While all these attempts might be a gesture to keep the relationship going, they may keep the high functioning alcoholics struck in their current destructive behaviors with no way to get out or seek help.

As the partner of a high functioning alcoholic, life can be equally stressful. Their household tends to be in chaos as they continue dealing with their partner’s mood swings, excuses, or lies related to their alcohol use. Such people do not know what to expect from their alcoholic partner and are always on guard, which may become exhausting in the long run. These caretakers may also need to spend more time and energy covering for their alcoholic loved one, for example, making excuses for why they missed a social gathering or doing their share of errands or chores. In case the couple has children, the caretaker has the responsibility to protect them from their alcoholic parent’s behavior and explain their constant absence.

What makes everything mentioned above more painful is that a high-functioning alcoholic usually appears normal to the rest of the world. Because of this, a caretaker or partner may hesitate to share their struggles with others as they fear that others may not believe them. Eventually, such partners start feeling alone and isolated, which harms their overall health.  Many people lose hope in their life and their partner’s recovery, indicating the need for immediate help.

Living with a High Functioning Alcoholic

Living with a high functioning alcoholic can be extremely difficult for the loved ones. They may constantly remain concerned about their alcoholic loved one, get hurt by their behavior, and always remain anxious about what they do next. Helping such people get on the road to recovery from their underlying alcohol use disorder can be extremely difficult, and as a loved one, you may require support and the right channel to offer your loved one the right support.

Follow the tips mentioned below to support yourself and your high-functioning alcoholic loved one:

Create a strong network of support

Remember that dealing with a high functioning alcoholic on your may become extremely difficult. Do not be shy to seek help from other family members or friends, even if it involves having someone to vent out.

Approach them properly

Remember that a high functioning alcoholic may not easily admit to their underlying alcoholism. Hence, you must be careful about when and how to approach them. If appropriate, seek advice and help from a professional interventionist about staging a conversation.

Take a break

Once you have enough support and cover, do not hesitate to take a break to enjoy yourself for once. For example, you may ask a friend or family member to take the alcoholic loved one to their support session while you get to enjoy a nice dinner out.

Become a role model

Always try your best to influence your loved one’s life positively. This doesn’t only have to be confined to drinking habits but can extend to other day-to-day activities, such as getting regular sleep, eating well, etc.

Look after your health

Taking care of a loved one struggling with high functioning alcoholism can be very stressful and induce severe anxiety. As a caretaker, consider looking after your physical and mental health and ensure you do not burn out.


Can high functioning alcoholism stop people from maintaining their daily responsibilities?

Despite suffering from alcohol use disorder, a high functioning alcoholic may not have any obvious effects on their day-to-day lives. What this means is their drinking may not cause any severe impairments that stop these people from fulfilling their daily responsibilities and duties. Simply put, such people can easily do well in both their professional and personal lives, possibly excelling at them without experiencing any alcohol-related repercussions.

Who is at the highest risk of becoming a high functioning alcoholic?

Each person who drinks more alcohol than safely recommended is at risk of becoming a high functioning alcoholic. However, research believes that only 20 percent of drinkers end up with this type of addiction. The disorder is particularly prevalent in people with certain risk factors, such as those who started drinking in their late teens but did not acquire proper addiction until they crossed their 30s. Experts also found that most people with high functioning alcoholism are the ones who consume at least five drinks per sitting, and most of them hold college degrees.

Why does a high functioning alcoholic resist treatment?

High-functioning alcoholism is more like an undiagnosed or secret disorder which may be more dangerous than the more-obvious standard alcoholism. This is because most high functioning alcoholics deny their underlying problem and believe nothing is wrong with them. This outright deniability hinders them from seeking help no matter how much they need it. Many people carry on with this denial until their secret alcohol use becomes obvious, and its associated effects make them hit rock bottom. Until then, these people keep convincing themselves that nothing is wrong with their pattern of drinking and that everyone drinks like they do.

Can high functioning alcoholics recover on their own?

It is very difficult for a high functioning alcoholic to seek help. However, experts believe that seeking professional help is crucial for them, even more than for people with severe addictions. High functioning alcoholism can make its victims run away from anything that makes their alcohol use public, such as joining a rehab. They may try to suppress their problems independently; however, they are very likely to fail and relapse very soon, as alcoholism is very difficult to manage without external help. Only a professional program can help them break their use pattern and adopt a sober life. Even after achieving sobriety, such people need constant help and support from community-based programs and their loved ones.

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