What Is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

High-functioning alcoholics are people who appear to function normally despite being addicted to alcohol. Many functional alcoholics seem to keep their lives together while drinking in secret, but chronic alcohol abuse always leads to negative consequences. They often experience emotional problems that others can’t see.
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People suffering from alcohol addiction don’t always hit rock bottom. Many alcoholics keep their addiction secret and believe they control how much they consume.

“A high-functioning alcoholic is someone who meets enough criteria to have a substance use disorder and is still able to maintain their personal life, work life and health.”

Dr. Kevin Wandler, Chief Medical Officer, Advanced Recovery Systems

They may never get fired for being hungover, have a falling-out with friends or get pulled over for driving under the influence. The side effects might not catch up to them until old age, when chronic alcohol abuse takes its toll on their liver, heart and brain.

These people are commonly referred to as high-functioning alcoholics, functional alcoholics or working alcoholics. A functional alcoholic might drink moderately throughout the day — never enough to get drunk but always enough to curb cravings and stave off alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Or they may remain sober throughout the day but binge drink at night or on weekends.

But alcoholism is a disease that causes individuals to compulsively drink despite knowing the health, social and legal repercussions. High-functioning alcoholics have an addiction as real as those of the people who get in car accidents, show up to work drunk or lose their family and friends.

Functioning alcoholic at a party

The term high-functioning alcoholic can be defined as a person who suffers from alcoholism but has yet to experience noticeable effects of alcohol. They likely experience negative consequences caused by alcohol abuse, but those consequences do not appear to prevent them from functioning in everyday life.

The American Psychiatric Association classifies substances use disorders as mild, moderate or severe. The severe cases are obvious. They’re highlighted on TV and in the news. But mild and moderate cases may be more common, affecting millions across the country.

In 2007, Columbia University researchers found that 4 percent of Americans had an alcohol use disorder.

In 2007, Columbia University researchers analyzed data from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. They found that 4 percent of Americans had an alcohol use disorder. Among the 4 percent, 3 percent — about 9 million people — were considered functionally dependent.

Alcoholics have a stereotype, so friends, family members and co-workers might not recognize high-functioning alcoholics.

The term high-functioning is misleading, though. Some experts prefer the term “currently-functioning alcoholic” because odds are such people aren’t going to remain functional forever. They might not even continue to abuse alcohol forever.

The Columbia researchers found that about 72 percent of people who become dependent on alcohol overcome the disease, with or without treatment, within three or four years and do not relapse. The prognosis for the other 28 percent isn’t as encouraging. They experience alcohol relapse an average of five times and must work to remain sober for the rest of their lives.

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Signs & Symptoms of a High-Functioning Alcoholic

People with alcohol use disorders don’t fall into either a highly-functional or dysfunctional category. In fact, every person experiences different symptoms and side effects of the disease. Researchers from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism developed five types of alcoholics.

“Our findings should help dispel the popular notion of the ‘typical alcoholic,’” said Dr. Howard Moss, NIAAA associate director for clinical and translational research, in a news release. “We find that young adults comprise the largest group of alcoholics in this country, and nearly 20 percent of alcoholics are highly functional and well-educated with good incomes.”

Functional alcoholics are difficult to recognize because they try to keep their addiction a secret. They may be in denial about their addiction, so they’re unwilling to accept help or admit they need help. Often, only a select few friends, family members or spouses are close enough to recognize the signs.

Signs that someone is a functioning alcoholic include:

  • Uses alcohol to relax
  • Uses alcohol for confidence
  • Drinks in the morning
  • Drinks alone
  • Drinks too much
  • Blacks out while drinking
  • Has a record of DUI arrests
  • Jokes about having an alcohol problem
  • Misses school or work for unexplained reasons
  • Gets angry when confronted about alcohol problems

Functional alcoholics are more likely to participate in high-risk behavior, but they may be better at not getting caught than others.

Examples of high-risk behaviors include:

  • Binge drinking
  • Drinking while taking care of children
  • Driving under the influence
  • Practicing unsafe sex after drinking

One of the misconceptions about functional alcoholics is that they never experience problems. Alcoholism never occurs without consequences. Some alcoholics may be highly functional at work, in school or in social situations, but the negative effects of the disease will eventually show up somewhere.

“The three most distinct signs that someone may be a high-functioning alcoholic is that they are unable to limit their alcohol intake to just a single drink, they replace eating with drinking and they try to hide the amount of alcohol they consume.”

Jessica Spencer, EdD, CAP, CPP, Community Outreach Coordinator, Next Generation Village

People with alcohol use disorders, including those with mild types, often isolate themselves to hide how much they drink. They may experience legal problems, usually in the form of a DUI or after an accident involving drinking. Chronic alcohol consumption often leads to mental health problems such as depression or other health issues such as high blood pressure, liver problems or heart problems.

You or someone you care about can get help before hitting rock bottom, but you have to start by diagnosing the problem. A short quiz for high-functioning alcoholics can help you or a loved one determine the severity of the alcohol addiction.

Am I an Alcoholic?

Take our 11-question quiz to find out now.

How Do People Become Functioning Alcoholics?

Some people become addicted to alcohol quickly, and others develop the disease over time. People who participate in underage drinking are more likely to become addicted because the developing brain is more vulnerable to the effects of the substance.

A variety of genetic and environmental factors affect a person’s chances of becoming addicted. The same factors also affect how severely a person will get addicted.

Factors that may affect whether a person becomes a high-functioning alcoholic include:

  • Home life
  • Work environment
  • Exposure to stress
  • Genetic factors
  • Family history of alcohol abuse
  • Relationships with friends or family
  • Exposure to peer pressure to drink
  • Religious or cultural views

It’s impossible to determine why one person becomes more severely addicted than another. Some people have genetic and environmental factors that allow them to be addicted to alcohol for a long time before they experience major health or social problems. Others have a high number of risk factors and are never able to appear functional.

Do Functioning Alcoholics Need Treatment?

High-functioning alcoholics don’t remain highly functional forever. If you think you or someone you know is a functional alcoholic, even someone with a mild alcohol use disorder, don’t wait until problems occur to seek alcohol rehab. DUIs, trouble at work and family drama can be avoided by seeking help before the disease progresses.

“Without some sort of intervention or counseling, it is only a matter of time before a high-functioning alcoholic becomes nonfunctioning because the disease is progressive.”

Dr. Kevin Wandler, Chief Medical Officer, Advanced Recovery Systems

Research suggests that some high-functioning alcoholics never experience major problems, but they also never live life to their full potential.

“Although their lives do not fall apart, their excessive drinking may be a matter of significant concern for them and their loved ones,” said Dr. Moss of the NIAAA. “In this way, people with functional alcohol use disorders resemble others with major depression or anxiety disorders who are able to function but at a suboptimal level and with a significant level of distress.”

Family members of functional alcoholics need to be careful not to become codependent on their loved one. Codependence refers to helping another person to an extent that you experience health or social problems. People who are codependent on a functional alcoholic may miss work or time with their family because they’re preoccupied with hiding the fact that their loved one is an alcoholic.

Learn tips for dealing with high-functioning alcoholics

There is nothing shameful about suffering from alcoholism. But if you don’t want others to know you’re in recovery, you can attend outpatient treatment or attend anonymous support group meetings. Alcohol recovery is possible with dedication and perseverance.

Chris Elkins, MA
Senior Content Writer, DrugRehab.com
Chris Elkins worked as a journalist for three years and was published by multiple newspapers and online publications. Since 2015, he’s written about health-related topics, interviewed addiction experts and authored stories of recovery. Chris has a master’s degree in strategic communication and a graduate certificate in health communication.
Kim Borwick, MA
Editor, DrugRehab.com
Medical Reviewer
Ashraf Ali
Psychiatrist, Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health

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