What Does it Mean to be a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

high functioning alcoholism

An estimated one in 8 people in the U.S. are alcoholics. For those who aren’t familiar with this disorder first-hand, when they hear the term “alcoholic,” they might picture someone unable to hold a job or maintain healthy relationships because of their drinking. But having alcohol use disorder doesn’t necessarily mean a person is unable to function in their daily life. People may be considered high-functioning alcoholics when they can go to work, manage their bank account, and drive without getting a DUI, but still suffer from the alcohol cravings and withdrawals that comprise most people’s understanding of alcoholism.

What is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

One of the hallmarks of addiction is a person’s fear of not being able to consume whatever their drug of choice is. A lot of people who have an addiction to alcohol don’t hit “rock bottom.” they think they can continue to drink and maintain control of their drinking, despite the negative consequences that they may be able to keep hidden and secret. A person who is a high-functioning alcoholic is someone who can continue to maintain their personal life, work-life, and health despite their addiction to substances, and their compulsive need to drink to stave off cravings.

For example, an alcoholic who is high functioning may never get fired for coming to work impaired. They may never experience a DUI arrest or have a fight with their significant other over their alcohol use. They might also be able to maintain good health for decades before the consequences of alcohol abuse show up when they are older. A functional, or working alcoholic might drink throughout the day, and never get so drunk that they can’t perform their regular duties. Moderate drinking throughout the day is a sign that a person is trying to prevent withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings. Another sign of a functioning alcoholic is someone who may abstain from drinking throughout the week, but then binge drink on the weekends or binge drink at night after their work is done. 

Unfortunately, being able to drink and still maintain their responsibilities doesn’t mean a person is free of alcoholism. Alcohol addiction is a chronic disease, and it causes a person to drink no matter what compulsively. A high-functioning alcoholic’s addiction is just as dangerous as someone with repeat DUIs or who gets into fights with loved ones because of their drinking.

What Types of Responsibilities can a High-Functioning Alcoholic Maintain?

Essentially, a high-functioning alcoholic is a person who is addicted to alcohol but has yet to really suffer from the negative consequences of their drinking. A high-functioning alcoholic may experience some consequences related to their drinking, but they are not enough to limit their ability to maintain their responsibilities. Working alcoholics can still hold down a job and possibly excel in that job. They also tend to avoid legal and social repercussions of drinking, at least for a while. Eventually, though, problem drinking does catch up with people.

How can You Tell if Someone is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

Alcoholics have a stereotype, and the people who have a severe addiction to alcohol are the ones who get all the press and set the standard for what society pictures as alcoholism. This stereotype can also make it difficult for loved ones to recognize moderate alcoholism in a friend or family member. Diseases like addiction tend to be highly personal, and every person’s trajectory, triggers, and prognosis will be different. The symptoms and side effects of the disorder will also differ for each person, and researchers categorize alcoholics into five distinct subtypes. So, there really is no one type of alcoholic.

A functional alcoholic is also tricky to recognize because they tend to be secretive about their drinking levels and habits. This type of alcoholism also includes high levels of denial. People who have high-functioning alcoholism think that because they can hold down a job and maintain their relationships, they don’t have a problem. They are more likely not to accept help or admit that they need help, and usually, only people who are very close to them will realize the high-functioning alcoholic has a disorder.

Who is Most Likely to be a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

Functional alcoholics are thought to comprise up to 19% of the U.S. population of people with alcohol use disorder. Most started drinking in their late teens, but don’t become addicted to alcohol until they are in their late thirties. Most work full time and have stable relationships along with high earnings. People with high-functioning alcoholism tend to drink every other day and consume five or more drinks per sitting. They are also the most likely of all the alcoholic subtypes to be college-educated, and the least likely to use illegal drugs.

Why is High-Functioning Alcoholism a Problem?

While these types of alcoholics may not struggle to hold down a job or maintain a relationship, long-term alcohol abuse will cause a range of health consequences. People who drink heavily for years on end increase their risk of developing certain cancers and liver disease. 

Years of alcohol abuse can also lead to a dangerous vitamin deficiency called wet brain, a type of disorder that causes permanent memory loss and brain damage in alcoholics. A high-functioning alcoholic still puts themselves at risk of poor work performance, and strained relationships. While denial may be a powerful emotion, getting help for problem drinking can significantly improve a person’s health and their quality of life. Many high-functioning alcoholics realize they need help when they are confronted with how much they are drinking, and how much time drinking and recovering from drinking takes away from other activities and relationships. 15

What is Precipitated Withdrawal

If you or a loved one are concerned about how much you are drinking, this could be a sign of high-functioning alcoholism. Treatment for high-functioning alcoholics involves therapy, with a focus on learning how to abstain from alcohol and replace drinking with other, healthier activities. The addiction counselors at Mission Harbor Behavioral Health are standing by to answer your questions about alcohol use disorder and your treatment options. Please contact us today to learn more.

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