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Functioning Alcoholic Unveiled: A Hidden Battle and Paths to Recovery

When we discuss alcohol-related issues, our typical image involves individuals whose drinking has led to significant life problems. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to acknowledge that this doesn’t provide the full perspective. There are individuals who silently wrestle with alcohol-related issues, even when their lives seem steady and orderly. This is often referred to as high-functioning alcoholism.

Functioning alcoholic

When someone is termed a high-functioning alcoholic, they typically can carry out their normal daily activities without fully exhibiting the clinical impairments related to alcohol use disorder. Unfortunately, the term high-functioning alcoholism is not a medical diagnosis, irrespective of whether a sufferer is a colloquial user or not. Instead, people in this category are grouped as sufferers of alcohol use disorder. Here’s an article that says everything you want to learn in your quest to navigate the battle of recovering from functioning alcoholism.

Identifying a High-Functioning Alcoholic 

The truth is that it can sometimes be difficult and confusing to spot alcohol abuse, especially if an individual appears capable of maintaining core aspects of their life. From the functional alcoholic definition above, you can tell that such people may seem okay on the outside, they typically have warning signs and symptoms that may not be noticed unless you look carefully.

Some of the signs include:

  • Denial of the problem
  • Binge drinking
  • Drinking alone
  • Maintenance drinking
  • Drinking every night
  • Avoiding public drinking
  • Craving social gatherings
  • Using alcohol as a coping tool

Self-Assessment: Am I a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

it’s not so easy to determine whether you’re a high-functioning alcoholic or not, because its consequences typically vary from person to person. However, there are common signs of a functional alcoholic to look out for:

Rationalizing Alcohol Consumption

Do you rationalize, justify, or blame others for your alcohol consumption? It’s probably a sign that you’re struggling to cope. It means that you should seek help.

Using Alcohol as a Reward or Relaxant

We’ll need to relax or unwind after a hard day, but if you notice that you’re constantly reaching for a glass of wine or a bottle of beer as a way to relax, perhaps it’s time to sit back and think about the possibility of falling into the trap of functional alcoholism.

Dependence on Alcohol in Social Settings

You may also be a functional alcoholic if you often experience stronger cravings or desire to excessively drink alcohol when you’re in social gatherings like parties, schools, religious centers, etc.

Denial of Problem and Defensiveness

In this case, defensiveness is an attempt to cope with alcohol use disorder (AUD) by denying your part in the problem. It could also mean denying that there’s a problem in the first place.

Mood Changes

In some extreme cases of functional alcoholism, you may become moody, irritable, tearful, or withdrawn when the influence of alcohol clears up. Unfortunately, this can also lead to you trying to hurt yourself or someone else.

Inability to Drink in Moderation

Because of the false sense of control you think you have over the situation, you may often feel tempted to drink beyond moderation.

Engaging in Dangerous Behavior

Functional alcoholism gives you a false sense of control. Unfortunately, this false sense of control can drive you to handle important tasks requiring clear-headedness. For example, you may find yourself driving under the influence of alcohol, and that can be dangerous to you and other road users.

Fortunately, it’s possible to screen for unhealthy alcohol use, irrespective of how in control you think you are, and that’s where the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) comes into play. It is a simple and effective method for screening unhealthy alcohol use.

Daily Drinking and Alcoholism

One question we’ve often come across is how many drinks a day is considered an alcoholic. The truth is that not all daily drinkers are alcoholics, and not all alcoholics drink daily. Surprised? While answering the question “How often do alcoholics drink?” we often consider two types of drinkers

  • The person who drinks a glass or two every day
  • The person who drinks more than a few bottles only on weekends.

According to a drinking pattern test, the first person would have a lower risk of developing a drinking disorder than the second person. However, none of the two is an alcoholic simply because of their drinking pattern. But both could become alcoholics. The answer to how to know you’re an alcoholic lies more in how and why you drink than how many days a week you drink. So, instead of focusing on how many days in a week you drink, we’d rather you focus on the signs of alcoholism (physical and psychological) to determine whether you have a drinking problem.

The Transition to Alcohol Use Disorder

At its early stage, functioning alcoholism often feels like a completely positive thing since it translates to being able to control yourself when drunk. But one question always arises when a functioning alcoholic develops AUD: “Are there different types of alcoholics?”. To understand the transition process, you must understand the diagnosis for AUD, which is based on two criteria. Functioning alcoholism becomes a problem when, although it looks like your drinking is under control, it still causes problems in your life. As such, you meet the criteria of alcohol use disorder, even though it seems like you’ve mastered the ability to hide your problems. So, it boils down to knowing the signs above and consistently checking for them.

Some of the factors that can significantly contribute to this evolution include:

  • Psychological factors like depression, anxiety, etc.
  • Personal factors like behavior, risk management ability, and response to personal problems.
  • Drinking History
  • Genetics.

Quantifying Alcoholism: How Much Is Too Much

A beer at a barbeque? A glass of wine after dinner? When does it get too much? Perhaps it’s good to start by quantifying alcoholism. The following table provides an analysis to help you explore the thresholds of alcohol consumption.

Alcohol Thresholds Intake (Male) Intake (Female)
Moderate/Social Drinker Less than two drinks /day 1 drink or less /day
Binge Drinker 5 or more drinks /2 hours 4 or more drinks /2 hours
Heavy Alcohol Drinker 4 drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks in a week 3 drinks or more on any day or more than seven drinks in a week.

The following categorizations are done by NIAAA.

Assisting a High-Functioning Alcoholic

It’s common to see functioning alcoholics in denial about their alcohol dependence. Some will try to rationalize their drinking level by giving excuses such as unemployment and lack of a working social life as reasons for their alcohol dependence. Here are some common ways to help such people.

  1. Do not talk to them when they’re drunk: It’s better to ensure that a person is sober before any conversation about their wellbeing. So they can clearly understand what you’re telling them and be more receptive to change.
  2. Remain non-judgmental and empathic: Do not play the blame game. It will only make them less receptive to your advice. Instead, empathize with their plight, and show concern and desire to help.
  3. Express a willingness to tackle the problem together: Do not just point out the problem, but show that you’ve found workable solutions that can help. Talk gently about these solutions.
  4. Avoid condescending or angry behavior: Many functioning alcoholics already know they have an issue, so this is not the time to remind them of it. Be careful about your choice of words, and ensure you do not insult or speak to them angrily.
  5. Refrain from collusion or enabling: While trying to help, avoid colluding or enabling them by lying to anyone on their behalf or drinking with them.

Fortunately, you can explore several workable models to help such people. However, the most popular is Johnson’s Model, which involves using family members or close friends to help them see how harmful their addiction is and accept treatment.

Coping with Life Alongside a High-Functioning Alcoholic

Sharing your life with a high-functioning alcoholic can also impact your health and overall wellness. It’s common to feel exhausted from their actions and anxious about their lifestyle and overall health. The journey towards overcoming alcohol addiction can be demanding for both you and your loved one, requiring strength and bravery. Here are some suggestions to help you maintain your well-being while providing support:

  • Building a robust network: Doing it alone is almost impossible. We recommend contacting friends and family members who can help. The little care and concern they’ll show can go a long way to help you stay sane.
  • Embracing opportunities for respite: Never underestimate the importance of taking breaks. You can have reliable people take care of situations while you take well-deserved breaks to reenergize yourself.
  • Maintaining your physical and mental health: The road to helping anyone recover from alcohol addiction can be rough and stressful. You want to look after yourself physically and mentally to avoid burnout.
  • Being a positive influence: There’s no better way to help people out of any habit than to positively influence them. Be practical about living an all-round healthy lifestyle and have them see the benefits in you.

Support for High-Functioning Alcoholics 

It’s one thing for a loved one to show signs of acceptance and remorse, but another to come out of their addiction. Fortunately, you can help them find the right support they can lean on to overcome alcohol addiction. Here are some ways you can help.

Support Groups

While seeking support for your alcoholic loved one, it’s also important to seek support for yourself. You’ll likely get confused along the line or have questions about how to deal with certain habits of an alcoholic. Many organizations, church groups, and 12-step programs like Al-Anon and Alateen exist to help people battling alcohol addiction and substance abuse. Such groups can offer encouragement, advice, and emotional support where possible.

Exploring Treatment Options

People suffering from alcohol addiction don’t have to go through the recovery process alone, especially since tons of evidence-based treatments exist to help them. Some popular treatment options include:

  1. Alcohol Detox: Some people are apprehensive about quitting drinking due to alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Thus, alcohol detox is usually the first step for proper treatment. During this time, alcohol is completely flushed from the body using different detox systems. We recommend detoxing under the care of a medical professional to avoid serious consequences that may arise from alcohol withdrawal.
  2. Rehabilitation programs: Most alcohol rehabilitation programs provide support, education, counseling, and accountability needed on the route to recovery. Depending on your addiction level and personal schedule, you can choose between inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation programs.
  3.  Therapy: Studies show that the right therapy can be a starting point for long-term alcohol recovery. It also reduces the chances of relapse if you have the right person handling your therapy.
  4. Encouraging dialogue with a medical professional: Again, nothing beats professional help in situations like this. If you or your loved one finds the recovery process difficult, it’s always advisable to talk to a medical professional about your goals and challenges and have them recommend tailored solutions that will help you.


Functioning alcoholism is more serious than we think. Unfortunately, many people fail to find solutions because of their ability to keep things together and maintain a good career even in their addiction. Throughout this article, we’ve exposed everything you should know about functioning alcoholism, its dangers, and the signs of high-functi alcoholism to help you determine whether you have this problem or not. Never underestimate the importance of seeking help in your quest for deliverance. Support groups and treatment centers like Priory Wellbeing Center can offer you all the physical and mental support you’ll need to walk through this process.

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