The High Functioning Alcoholic

By: Stephanie Camins, LPC

High-functioning alcoholics are people who appear to function normally despite being addicted to alcohol. The high functioning alcoholic may drink moderately throughout the day or even stay sober during the day and then binge drink in the evenings or on the weekends. The more severe negative consequences of drinking haven’t typically caught up with them yet. They may never experience the serious consequences we associate with alcoholics such as losing a job for being hungover too often, drinking on the job or getting multiple DUI’s or losing relationships. Also known as functional or working alcoholics, the high functioning alcoholic tends to hide their drinking from people. They may be able to carry a regular job, have relationships, and appear to lead happy and productive lives.

Consequences for the High Functioning Alcoholic

The consequences the high functioning alcoholic individual experiences are generally on the mild to moderate side and can include, depression, anxiety, disrupted relationships, lower performance at work, and frequent hangovers. The consequences may not be tied to the drinking in the alcoholic’s mind and therefore, do not prevent them from continued drinking. Some high-functioning alcoholics never experience major problems, but they also never live life to their full potential.

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.

Warning Signs of a High Functioning Alcoholic

  • 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

The high functioning alcoholic can be hard to identify by friends and family. They don’t fit the stereotype of what an alcoholic is. They may be able to carry a regular job, have relationships, and appear to lead happy and productive lives.They often hide their drinking or isolate themselves more so that they can drink undiscovered. They don’t stop at one drink and even replace food with alcohol.

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. Alcoholism is a disease. It progresses over time. High functioning alcoholics are at great risk for becoming severe alcoholics. High-functioning alcoholics don’t remain highly functional forever.

If you’re in a relationship with someone you think is a high functioning alcoholic, you may need support to avoid becoming codependent and neglecting your own needs. If you think your loved one may be a high-functioning alcoholic, offering resources in a non-judgmental way may help them begin to see their drinking as problematic and seek help of their own. If you are a high-functioning alcoholic, it is important to get help from a professional to stop the progression of the disease and learn to cope with stress in healthy ways.

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