High-functioning alcoholics may be able to mask their drinking problems for years. Close friends, family, and coworkers may not be aware of the extent of the problem as they maintain steady jobs and important relationships with friends and loved ones.
Is someone you love struggling with alcohol use? Call Hannah’s House today at 561-841-1272 for help.
Approaching a high-functioning alcoholic involves preparing for the conversation by becoming aware of treatment options. Using gentle, nonjudgmental language and tone also shows support and can set a high-functioning alcoholic in motion toward choosing a suitable treatment.
What is a high-functioning alcoholic?
Let’s start by recognizing that the consequences of drinking have outward and inward elements. Outward elements are visible to others easily. Inward elements may be recognizable only to the person drinking.
A high-functioning alcoholic may be able to limit what others see about their drinking. The typical outward signs don’t appear as readily. You could work with someone or spend time with them at community events and not see evidence of a drinking problem.
High-functioning alcoholics can often maintain their personal and work life despite their addiction and compulsive need to drink. They may continue drinking during the day to ward off withdrawal symptoms and limit their cravings. They may even avoid alcohol during the week but binge drink over the weekend or after work.
In many ways, high-functioning alcoholism is more dangerous than “normal” alcoholism as it generally takes longer for the consequences to reach the individual to the point that they hit “rock bottom.”
Why is it important to become aware of another person’s substance use? If this person is someone you care about, offering support will be critical in getting them the help they need. If they have yet to reveal an issue with alcohol use, there are numerous reasons they’ve hidden it. We’ll explore some of them later.
First, let’s introduce seven signs that someone you know is a high-functioning alcoholic.
If your loved one is exhibiting one or more of the warning signs below, contact Hannah’s House for help.
7 Signs of a High-Functioning Alcoholic
The following are some signs to watch for if you believe a loved one is a high-functioning alcoholic.
- They drink during the day.
This person may have a drink in the morning, during a work lunch, or even in the workplace itself. They may keep alcohol within reach in a desk drawer and add it to a non-alcoholic beverage. They’re aware of what other people might think about day drinking, so they’ll look to take attention off it. For instance, someone who drinks wine from a coffee mug is looking to continue a day-drinking habit and go unnoticed.
- They drink to deal with stress.
This person sees alcohol as the first solution to handling stress at work or home. They may drink daily and consume multiple drinks in succession. They have connected drinking as the primary activity to use in response to emotional difficulty. They may worsen stress-related problems, including depression, anxiety, and sleep issues. If stressful situations continue, their drinking may increase. Concentrating at work may become an issue as their cravings for alcohol increase.
- They drink alone.
Drinking alone doesn’t just mean drinking at home by yourself. It could mean drinking in public around a group of strangers where no one measures how many you’ve had. High-functioning alcoholics lean towards enjoying their drinking without judgment. They want to avoid situations where the amount of drinking they’re doing becomes a topic of conversation. This can mean changing behaviors over time, from switching bars after work to only spending free time with other people who drink heavily.
- They joke about their drinking or about being an alcoholic.
This person uses humor to deflect the truth about themselves. They think making “funny” comments about their drinking shows they have it under control. Their view of substance use disorders may be narrow. Since they’re not experiencing career or legal consequences, they may feel above the drinking problems others face. Make no mistake, joking is a defense mechanism to shield them from criticism about excessive drinking.
- They have lapses in memory while drinking.
Occasional lapses in short-term memory are normal. For high-functioning alcoholics, these memory lapses may appear more often. They may forget portions of the conversations. Their forgetfulness may be about where they parked their car or an activity they planned to do after drinking. For a parent who drinks, the lapse in memory could even involve forgetting to pick up their child at school or an activity.
- They deny they have a drinking problem.
A high-functioning alcoholic may find themselves confronted by peers over their drinking. Denying there’s a drinking problem can be a way to cover up the issue. They may find others who drink more to compare themselves to or use their job, career, or family life to offer evidence that there’s no real problem. It can also come from not even being aware their drinking has led to an alcohol use disorder.
- They drink at times when they weren’t planning to.
A high-functioning alcoholic is always between drinks. They may plan to drink at certain times of the day and then begin drinking even when it wasn’t their intention to start. The habit of reaching for alcohol can become so normalized they don’t realize they’re doing it at unexpected times. One example is visiting a friend while out running errands and being offered a beer or glass of wine. They may accept it without thinking about how it could alter their plans for the rest of the day.
In the end, heavy drinking carries substantial health risks. High-functioning alcoholics are more likely than the average person to:
- Develop certain cancers
- Have high blood pressure
- Have liver and pancreas problems
- And experience memory loss
If you see the signs of high-functioning alcoholism in a loved one, encourage them to get help. Treatments are available to defeat alcoholism and heal the damage it does to one’s health and relationships.
How to Determine if a Problem Exists
While no single determinative factor makes someone a high-functioning alcoholic, such a person still has an alcohol use disorder. Many functioning alcoholics do not see it this way and deny their drinking is a problem.
Though someone with an alcohol use problem is colloquially referred to as an alcoholic, there is a more concrete definition according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, or DSM-5.
Only two of the following criteria need to be met in the past year for someone to have an alcohol use disorder:
- You keep drinking even though it’s impacted your relationships
- You’ve had sustained thoughts of using alcohol
- You tried to reduce or quit drinking alcohol more than once without success
- You’ve decreased or given up certain responsibilities due to alcohol use
- You continue to drink although it’s impacted your mental or physical health
- You got into more than one unsafe situation while or after drinking
- You require more alcohol in larger amounts to get the same desired effects
- You cannot fulfill your obligations due to the effects of your drinking
- You drank more than you intended to
- When you reduce your alcohol intake, you experience the symptoms of withdrawal
How to Approach a High-Functioning Alcoholic
This scenario can be different depending on your relationship with the high-functioning alcoholic. A connection with a close friend or family member is unlike a relationship with a coworker. Keep this in mind when you choose to approach someone with a drinking problem.
Regardless of the relationship, you want to say something when the person you care about is sober. As you won’t always know when they’re sober, be mindful about what you’re seeing and sensing from them before starting a conversation about drinking. Bringing up the topic when they’re already drinking could lead to a confrontation.
Making a plan to approach them in advance can help you determine what you want to say and how to handle their responses. This is an crucial first step in preparing for the conversation. They may shut down, say nothing, or become argumentative—these are conversation-enders. But they could reveal something personal about why they drink that you weren’t expecting.
How you react in that moment could be pivotal in whether they share more with you or end the intervention attempt.
It’s critical to consider the choices in tone and language. You’ll want to show care without judgment. Using nonjudgmental words can help keep the conversation going as well. Nonjudgmental language can focus on how drinking affects them without implying your friend, family member, or coworker is a bad person.
Express an openness to discuss their drinking, offer help, and establish boundaries. Clarify that you will not support their drinking and unhealthy habits or share the consequences.
In making your plan, consider what your ultimate goal should be in the conversation. What direction do you want to lead them in, for example? If you’re guiding them toward getting treatment, become informed about treatment options first. Your job isn’t to convince them to see treatment as an immediate next step, though. It’s to help them see options in how they respond to their own needs for self-care.
Accept that any conversation with a high-functioning alcoholic may not be enough to lead to change. If you offer a safe space to talk and plenty of support, the first conversation could lead to a second and a third. The process of opening up about something they may feel shame and guilt over is challenging. Allow them the time to make discoveries about their drinking and the need for treatment.
Possible Causes for Becoming a High-Functioning Alcoholic
As with any substance use disorder, there’s rarely one single cause for someone to become a high-functioning alcoholic. We can identify potential causes from childhood to adulthood as factors that led them to begin drinking regularly and excessively. One or more of these factors may stand out to someone who needs treatment for a drinking problem.
One possible cause is the state of someone’s mental health. If they’re living with undiagnosed depression or anxiety, drinking could have been an early way to cope with the feelings associated with these conditions. It may have reduced the symptoms for a short time and made life feel more manageable. When they couldn’t sustain that better feeling, the drinking continued.
Trauma is another possible cause of someone becoming a high-functioning alcoholic. More specifically, unresolved trauma the individual or family never addressed. Traumatic situations can include:
- Physical or sexual abuse
- The loss of close family members or friends
- The loss of a home due to fire
- Or experiencing a car accident
The trauma survivor may or may not clearly remember these situations. They may only retain feelings of fear and helplessness from those experiences. Without receiving treatment before beginning a drinking habit, alcohol may become their primary choice in coping with the emotions connected to the traumatic event.
A family history of drinking is another possible cause of high-functioning alcoholism. They may have seen a parent, grandparent, or older sibling drink beer, wine, or liquor daily . Drinking within the family may have been an expected activity and tied to holidays, gatherings, outings, and anytime the family was together.
Connect with Hannah’s House for Alcohol Treatment for Women
Hannah’s House is a well-known care provider offering a range of treatment programs targeting recovery from substance use, mental health issues, and beyond. Our primary mission is to provide a clear path to a life of healing and restoration.
We offer renowned clinical care for addiction and have the compassion and professional expertise to guide you or your loved one toward lasting sobriety.
For information on our programs, call us today: 561-841-1272.