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.
Among the common signs of a high-functioning alcoholic are drinking to cope with stress, drinking during the day, and drinking when they hadn’t planned to. They may be resistant to treatment and deny having a drinking problem altogether.
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 towards 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 is someone who may be able to limit what others see about their drinking. The typical outward signs don’t appear as readily. This is why you could work with someone or spend time with them at community events and not see evidence of a drinking problem.
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 haven’t revealed an issue with alcohol use yet, 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.
7 Signs of a High-Functioning Alcoholic
- They drink during the day.
This is someone who 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 is someone who sees alcohol as the first solution to handling stress at work or at home. They may drink daily and consume multiple drinks in succession. They have connected drinking as the primary activity to use in response to any emotional difficulty. They may be worsening any 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 is measuring how many you’ve had. High-functioning alcoholics lean towards enjoying their drinking without judgment. That can mean changing behaviors over time, from switching bars after work to only spending free time with other people who drink heavily. They want to avoid situations where the amount of drinking they’re doing becomes a topic of conversation.
- They joke about their drinking or about being an alcoholic.
Humor can be used to deflect the truth about themselves. They think making “funny” comments about their drinking shows they really 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 faced by others. Make no mistake, joking is a defense mechanism to shield them from criticism about their excessive drinking.
- They have lapses in memory while drinking.
Occasional lapses in short-term memory are normal. For high-functioning alcoholics, these lapses in memory may appear more often. They may forget portions of the conversations they’re in while consuming alcohol. Their forgetfulness may be about where they parked their car or an activity they were planning 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 at an practice activity.
- They deny they have a drinking problem.
A high-functioning alcoholic may find themselves confronted by peers over their drinking. The response to deny a drinking problem can be a way to cover up the issue. It can also come from not even being aware their drinking has led to an alcohol use disorder. They may find others who drink more to compare themselves to or use their job, career, or family life as a way to offer evidence that there’s no real problem.
- 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 for them that 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 of how it could alter their plans for the rest of the day.
Possible Causes for High-Functioning Alcoholics
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 in what led them to begin drinking regularly and excessively. One of more of these factors may stand out to someone who’s in need of 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 that was never addressed by the individual or the family. Traumatic situations can include physical or sexual abuse, homelessness, the loss of close family members or friends, the loss of a home due to fire, and experiencing a car accident.
The trauma survivor may or may not clearly remember these situations. They may only retain the feelings of fear and helplessness from those experiences. Without receiving treatment prior to beginning a drinking habit, alcohol may become their primary choice in coping with the feelings connected to the traumatic event.
A family history of drinking is another possible cause of high-functioning alcoholism. They may have seen beer, wine, or liquor drank daily by a parent, grandparent, or older sibling. Drinking within the family may have been an expected activity and tied to holidays, gatherings, outings, and anytime the family was together.
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. Bringing up the topic when they’re already drinking could lead to a confrontation. 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.
Making a plan to approach them in advance can help you work out what you want to say and how you will handle their responses. This is an important step in preparing for the conversation. They may shut down and say nothing. They may 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.
The choices in tone and language are extremely important to consider. You’ll want to show care without judgment. Using non-judgmental words can help keep the conversation going as well. Non-judgmental language can be about focusing on how drinking is affecting them without implying your friend, family member, or coworker is a bad person.
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 towards 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 difficult. Allow them the time to make discoveries about their own drinking and the need for treatment.
Hannah’s House is a well-known care provider offering a range of treatment programs targeting the 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 toward lasting sobriety.
For information on our programs, call us today: 561.841.1272.