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With the COVID-19 pandemic nearing two years since its spread around the globe, this holiday season may mark the first time you have seen some family members in months, maybe even years. Adding to the isolation that many people experienced during the pandemic, the rate of alcohol use increased by 14%, and online alcohol sales online increased by 234%. While not all alcohol use during the pandemic was necessarily problematic, many people experienced periods of increased alcohol use beyond their normal patterns. For some, dependent patterns developed. 

While no one should be quick to judge, as you gather with your family and friends for the holidays, it might come as a surprise that a loved one could be struggling with an alcohol use disorder (AUD). If you do not know what to look for, their behavior might lead you to believe they are just tense or stressed.

A high-functioning alcoholic, also known as a functional alcoholic, is someone who can hold down a steady job, dresses well, and can socialize effortlessly without drawing attention to their drinking problem. People who are high-functioning alcoholics also have difficulty admitting that they have a drinking problem.

15 Signs of a High-Functioning Alcoholic

So how do you detect a high-functioning alcoholic? Your loved one might have an alcohol problem if you notice they:

1) Use alcohol as a coping mechanism

If someone drinks as a coping mechanism, it is usually a sign that they have a problem with alcohol. If they often drink after a stressful day at work, or dealing with relationship problems, it could indicate that they have developed a more serious problem.

High-functioning alcoholics who drink regularly are often drinking to numb the uncomfortable feelings that accompany stressful situations. Just a few drinks to take the edge of a stressful day could signal the early stages of a serious drinking habit.

2) Impose limits on their drinking

Another sign that someone is a high-functioning alcoholic is when they impose limits on their drinking when socializing. For example, they might say, “I’m only drinking beer tonight.” This is a tactic to convince themselves that they are in control of their alcohol use, even if they’re not concerned what others think.

3) Get drunk without intending to

If someone gets drunk without intending to, this is a sure sign they could be a functional alcoholic. The person thinks that their drinking does not affect their behavior, and that having just a few drinks is a means of relaxation. But, if they drink regularly and get drunk without intending to, one drink is never the end. It typically leads to more – until it is past the point of no return.

4) Associate with other drinkers

High-functioning alcoholics tend to mix socially with friends who also like to drink. They are likely to associate with people who hold parties where alcohol is the focus.

Functional alcoholics pride themselves on not drinking during the day or by attending family functions sober. But put them in a social situation that is centered on alcohol, and you might find they are right in the thick of the action.

5) Engage in risky behavior

High functioning alcoholics frequently engage in risky behaviors like drunk driving, spontaneous sexual encounters, getting into fights, or drinking while looking after their children.

6) Practice self-isolation

Self-isolation is a sign that is harder to spot. People who appear to be in control socially may tend to spend time alone in a bar or at home going through bottles of wine, whiskey, or beer. High-functioning alcoholics may also prevent people from coming to their home out of fear their drinking habits become apparent.

7) Use any occasion as an excuse to drink

Whether it is an office happy hour or a night out, high-functioning alcoholics use any excuse to have a drink. The problem is, this drinking pattern can easily escalate to having an excuse at any time, from going to sleep to trying to calm down after an argument. Even moderate drinking at inappropriate times can be a sign of a functional alcoholic.

8) Exhibit a split personality

An alcoholic tends to have mood swings that can escalate to dramatic, severe personality changes.

A high-functioning alcoholic can appear sober sometimes and drunk at others. They might normally present as a reliable and steady character but become suddenly unreasonable and hysterical. This behavior can take its toll in the long run; gradually, the highs and lows become more pronounced.

9) Experience frequent bouts of irritability

Someone who depends on alcohol can become twitchy and argumentative when they are sober. When the effects of the alcohol wear off, an alcoholic often has increased anxiety and becomes irritable.

10) Are often in denial

A high-functioning alcoholic will seldom admit that they have a problem. Alcoholics do not want to lose their favorite drink, much less admit they might be out of control. When their concerned loved ones approach them about the amount they drink, they might downplay the amount they are consuming.

11) Grow angry quickly

It is practically impossible to approach an alcoholic about their drinking without provoking an angry reaction. If challenged, they might lash out.

12) Don’t seem to experience hangovers

Functional alcoholics can drink, pass out, then get up for work if they are used to drinking high volumes over a long period of time. Because they know how to cope with hangovers – if they experience them at all – alcoholics tend to drink more than non-alcoholics.

13) Memory if often poor

Drinking excessively on a consistent basis increases the likelihood of blackouts. If the person reacts angrily to family members while they are drunk, they may not remember the next day. They will probably deny that they did anything wrong and react with anger to the accusation. Not being accountable for their actions is probably one of the worst traits of a high functioning alcoholic.

14) Hide their alcohol

A common trait of high functioning alcoholics is that they tend to hide their supply of alcohol. Keeping alcohol away from the eyes of others is a classic sign of a high-functioning alcoholic.

15) Separate their lives from alcohol

Functional alcoholics tend to compartmentalize their life. On one hand, they lead a normal everyday life. On the other, they have a drinking life where they feel they can be a totally different person.

What To Do (and Not Do) If Your Loved One Is an Alcoholic

Before taking any firm steps to confront a loved one you suspect is an alcoholic, do your due diligence. Don’t rush it, but remember that it is imperative to take action.

Do: Approach them with kindness rather than blaming or shaming.

Rather than telling your loved one outright, “You’re an alcoholic and you need to sort it out,” ask yourself if you can make a similar statement that is less confrontational. Try to plan in advance how you will remain calm, regardless of their response.

If instead you say something like, “I love you, and I’m so concerned about the way drinking might be harming you and your health,” you are communicating your concern in a way that is far less likely to provoke a negative reaction.

Don’t: Blame yourself.

None of this is your fault. Try not to project your feelings on to them. If your loved one reacts poorly, or suggest they only drink excessively because of something you’re doing wrong, ignore this: They are their own person, and it is their choice. Remove any blame from yourself.

Do: Listen closely and be supportive.

This might be tough if you have lots you want to get off your chest, but try your best to listen to what they have to say. Once you have initiated the conversation, be prepared for your loved one to be in denial. This is common. Give the person time to think about what you have said, and let them know you will support them when they are ready to seek help.

Don’t: Enable their behavior.

When you deny or minimize your loved one’s behavior, you make things easier for them to continue drinking. In other words, you are enabling them. Allow your loved one to own up to the consequences of their alcoholism rather than shielding them from any negative consequences. This is not easy, but it is loving.

Do: Remember to find help for yourself, too.

If a close friend or family member is struggling with alcoholism, chances are this will have an impact on you as well. It is so important that you look after your own physical and mental health in order to avoid codependency and stay accountable for what is actually in your own control.

Don’t: Be afraid to seek help for your loved one.

You do not have to have all of the answers! One of the best things you can do is encourage your loved one to seek help through residential or intensive outpatient treatment, both of which will connect them with an addiction specialist and supportive community through Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or SMART Recovery.

Landmark Recovery Specializes in Alcohol and Drug Addiction

The dangers of excessive drinking are risky, regardless of whether your loved one is diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder. If you are concerned about your loved one drinking too much, get in touch with us at Landmark Recovery. We are a growing network of treatment centers, and we can help your loved one on the road to a full recovery and healthier life.

Help your loved one and call us today at 888-448-0302.

About the Author

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Rachel Gaddis

Rachel Gaddis joined Landmark Recovery as a copy writer in 2021. Her writing covers a range of topics, from current events and new studies on addiction to recovery lifestyle tips and stories of hope. She is a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University and has worked in various marketing and editorial positions in her career.

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