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The Myth Of The High Functioning Alcoholic

by Landmark Recovery

September 12, 2019

Nearly everyone has heard the term “functioning alcoholic”, meaning someone that consumes high quantities of alcohol but is still able to fulfill whatever duties and priorities they have in their professional and social life.

Unfortunately, this term may impede someone’s efforts to get treatment. They may think, “I’m okay, I’m still getting all my work done” and believe that they are okay continuing their lifestyle. This isn’t the case and shouldn’t be the thought process of someone with a serious disorder such as alcohol or drug addiction.

What Is A Functioning Alcoholic?

As mentioned before, a functioning alcoholic, or a functioning drug user, is an idea of a person who uses these substances excessively but still manages to reach personal, social, and professional goals. While it is possible for an alcoholic to be functional, in fact the National Institute of Health estimates that almost 20 percent of alcoholics in the U.S. are functional, this does not mean that it is safe. The problem generally spirals out of control, many people’s performance will suffer, and complete dysfunction can occur.

The terms “high-functioning alcoholics” and “functioning alcoholic” get thrown around a lot in pop culture. Whether we’re talking about television shows, music, and movies or major public figures like Winston Churchill, many forms of entertainment portray this type of disease as something that is “cool” or “unique”. This is problematic and could even be detrimental to people who have serious substance abuse issues.

Signs Of A High Functioning Alcoholic

Now that we know what a high functioning alcohol is, you may be wondering what are the symptoms and signs of functioning alcoholic.

Imposing Limits — Oftentimes, alcoholics who think that they have everything under control will impose limits on their alcohol use. Some people will say things like “I only drink on the weekends” or “I’m not drinking hard liquor tonight”. They think that by saying these things they are exhibiting self control but it sometimes means that they are trying to compensate for their inability to drink in moderation.

Isolation — Alcoholics can become isolated and this is something that can be hard to notice, especially since some people will be lively and outgoing in social settings but moody when they are alone. When they are alone and not engaged in professional and social responsibilities they will sometimes drink along. They may even spend time holed up in a bar by themselves drinking.

Asking For Help — Another sign that someone may be a functioning alcoholic, or an alcoholic in general, is the constant need to ask for help covering up their habit. Whether it is professional help in the workplace or monetary help, there’s a high chance that if they are consistently asking for help in these ways, they may be dealing with some sort of substance abuse issues.

Coping Mechanism — Substance abuse overall is one of the many ways that people cope with sadness, trauma, anger, and more. Using alcohol as a coping mechanism is one of the biggest indicators of a drinking problem. If a person is going back to the bottle all the time to ease the stress of work, or help overcome other social problems, there is a good chance that this person is an alcoholic.

Withdrawal — This sign can be applied to anyone suffering from alcoholism or drug dependence. But for high functioning alcoholics they may be able to handle and even succeed in a professional and social setting while they are intoxicated, however, as soon as the alcohol begins to wear off, they will begin to experience withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, anger, drowsiness, and more. For severe alcoholics, these withdrawal symptoms can prove to be dangerous and even life-threatening in some cases.

Dangers Of Being A Functioning Alcoholic

While being a functioning alcoholic is something that is talked about, and even joked about, in American culture, it is something that is incredibly dangerous and can lead to harmful and deadly consequences.

Many believe that just because they can get their work done and get through family functions while they are using alcohol, it is not a problem for them. This isn’t the case.

Whether you realize it or not, alcohol is poisoning your body and causing not only short-term but long-term health consequences as well. Alcohol is associated with so many health risks and problems that can lead to an early death.

Often, high functioning alcoholics are one step away from full-blown dysfunction and a downward spiral.

What Is An Alcoholic?

In general, an alcoholic refers to someone that has a dependence on alcohol and will suffer from withdrawals if alcohol use is stopped.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, there are a certain number of criteria that you have to meet to indicate that you may have an Alcohol Use Disorder.

You can work to determine if you or a loved one has a problem with alcohol by answering the following questions. In the past year, have you:

  • Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer, than originally intended?
  • Tried to stop or reduce drinking but weren’t able to?
  • Spent a lot of your time drinking?
  • Craved a drink?
  • Found that drinking often interfered with taking care of your home or family?
  • Continued to drink even though it was causing issues with family or friends?
  • Given up or stopped activities that you once enjoyed in order to drink?
  • More than once gotten into dangerous situations because of drinking that could have lead to health problems?
  • Continued drinking even though it was making you feel depressed or was adding to another health problem?
  • Had to drink more than you previously did in order to experience the desired effects?
  • Found that you were having withdrawal symptoms such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, sweating, and more that are commonly associated with alcohol?

If you answered “yes” to 2 to 3 of these questions you likely have a mild alcohol use disorder. Answering “yes” to 4 to 5 of these questions indicates moderate alcohol use disorder. Finally, you may have a severe alcohol use disorder if you answer “yes” to six or more of these symptoms.

Alcoholism In The Workplace

One of the clearest signs of “functioning alcoholism” is using the substance in the workplace. If you have been drinking before and during work, there is a strong likelihood that you have a problem and need to get help.

On the flip side, if you have noticed that a coworker or employee has been exhibiting strange behavior recently, there are a few steps you can take to learn if they have a problem and need help.

As an employee or coworker, it is not your job to diagnose a problem, however, you can be aware and look for certain signs that may indicate someone may have a problem with alcohol. In these cases you can always reach out to lend a helping hand and even direct them toward a treatment center.

Some of the signs that you should keep an eye on include:

  • Unexplained absences
  • Frequent tardiness
  • Excessive use of sick leave
  • Missed deadlines
  • Careless or sloppy work
  • Relationships with co-workers have become strained

Most of these are behavioral and emotional changes. Along with these signs and symptoms, there are also many other physical signs of alcoholism:

  • Smelling like alcohol
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Smell of alcohol on breath
  • Tremors
  • Sleeping on duty

If you notice any of these signs, it may be time to reach out to your employee or coworker and mention treatment options.

If you are unsure what options there are, one of the first things that you can do is talk to an employer who may know. For example, some companies have employee assistance programs in place that are there to help employees who are struggling with issues such as substance abuse problems.

Finding Help

If you are looking for help, there are a number of drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers that are here to help.

Generally, treatment centers consist of medical detoxification, inpatient treatment, and outpatient treatment.

Medical detox is one of the most significant aspects of treatment. It is in place to help make sure that patients safely withdraw from their respective substance. This is especially important for those with an alcohol addiction as withdrawals from alcohol addiction can be problematic even life-threatening.

Following medically supervised detoxification, patients will go through an inpatient treatment program. During inpatient treatment, patients will be exposed to behavioral therapy programs to help them learn more about addiction and identify and overcome certain triggers that can lead to cravings and urges that eventually turn into relapse.

After going through an inpatient program consisting of behavioral, individual, and group therapy sessions. Patients will be directed to an outpatient program for them to continue their care. During outpatient services, patients will continue to go through therapy programs as they adjust to independent living once again.

If you are interested in learning about a treatment program that can offer these things, you can search for drug and alcohol treatment programs near you.


One drug and alcohol treatment center in Indiana, as well as Kentucky, is Landmark Recovery. Landmark is dedicated to providing our patients with the highest quality of care possible to help them learn about addiction and achieve long-term sobriety. Landmark’s goal is to help one million families over the next 100 years.

If you are interested in learning more about what Landmark can offer you or your loved one in terms of treatment options, you can visit our website and reach out to our admissions team today.

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.