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What Is A High-Functioning Alcoholic?

by Landmark Recovery

April 14, 2020
A woman working at her desk wondering if she is a high functioning alcoholic


High-functioning alcoholic sounds like a classic contradiction in terms. How can someone who is an alcoholic meaningfully function?


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.


To everyone on the outside, a high-functioning alcoholic can appear to be fully in control. However, beneath the façade, these people are struggling with alcohol use disorder.


High-functioning alcoholics are difficult to spot and deal with. The way they see it, if the world doesn’t see they have a problem, the problem doesn’t exist. If they are seen by others to be financially independent, happy and successful, they’re fine.


People who are high-functioning alcoholics often have difficulty admitting that they have a drinking problem.


So how do you detect a high-functioning alcoholic, then?


15 Signs of a High-Functioning Alcoholic

An individual looking over the water wondering if they are a high functioning alcoholic

You’ll find that many functional alcoholics:

  1. Use Alcohol As A Coping Mechanism
  2. Impose Limits On Their Drinking
  3. Get Drunk Without Intending To
  4. Associate With Other Drinkers
  5. Engage in Risky Behavior
  6. Practice Self-Isolation
  7. Use Any Occasion as An Excuse To Drink
  8. Exhibit a Split Personality
  9. Manifest Frequent Bouts of Irritability
  10. Are Often In Denial
  11. Get Angry Quickly
  12. Don’t Seem To Experience Hangovers
  13. Memory Is Often Poor
  14. Hide Their Alcohol
  15. Separate Their Lives From Alcohol


1) Use Alcohol As A Coping Mechanism

If someone drinks as a coping mechanism, it’s usually a sign that they have a problem with alcohol. If they’re regularly drinking after a stressful day at work, or dealing with relationship problems, it could indicate that they’ve 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 be a sure sign they could be a functional alcoholic.


The person thinks that their drinking doesn’t 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 on to more until it’s 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’re liable to associate with people who hold parties where alcohol is the focus.


Functional alcoholics pride themselves on not drinking during the day or attending family functions sober. Put them in a social situation that’s centered on alcohol, though, and they’re right in the thick of the action.


5) Engage in Risky Behavior

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


6) Practice Self-Isolation

This sign 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 to their friends.


7) Use Any Occasion as An Excuse To Drink

Whether it’s an office lunch 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 or 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 some times and drunk at others. They might normally present as a reliable and steady character but become suddenly unreasonable and hysterical. This Jekyll and Hyde behavior can take its toll in the long run. Gradually, the highs and lows can become more pronounced.


9) Manifest Frequent Bouts of Irritability

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


10) Are Often In Denial

A high-functioning alcoholic will seldom admit that they have a problem. Alcoholics don’t want to lose their favorite drink and would rather deny the reality. When their concerned loved ones approach them about the amount they drink, they will lie about the amount they are consuming.


11) Get Angry Quickly

It’s practically impossible to approach an alcoholic about their drinking without provoking an angry reaction. When challenged, they will often lash back in angry verbal outbursts.


12) Don’t Seem To Experience Hangovers

Functional alcoholics can drink, pass out, then get up for work without any problem because they’ve been used to drinking high volumes over a long period of time. As they don’t get hangovers, alcoholics tend to drink more than non alcoholics. High-functioning alcoholics can’t seem to function without alcohol.


13) Memory Is Often Poor

Drinking excessively on a constant basis increases the likelihood of blackouts. If they’ve reacted angrily to family members while drunk, they may not remember upsetting them the next day. They will probably deny that they did anything wrong and react with anger to the accusation. This is probably one of the worst traits of a high functioning alcoholic as they will never be accountable for their actions. It means that they’ll never experience the level of guilt that pushes an alcoholic to seek help for their problem.


14) Hide Their Alcohol

A common trait of high functioning alcoholics is that they tend to hide supplies 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, but on the other they have a drinking life where they can be a totally different person.


What To Do Next

The dangers of regular drinking are the same as for alcoholics who are not high-functioning. The risk of liver disease and other complaints are roughly comparable.


But, if a high-functioning alcoholic can one day admit that they have a problem they can successfully stop drinking and lead a healthy sober and happy life. If you or your loved one need any assistance getting back on track, give us a call today at 888-448-0302 and we’ll be happy to outline your options.


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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.