14 Feb What Is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?
When you think of an alcoholic, you probably imagine someone who has trouble keeping a handle on their life. But a high-functioning alcoholic doesn’t necessarily hit rock bottom or exhibit traditional signs of alcoholism. A functional alcoholic can maintain a job, keep up with daily activities and manage routine obligations. Does this mean that they don’t have a substance abuse disorder?
Alcohol use disorder is defined as a condition that causes someone to want or need to drink alcohol even if it adversely affects their life or health. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that alcohol use disorder is problem drinking that becomes severe.
But that definition can be confusing when defining a functional alcoholic. Is drinking really a problem if you’re still working and interacting as usual in your daily life? A high-functioning alcoholic might not exhibit obvious signs that their drinking has become problematic. They may never lose loved ones because of their drinking or get drunk at work.
If you’re dependent on alcohol, you could be a high-functioning alcoholic. A 2007 study found that 3 percent of Americans with an alcohol abuse disorder could be considered a functional alcoholic. That number could be higher than reported because a functional alcoholic may not exhibit obvious symptoms of a substance abuse disorder or accept the fact that there is a problem.
Symptoms of a Functional Alcoholic
A high-functioning alcoholic doesn’t necessarily get drunk. The individual may not drink all day. There are many different ways that a high-functioning alcoholic may consume alcohol in a way that leads to physical and emotional dependence.
For example, a functional alcoholic may be motivated, organized and productive at work. They might go to the grocery store afterward, hit the gym and return home to cook an elaborate dinner. But they might also drink two bottles of wine between dinner and bedtime.
A high-functioning alcoholic may also
• Drink excessively, but only at certain times
• Engage in binge drinking every few days
• Drink moderately throughout the day without getting drunk
• Plan the day around drinking
• Use alcohol as a reward for accomplishing so much throughout the day
There is no distinct pattern for the way that a functional alcoholic drinks. Some definitions say that you might have an alcohol use disorder if you consume three or more servings of alcohol a day for a woman and four or more servings for a man. But that goes out the window if you abstain from drinking all day and put down 10 beers a night on the weekends.
Therefore, recognizing the signs of a high-functioning alcoholic can be tricky. Some of the other indicators that you or a loved one may be a functional alcoholic include:
• Requiring more than your usual amount of alcohol to feel effects
• Consistently drinking on your own
• Finding it hard to control your alcohol consumption when you’re alone
• Needing a drink every time you’re in a certain situation, such as relaxing after work or before you go to sleep
• Drinking excessively too often
A functional alcoholic may experience withdrawal symptoms when they’re not drinking. But these symptoms may not be obvious. Instead, they may seem like mild physical or emotional nuisances.
For example, a high-functioning alcoholic may become nervous, irritable, tired, anxious or nauseous during the day. They may have these withdrawal symptoms for an extended period of time. The symptoms may also arise around the time that the functional alcoholic would usually begin drinking.
Over time, any type of alcohol abuse will catch up with you. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can impair your liver, brain and heart. A high-functioning alcoholic may not experience observable effects from drinking until later in life, though.
How to Help a High-Functioning Alcoholic
Because a functional alcoholic may keep their substance abuse a secret, they can sustain the problematic behavior for a long time. They may be in denial about the disorder because they can control their drinking.
After all, they can stop during the week even though they binge on the weekends. They may claim that their heavy drinking is a choice. They’re not overtaken by alcohol.
They might even point out how well they function in their daily lives. A High-Functioning Alcoholic is often a high-achieving individual who maintains a façade of success and orderliness.
Many people who struggle with this disorder find that it becomes evident when their health starts to decline or they experience a major emotional breakdown. Even if they don’t hit rock bottom, they may experience subtle issues such as:
• Mood or attitude changes
• Memory loss
• Trouble focusing
They might miss deadlines or skip important functions when they’re hungover. This may not happen frequently, but it occurs often enough.
Resources Available for a High-Functioning Alcoholic
If you know someone who might be a functional alcoholic, open up a dialog with them. Share some of what you have learned, and ask them how they feel about their drinking. Loved ones can also set boundaries. You might not go on a date with your partner if they’re drinking.
Choosing to stop drinking isn’t easy even for social drinkers. Talking to a professional about your concerns is the best option. Someone who has been drinking heavily and regularly for a long time shouldn’t try to quit cold turkey. A high-functioning alcoholic might also need to address psychological and emotional issues that contribute to the drinking.
The team at New Method Wellness offers a wide range of compassionate and proven therapy options for anyone who is struggling with problematic alcohol use.
Check out our blog post: Am I Really an Alcoholic/Addict?