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What Is a High-Functioning Alcoholic? Symptoms, Signs and Treatment

Written by Theresa Valenzky

& Medically Reviewed by Taylor Cameron, LPC

Medically Reviewed

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This article was reviewed by a medical professional to guarantee the delivery of accurate and up-to- date information. View our research policy.

Last Updated - 6/17/2022

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When you think of alcoholism, you may picture an individual with their life in disarray or publicly intoxicated. However, the person beside you at work, school or the grocery store may be silently struggling with alcoholism. When a person appears to be able to function and maintain most of their daily duties but struggles with alcohol misuse, they’re likely a high-functioning alcoholic.

Recognizing a High-Functioning Alcoholic

Millions of Americans have alcohol use disorder, and each person is unique in how they experience the condition. Alcohol rehab is full of people who maintain a job and appear to have it all together. Unless you are close to them, it’s entirely possible you wouldn’t realize they were struggling — unless they cause a car accident or make a major mistake at work — or some other terrible incident occurs. There are varying levels of the disease, from mild to severe, but all eventually cause problems that are easy to detect.

That is why experts call it “alcohol use disorder,” reflecting a spectrum of activity surrounding problem drinking. Heavy drinking cannot be maintained long-term. While high-functioning alcoholics may appear fine on the surface, it’s only a matter of time before the negative effects of alcoholism begin to show or seriously harm their health, career or relationships.

Even if a person with alcohol use disorder appears to be functioning well, they are likely putting forth efforts to hide or minimize their alcohol misuse or its impact on their life. They justify their heavy drinking or do not view it as a problem.

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Signs and Symptoms of a High-Functioning Alcoholic

What signs of an alcohol problem are happening under the surface of a seemingly normal life?

  • For a woman, having more than three drinks daily or seven per week
  • For a man, having four or more a day or 14 per week
  • Starting to slip on handling major responsibilities at work or home
  • Drinking instead of eating
  • Getting very irritable if they skip drinking
  • Having legal problems tied to alcohol consumption, such as a DUI
  • Drinking when alone or first thing in the morning
  • Being unable to stop at just a couple of drinks
  • Difficulty remembering what they did while drinking
  • Trying to hide drinking behaviors from others

Major concerns with heavy or long-term drinking are the physical damage it can cause to the body and the increased risk of accidents and injuries.

High-Functioning Alcoholism or Social Drinking?

Individuals who occasionally overdrink likely drink for enjoyment or as a way to engage in bonding with others. They typically know when they’ve reached their limit. While they may overdrink occasionally, they can stop drinking when they want to and are not regularly intoxicated. They also don’t let alcohol negatively impact their career or relationships. 

Those with high-functioning alcoholism are more likely to drink alone. This is often related to a desire to hide alcohol use and its repercussions, such as legal problems or workplace mistakes. They typically drink because of their strong urge to do so, not because of social benefits. They may also use alcohol to ease the agitation that arises when they don’t drink.

Impact of High-Functioning Alcoholism

While it may appear as though individuals with high-functioning alcoholism are managing just fine, it can negatively affect every aspect of their lives. Alcohol abuse disrupts relationships, careers and well-being.

Personal Life and Relationships

People become isolated when they’re constantly trying to hide their alcohol use or altering their schedule to make time to drink alone. They may have difficulty connecting with others because drinking consumes their thoughts. Connecting with others and upholding social commitments is hard when drinking occupies your thoughts and time.

Alcohol misuse can also lead to other personal concerns, such as financial and housing instability and legal problems. 

Work-Life and Career

Regular intoxication or suffering from withdrawals can lead to decreased work performance. This may look like missing deadlines, forgetting duties or making frequent mistakes. Legal consequences such as a DUI may also cause issues with your job. Criminal charges can prevent future employment or disqualify you from professional licensing. 

Mental and Physical Health

Some individuals use alcohol to cope with mental health symptoms of conditions such as PTSD, depression or anxiety. However, it ends up worsening the condition and symptoms. Alcohol is a depressant, and as it changes the brain, it leads to irritability, anger, depression and anxiety.

Ongoing alcohol misuse can cause serious issues for your body, such as liver disease, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and cancer. It can lead to alcohol poisoning and an increased risk of injury from reckless behaviors. 

Misconceptions About High-Functioning Alcoholism

Stereotypes and stigma contribute to misconceptions about addiction. This includes myths about high-functioning alcoholism.

The Myth of Having Everything Under Control

Although these individuals may seem to be functioning well, that is just an outside appearance. Often, they are silently struggling and working hard to conceal their alcoholism. Alcohol misuse is likely causing them to make mistakes, neglect certain relationships and negatively affect their mental and physical health. 

Denial and Hidden Struggles

Loved ones and colleagues surrounding a person with high-functioning alcoholism may not be aware of the addiction. When other people don’t see the issue, it’s also easier for individuals to minimize or deny their alcohol misuse. Even if they notice the person making mistakes or letting go of social commitments, they may not realize it’s because of an addiction.

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Getting Help for High-Functioning Alcoholism

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol use disorder, help is available. You may have worked hard to conceal your alcohol use but can feel yourself slipping. You don’t have to go through this alone. 

Taking a First Step Toward Treatment

Reaching out for help is the first step toward recovery and trained professionals are ready and available to support you. The Recovery Village Ridgefield has a team of Recovery Advocates available 24/7 to guide you through the admission process. They’ll answer your questions regarding insurance and treatment so you can decide if our services are a good fit for you.

Treatment Options for High-Functioning Alcoholism

Treatment for alcohol use disorder typically involves a combination of medical detox, inpatient rehab, individual and family therapy and support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Your healthcare provider may also prescribe medications, such as naltrexone and acamprosate, to help with withdrawal symptoms. Individuals may access these services through residential, partial hospitalization (PHP), outpatient or aftercare community programming. 

At The Recovery Village Ridgefield, you’ll work with an experienced treatment team to tailor your treatment plan. We’ll be there when you’re ready to take the first step. Contact our team today to begin the process.

View Sources

Benton, S.A. “Understanding the High-functioning Alcoholic: Professional Views and Personal Insights.” Greenwood Publishing Group, 2009. Accessed August 3, 2023.

Cleveland Clinic. “Alcoholism (Alcohol Abuse).” Cleveland Clinic, June 2, 2021. Accessed August 3, 2023.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in the United States: Age Groups and Demographic Characteristics.” NIH, 2023. Accessed August 3, 2023.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Drinking Levels Defined.” NIH, 2017. Accessed August 3, 2023.