What Are the Warning Signs of a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

  • A high-functioning alcoholic generally does not display the telltale signs of alcoholism and instead may seem to have their life together better than most.
  • Even when someone appears to live a structured, productive life, they can still depend on alcohol in unhealthy ways.
  • Watch out for these subtle warning signs that someone might be struggling with high-functioning alcoholism:
    • They drink heavily but try to keep their habits hidden from others.
    • They may not seem fully engaged in social settings.
    • They have the ingredients for happiness but don’t seem happy unless alcohol is in the picture.
    • They may continue drinking even after others recognize signs they should stop drinking or slow down.
    • They continue drinking even when it causes health issues.
    • Their life seems to be falling apart, but they continue drinking to help with other areas of life where it seems to be helping.

What Is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

A high-functioning alcoholic is a person who by all outward appearances seems to have their life in control but in reality depends on alcohol in an unhealthy way. Because the stereotypical image of an alcoholic is painted as someone who struggles to hold down a job, can’t keep their family, or does nothing but drink, it can be difficult to spot a high-functioning alcoholic when you don’t know what to look for.

Many people assume it’s easy to spot an alcoholic, but in reality, high-functioning alcoholics can seem to have their lives put together as well as or even better than anyone. They might be successful in their careers, have a loving family, and even enjoy a range of hobbies in their spare time.

Yet despite having all the ingredients for happiness, high-functioning alcoholics use alcohol in ways that become problematic over time.

What Are the Signs of High-Functioning Alcoholism?

Because high-functioning alcoholics can by definition be difficult to identify, the signs aren’t immediately obvious, and it may take longer to recognize that the issue is in fact alcohol. However, these patterns are almost always present.

They Hide How Much They Drink

Some alcoholics have no reservations about how much they drink or who knows it. High-functioning alcoholics, on the other hand, are self-conscious about who sees them drinking—or even knows they’ve been drinking at all. They engage in heavy drinking patterns (4 drinks a day or 14 drinks a week for men, 3 drinks a day or 7 drinks a week for women), but they try to hide how frequently they drink.

They may go out of their way to drink before or after events when nobody else is around, or they may stop for drinks throughout the day but then lie about where they’ve been when talking to family or close friends.

When someone has a healthy relationship with alcohol, they should feel comfortable acknowledging their consumption patterns. For a high-functioning alcoholic, admitting how much they drink becomes impossible. They don’t want to blow their cover, and as a result, they go out of their way to hide their drinking habits.

They Don’t Seem Fully Engaged in Social Settings

While a high-functioning alcoholic often has no issue showing up for social functions, you might notice they don’t seem fully engaged even when they’re smiling or conversing with others. They may try to sneak a few extra drinks before the event so they don’t have to drink as much around others. Following events, you may notice they tend to forget what happened, who was there, or what was said.

They Have the Ingredients for Happiness—But Aren’t Happy

By all appearances, high-functioning alcoholics often seem to have all the ingredients for a happy life—a successful career, a close family, and an active social life. Yet despite all the good things in their life, they do not seem happy or content unless they’ve been drinking.

They Don’t Know When To Stop or Slow Down

When some people encounter problems as a result of drinking alcohol, they are able to learn from those experiences and adjust their behavior in the future. Hangovers, dangerous circumstances, or embarrassing moments cause them to drink less or choose not to drink when the time isn’t right. In other words, they learn from mistakes they made when drinking and they strive to correct them moving forward.

High-functioning alcoholics do not demonstrate this kind of behavior. Instead of slowing down or stopping their drinking habits when bad things happen, their behavior may ramp up. They aren’t able to connect negative consequences with their alcohol use, even when others begin to notice it over time.

They’re Compromising Their Health To Drink

When someone has a healthy relationship with alcohol and a medical professional tells them they need to stop drinking for health reasons, they should be able to abstain for the recommended time frame.

On the other hand, high-functioning alcoholics generally struggle to stop drinking, even if they’re risking serious health complications. If others are aware of the health concerns, a high-functioning alcoholic may start to conceal their drinking habits more so than before.

They Aren’t Themselves Without a Drink

The ultimate warning that someone might be struggling with high-functioning alcoholism is if they aren’t themselves without a drink. They may seem to be a happy, successful, and responsible individual, but as soon as you eliminate the alcohol, the facade disappears.

On the other hand, when someone appears happy, successful, and responsible, whether they’ve been drinking or not, they most likely have a healthy relationship with alcohol.

Have you spotted any of the above functional alcoholic signs? Our addiction quiz can help you identify what to do next.

The Problem With High-Functioning Alcoholism

If someone can be successful and productive while drinking, you might be wondering what the problem is. Unlike other forms of alcoholism, the negative repercussions of a high-functioning alcoholic’s drinking habits may not be as immediate or concrete, so what’s the harm?

The reality is high-functioning alcoholism can be much more insidious. When left untreated, it can lead to serious health issues over time. No matter how successful or ambitious someone seems, everything they’ve worked for is in jeopardy. As the saying goes, the higher you climb, the harder you fall, and high-functioning alcoholics are no exception.

Is Someone You Care About Struggling With High-Functioning Alcoholism?

If you or someone you care about is struggling with high-functioning alcoholism, take a look at our addiction resources to learn more about the issues surrounding addiction or take our addiction quiz to learn what you can do next. If you have any immediate questions or concerns, please call ALYST Health to schedule a confidential consultation with our team.