When you think of an alcoholic, the picture that comes to mind is of an unkempt person with a drink in their hand whose life is falling apart. But this is not always true. A person can appear perfectly normal and display none of the classic traits of an alcoholic and yet be abusing alcohol. Such an individual is called a high functioning alcoholic.
Please continue reading to learn how to recognize high functioning alcoholic signs and what to do to help such a person.
What is a high functioning alcoholic?
A high functioning alcoholic by definition is a person who drinks excessive amounts of alcohol but is able to carry out all the tasks of daily living, such as performing at work, keeping up with childcare responsibilities, paying their bills, maintaining good personal hygiene, and participating in an active social life.
It is worth noting that the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder (AUD), which is colloquially called alcoholism, includes the inability to control drinking despite a negative impact on work and relationships.
Therefore, a high functioning alcoholic may not in fact qualify for a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder based on this criteria alone. But such an individual will often meet other criteria that can lead to a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder (AUD).
How can you recognize a high functioning alcoholic?
If you suspect that you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of high functioning alcoholism, a self assessment test is a good starting point.
However, you should get professional medical advice from a primary care doctor or mental health professional to find out for sure whether or not the drinking habits are problematic.
In the meantime, here are some behaviors that can indicate a person may be a high functioning alcoholic.
Drinks alcohol at the first chance
A high functioning alcoholic will frequently be the first person to head to a bar after work. Or they’ll grab a drink the moment they get home from work. This is because such individuals, while keeping up the facade, are struggling with strong cravings for alcohol and therefore drink at the first chance they get.
Jokes or brags about drinking
High functioning alcoholics often joke or talk flippantly about heavy drinking and alcoholism like it isn’t a big deal.
They might also brag that they’ve stockpiled liquor so that there’s always enough for everyone. Such comments and behaviors can be a deflection tactic to hide a drinking habit that’s out of control.
Justifies drinking as a celebration
Drinking is an essential element of festivities in many cultures and alcohol is often associated with celebrations.
One of the characteristics of an alcoholic who is high functioning is that they justify drinking as a celebration. This is their way of drinking alcohol in the guise of being social or convivial rather than admitting that they’re drinking only for the sake of drinking.
Is more relaxed and confident after drinking
Many people who have developed an addiction to alcohol need alcohol to feel relaxed and confident, and this can be especially true of high functioning alcoholics. In other words, alcohol becomes a crutch for such individuals to perform on the job and socialize.
Rarely gets drunk
functioning alcoholic by definition is someone who can continue to function at a high level despite excessive drinking. Many high functioning alcoholics develop a tolerance to alcohol over time, meaning they need very large amounts of alcohol to become intoxicated. As a result, it is unusual for such people to get drunk.
Drinks secretly, in private
It’s common for a high functioning alcoholic to drink alone, to hide alcohol in strange places like their car or the garage, and to drink at odd times such as during work hours or in the mornings.
These are ways to deal with the strong urge to drink that they experience on a daily basis.
Engages in high-risk behaviors
A high functioning alcoholic might give in to temptation and drink when it’s inappropriate, and as a result, indulge in high-risk behaviors like driving under the influence or unsafe sex. These behaviors can be difficult to identify because they don’t usually get caught or cover their tracks well.
Gets angry or irritated if confronted
Many high functioning alcoholics don’t want to admit to themselves, let alone others that their drinking is a problem. Such individuals can become short-tempered, irritable, angry, or even aggressive if they are confronted about their drinking habits.
Is in denial
A high functioning alcoholic can be in denial. If you question their drinking, they’ll say, “Hey, I’m doing great at my job, I pay my bills, I have an active social life, so how can I be an alcoholic?”
Yet this is a person who isn’t doing fine.
Being able to maintain major life responsibilities does not mean that alcohol is not harming them. Sooner or later, the heavy drinking will catch up with them.
Living with a High Functioning Alcoholic Spouse
Life can be stressful for a high functioning alcoholic. Besides the reliance on alcohol, there’s the need to keep up appearances. This can take an increasing toll on every aspect of the person’s life, including their relationships.
Sometimes, partners follow the lead of a high functioning alcoholic and pretend nothing is wrong, normalize the drinking behavior, or perhaps even enable the habit by buying alcohol or covering for the person.
Yet, living with a functioning alcoholic husband or wife inevitably affects the relationship and it can end up becoming a toxic marriage. Unless the issues are addressed in a healthy manner, the relationship ultimately deteriorates into fights about alcohol abuse and there’s a risk of domestic violence.
Many people who are married to a high functioning alcoholic start to feel isolated and overwhelmed. But, divorcing a high functioning alcoholic does not have to be the only solution. Experts at a professional addiction treatment center can help a couple get to the root of the drinking problem and put the relationship back on track.
How to help a high functioning alcoholic?
Functional alcoholics do not always act the way you expect a typical alcoholic to act. They can be productive, responsible, popular individuals with successful careers and dozens of friends.
Indeed, many high functioning alcoholics are high achievers or people in positions of power. Oftentimes, a person’s success causes people to overlook their questionable drinking habits.
Yet, a high functioning alcoholic needs help as much as a classic alcoholic.
Here are some tips on what you can do if a loved one is drinking too much yet functioning well.
Start a conversation
The first step in helping a friend or family member who is drinking too much is to approach them about their alcohol use.
This conversation should not take place at a time when the person is drunk. Wait until they’re sober and carefully broach the topic of their drinking.
Try to be non-judgmental and empathetic. Don’t assume you know what they’re going through and don’t sound accusatory. Show your concern and suggest that you try to solve the problem together, but don’t allow them to make excuses or justify their drinking.
Encourage them to get help
If you’re unsure of how to help a loved one who might be a high functioning alcoholic, encourage them to visit a mental health professional for a “drinking checkup.” A medical professional can screen your loved one for unhealthy drinking habits and tell them if they need to make efforts to cut back or get professional addiction treatment.
Also, a doctor can talk to the person about the harmful effects of alcohol on health. They might ask the person about health problems they are experiencing and tell them if there’s a link to chronic drinking.
A healthcare professional may also order blood tests to check the effects of alcohol on a person’s health, for example, their liver, and start the appropriate treatments.
Speaking to a medical professional and seeing the medical evidence for themselves might help a high functioning alcoholic realize that they have a problem and encourage them to enroll in a recovery program.
Stage an intervention
If all else fails, you might have to stage an intervention to get a high functioning alcoholic the help they need before it’s too late.
You can plan an intervention with the help of friends and family members or seek expert help from people who offer professional alcohol interventions.
RosGlas Recovery is a luxury therapy retreat staffed by a team of addiction treatment experts. The alcoholism treatment program at RosGlas Recovery is carefully tailored to each client’s needs and is designed to address the underlying psychological, social, and biochemical causes of alcohol addiction. Contact RosGlas Recovery today to give yourself or a loved one the best chance of long-term recovery from alcoholism.