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What is a Functioning Addict and Am I One?

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Table of Contents

Many people assume that alcoholics can’t perform daily activities. However, this is not true. Many alcoholics can function normally while still drinking. Because of that ability, they may not even realize they are an alcoholic. 

To properly understand alcoholism, it is important to disregard the stereotypes associated with it. This article will discuss high-functioning alcoholics and how to tell if you are one.

What is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

High-functioning alcoholics are individuals that have alcohol use disorder but still manage their day-to-day responsibilities and activities. Nearly 20% of all alcoholics do not fit the stereotypical understanding of what an alcoholic is —such as alcoholics being homeless or coming from a particular socioeconomic class. This means that this type of alcoholic can maintain a job, have a family, and take part in regular activities like hanging out with friends. High-functioning alcoholics may sustain an appearance of normalcy (at least for some time) without anyone suspecting that they may have an alcohol use disorder. 

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It can be challenging to identify a high-functioning alcoholic because the consequences of their drinking are not always obvious. Many people with alcohol use disorders have mastered the skill of concealing the negative consequences of their drinking habits, such as hangovers.

Moreover, many functioning alcoholics hold positions of power working as lawyers, doctors, or executives. Their ability to maintain a stable job and conceal their drinking makes their alcohol use, in some ways, more dangerous. This is because they may drink for long periods before anyone notices they have a serious problem. 

Signs of a High-Functioning Alcoholic 

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Although the signs of a high-functioning alcoholic may be subtle, there are a few signs that may help you identify whether you are a functioning alcoholic:

  1. You have no control over the amount you drink: You regularly find yourself drinking more than intended while still being able to fulfill your daily responsibilities.

  2. You consume a high volume of alcohol: When drinking socially, you often consume more drinks than what is acceptable in a social setting. 

  3. You reward yourself with a drink: If people start noticing that you drink more than the normal person, you use the excuse that you are “rewarding” yourself for working hard.

  4. You use drinking as a coping mechanism: If you have high-functioning alcoholism, you are likely still coping with daily stressors from work and other responsibilities. You may use alcohol as a way to escape these stressors and cope with the pressures of day-to-day responsibilities and personal life. 

  5. Socializing always involves drinking: You are more likely to socialize only with other people who drink in settings where drinking is normal. 

  6. Canceling social engagements where drinking isn’t involved: If drinking is not involved or acceptable at a social engagement, you will likely cancel to hide a hangover or any other symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.

  7. A loss of interest in hobbies: You use your time drinking in exchange for engaging in hobbies and other activities that you usually would enjoy.

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Other behaviors that may indicate that you have high-functioning alcoholism include:

  • Avoiding feedback on your drinking patterns

  • Blacking out from alcohol use

  • Concealing how much alcohol is consumed

  • Continuing to drink more alcohol, even if it has caused physical or mental health problems

  • Denial of a drinking problem because of a lack of severe consequences

  • Drinking large volumes of alcohol but not appearing intoxicated

  • Experiencing cravings often

  • Feeling guilty about excessive drinking

  • Feeling the overwhelming urge to finish drinks, even if they aren’t yours

  • Justifying your drinking as not problematic

  • Planning not to drink too much but get drunk

  • Lying to yourself and/or others about how much you drink

  • Obsessing over when you can get your next drink

  • Remaining well-known for doing a good job at work and upholding your responsibilities despite drinking excessively

If you’ve noticed yourself exhibiting many or all of these signs, you likely have high-functioning alcoholism. It is important to recognize that although you are functioning now, your drinking can quickly spiral out of control. You might lose control over your life and your alcohol use.

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Once you’ve identified as a functioning alcoholic, it is crucial to seek out help before your drinking becomes unsustainable. It may be overwhelming to decide what form of treatment best suits you. Each treatment option, from inpatient treatment to intensive outpatient to sober living, offers its own benefits that may be ideal for your needs. Regardless of your treatment path, it is crucial, to be honest with yourself about the level of care you need to get sober. 

People Most Likely to be Functioning Alcoholics

According to the National Institutes of Health, functional alcoholics are often middle-aged and well-educated, with steady employment and families. The agency reports that among these people, around one-third have a multigenerational family history of alcohol addiction, one-quarter have suffered from major depression at some point in their lives, and approximately fifty percent were smokers.

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Other risk factors enhance the likelihood of developing alcohol abuse, such as:

  • Binge drinking (five or more drinks per day)

  • Having a parent or relative with an alcohol addiction

  • Experiencing high levels of stress

  • Having low self-esteem

  • Exposure to peer pressure to drink alcohol

  • Having a mental health disorder, such as depression or anxiety

  • Consuming more than 7 alcoholic drinks (for women) or 14 (for men) per week

Getting and Staying Sober with Design For Recovery

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Accepting that you are an alcoholic can be extremely challenging, but at Design for Recovery, you may come to terms with your addiction in a supportive environment.

Design for Recovery is a men’s sober living home in West Los Angeles. Residents find support and work diligently to acquire new skills, values, and coping strategies in early recovery.

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While residing in the safe and structured environment provided by Design for Recovery, you will be able to start reaping the benefits of living sober. At Design for Recovery, you will notice the multiple advantages of a drug- or alcohol-free life, such as forming solid relationships with other residents and connecting to the Los Angeles recovery community. 

Allow Design for Recovery sober living homes to help you become comfortable with your new normal and begin to thrive in recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions

A high-functioning alcoholic is an individual who can still function in society despite being dependent on alcohol. Typically, they can manage aspects of life such as jobs, homes, and families.

A high-functioning alcoholic frequently appears normal and functions as if they’re mentally and physically healthy. However, they usually struggle with uncontrollable cravings, obsessive thoughts about having their next drink, and failed attempts at quitting.

Among the most common signs and symptoms of a functional alcoholic are the following:

  • Heavy drinking

  • Drinking alcohol alone, in secret, or at unusual hours

  • Inability to socialize without alcohol and avoidance of social situations without alcohol

  • Justifying their consumption of alcohol as a reward or celebration

  • Having a troubled relationship with others as a result of your drinking

  • Drinking alcohol to cope with stress or anxiety, depression, trauma, or loss

  • Keeping alcoholic beverages in concealed locations, such as their car, closet, or garage

  • Becoming irritated and restless after skipping alcohol for a day or two

Yes. Someone who is a high-functioning alcoholic may have a co-occurring substance use disorder. They may also demonstrate symptoms relevant to it, such as the inability to quit using a substance, continued use despite its negative effects, and experiencing withdrawal symptoms after quitting, among others. However, only medical professionals can diagnose substance use disorder and establish the severity of an individual’s substance abuse

High-functioning alcoholics who are in a state of denial may lie about their alcohol use and underestimate the amount of alcohol they consume. They also fail to admit that they have had a problem for as long as it has been going on and even hide the impact that alcohol misuse has had on their lives.

A change in behavior or health status may be the earliest warning sign of a severe issue. They may start missing deadlines and forget about family events or suddenly wish to spend more time alone. High-functioning alcoholics may also lose interest in their hobbies and make excuses for their drinking behavior, hiding the fact that they cannot control their heavy drinking. 

Moreover, high-functioning alcoholics drink secretly at home or even at work. They frequently hide alcoholic beverages in concealed places, such as their car, closet, or garage.

While high-functioning alcoholics can still accomplish many of their responsibilities, this does not mean their drinking does not negatively impact their health, career, relationships, and overall well-being.

Alcohol use raises the risk of alcohol poisoning, violence, injuries, accidents, and risky sexual behavior during the short term.

Long-term effects of alcohol addiction include an increased risk of the following:

  • Memory and learning problems

  • Certain types of cancer, such as throat, liver, and colon

  • Weakened immune system

  • Mental disorders, including depression and anxiety

  • Alcohol dependency and alcohol use disorder

There are compassionate and practical approaches to helping someone with alcohol addiction, even if they are in denial about their alcohol use. Instead of approaching a loved one from a place of anger or judgment, you should always try to approach them from a place of support and compassion. Keep in mind that the person may be feeling shame and fear, which may be causing them to feel defensive or hesitant.

Ask them about the most effective ways you can support them and provide some ideas that can be put into action. Support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, may be a great place to start. Seeking behavioral health experts and medical professionals who can provide addiction treatment options for withdrawal symptoms and underlying issues is also a big help.

Can High-Functioning Alcoholics Benefit from Treatment Even if They Appear to be Managing Their Addiction Well?

Many high-functioning alcoholics find it extremely difficult to stop drinking without medication or treatment. In fact, studies suggest that frequent relapse is affected by brain systems that are not under conscious control. For this reason, it is necessary to have assistance and support. Your primary care doctor may recommend one or more treatments, depending on what they consider most effective given your situation and needs. Recovery is frequently a continual process that is facilitated by the following:

  • Formal addiction treatment (inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation)

  • Medications (to prevent withdrawal and reduce cravings)

  • Therapy (including behavioral therapy and self-help groups),

  • Other recovery options, such as sober living homes

While a functional alcoholic can still perform daily tasks, family members and loved ones are frequently concerned about the individual’s alcohol dependency. Setting healthy boundaries is essential to prevent the family from enabling the alcoholic. In addition, it also ensures that the alcoholic is held accountable and feels the consequences of their behavior.

Among the steps you can take to support high-functioning alcoholics include the following:

  • Learning about alcoholism. Spend time researching alcoholism so that you understand what they are experiencing. Alcoholism is a disease, which means that although people choose to drink initially, they may be unable to quit on their own once they get hooked.

  • Offering support. Speak to the person in a compassionate and non-blaming manner and encourage them to open up. Offer a listening ear to whatever they feel while battling alcohol use disorder. You could also offer to go with them to their visits with the doctor, support group meetings, or counseling sessions.

  • Joining a support group for families of individuals with alcohol addiction. Mutual support groups like Al-Anon can provide invaluable assistance, information, and encouragement. These groups also provide guidance on how to deal with the stress of caring for an alcoholic family member.

  • Helping them discover healthy coping mechanisms. Significant life changes, such as quitting alcohol, can be stressful for the alcoholic during early recovery. You can help your loved one find better ways to alleviate stress by encouraging them to engage in physical activity, meditate, confide in others, or develop new hobbies and interests.

The effects of functional alcoholism and drug abuse do not just extend to the person who is battling the disease. Rather, they also radiate outward and affect the daily life of those closest to them, including friends, family members, and co-workers. Whether you or a loved one struggle with drug or alcohol abuse, recovery is possible. Seeking assistance for substance use disorders is within your reach. Contact us today!

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2007, June 28). Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes.

National Institute of Health. (2007, June 28). Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes.

Carter, J., Sharon, E., & Stern, T. A. (2014). The management of alcohol use disorders: the impact of pharmacologic, affective, behavioral, and cognitive approaches. The primary care companion for CNS disorders, 16(4), 10.4088/PCC.14f01683.


Edited by: David Beasley

David Beasley - Design for Recovery

David Beasley is a certified RADT (Registered Alcohol/Drug Technician). David, moved to California from North Carolina after many failed attempts to get sober.

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Charley earned his Masters of Clinical Psychology from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).He teaches mindfulness to both adults and children in group setting such as schools, corporate workplaces, and medical treatment facilities.

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