What It’s Like to be a High-Functioning Alcoholic

Drugs & Alcohol

What It’s Like to be a High-Functioning Alcoholic

For the high functioning alcoholic, there are certain things they will do to protect their secret. It takes a toll on the person that many will never know about. There are close to 18 million alcoholics in the U.S and 20% of those are high-functioning. They are less likely to admit they have a problem because they aren’t experiencing consequences, just the reward. The problem is, no matter what kind of alcoholic a person is, they’re still abusing a toxic substance. It takes a toll on the mind and the body. Keeping secrets makes an alcoholic feel isolated and alone. It’s nearly impossible to truly let anybody get too close to them.

Often, functioning alcoholics won’t ever be diagnosed or treated for their addiction to alcohol. They will go on drinking daily which can cause negative health effects. A functioning alcoholic is aware in the back of their mind that they are on the edge of losing everything. Their lives may be together on the outside but an alcoholic is always at risk of losing it all.

Many people that are occasional drinkers would be considered high-functioning alcoholics. They are often not aware that they are an alcoholic. Nobody confronts them on it because they’re getting things done in life. There are certain behaviors that a high-functioning alcoholic exhibits that are no different from any other type of alcoholic. For anyone who questions their relationship to alcohol, there are online addiction quizzes that can help you find the answers.

Functioning Alcoholics Sometimes Replace Meals with Alcohol

Functioning Alcoholics Sometimes Replace Meals with Alcohol

The high-functioning alcoholic will lose out on enjoying meals. If given a choice, they’re more interested in having a few drinks than eating. Sometimes, they may start cooking but drink while they do so. They then lose interest in the food altogether. Drinking without food causes alcohol to be absorbed twice as quickly through the stomach and goes straight to the bloodstream.

Chronic Alcohol Abuse Leads to No Hangovers

High functioning alcoholics may wake up with no hangover regardless of how much they drank the night before. This is a sign of alcoholism as the body has developed a tolerance and is dependent on the substance. While not all functioning alcoholics will drink daily, they do tend to have quite a few drinks in one sitting.

Decades of Alcohol Abuse for the Functioning Alcoholic

As the functioning drinker doesn’t inhibit the standard symptoms of an alcoholic, it can go on for decades. Usually, the only thing that will expose this type of alcoholic is alcohol-related crisis. This can include a DUI as functioning alcoholics will often drink after work. They will often stop at a bar before they go home to hide the fact they drink. They will then drive home under the influence. They may also have to quit due to a medical problem. Liver failure in particular is attributed to chronic drinking.

High-Functioning Alcoholics and the Double Lives they Lead

High-Functioning Alcoholics and the Double Lives they Lead

An alcoholic that is high-functioning has a secret life that they try very hard to protect. This brings on stress as they are constant having to stay alert. They will stay up until everyone goes to bed so they can enjoy drinking without any witnesses. They put on a smile and hide the fact that something is deeply wrong. They hide it from themselves and from everyone around them. They may appear to be the perfect husband/wife, boss, colleague, father/mother, and friend. The truth is, they are so ashamed of who they really are that they need to hide their alcoholism.

They are subconsciously aware, and likely afraid of the fact that eventually their luck will run out. They spend a lot of their energy ensuring that people don’t find out they’re an alcoholic. They might hide their drinking and will sneak in alcohol before attending events. They are ashamed of the alcohol odor on their breath and go through great lengths to hide the problem from society.

Through the Lies of the Alcohol Addiction, Functioning Alcoholics Feel Extreme Loneliness

Many high-functioning alcoholics have people around them all the time. That doesn’t mean they don’t feel isolated. They feel separate from others because they hide a large part of themselves, suffering alone. The problem with constantly hiding their addiction and problems that go with it is that they take away from true connections they could have. Movie stars like Elvis Presley were adored, happily married, and found fame and fortune. Even with so many loving fans and respect from those around him, he was miserable inside.

They Have Similar Behaviors to Every Other Alcoholic Type

They Have Similar Behaviors to Every Other Alcoholic Type

Someone with high functioning alcoholism isn’t exempt from doing many of the same things a traditional alcoholic does. Even if they start to realize they have a problem, they will often bury it down. They avoid help because they feel it’s a sign of weakness. As many functioning alcoholics are powerful or well-respected people, it’s unlikely they’ll want to expose the perceived weakness. Here are some of the behaviors a functional alcoholic may have:

  • Reckless behavior.
  • Drinking and driving
  • They hide their drinking, often restricting when and how they drink. By attempting to control their alcohol consumption. It helps them remain in the trance that they don’t have a drinking problem.
  • Their character changes when they drink.
  • They have a problem controlling how much they drink.
  • They will experience blackouts where they don’t remember what happened while they drank.
  • They may engage in risky sexual encounters
  • They may not meet family or professional obligations due to drinking.
  • They may ask their partner to cover for them when they can’t take on their responsibilities.
  • They shut the world out.
  • They may not enjoy company at their home because there is an underlying fear of being “found out.”
  • They may mask a deeper issue and have a co-occurring disorder. This can be anything from depression, social phobias, or mental illness.

Functioning Alcoholics and the Type of Dependency They Have

Within each type of alcoholism, there are certain characteristics. The functional alcoholic isn’t necessarily physically addicted to alcohol. They may abstain for days and weeks with no withdrawal symptoms. They may have a psychological dependence however. They will fixate on when they can drink again. Sometimes, they convince themselves that there are certain settings where they will need to drink. For example, if they feel the need to drink during times when they’re alone, they may push family away to ensure they have the opportunity. Alcohol still rules their actions, thoughts, and life. They will still need treatment for alcohol dependence to effectively recover.

Functioning Alcoholics Spend a Lot of Time Keeping up their Appearance of Normality

Statistically, many functioning alcoholics are quite successful. They work hard, it appears that they work effectively, they are often leaders and they are good parents. Functioning alcoholics will work very hard to hide the things that are really going on. In their weak moments, they may want to speak with close friends or their spouse but they rarely will. The fear of opening up to the fact they have a problem will override their ability to open up.

Functioning alcoholics deny their dependency and it’s easy for people to overlook their problems. Most people consider alcoholism to look like a dirty person living on the streets. As long as the functioning alcoholic can prove to the world that they’re in control, they likely won’t seek help for a drinking problem or be confronted by those close to them.

Co-Dependency Often Goes Hand-in Hand with the Functioning Alcoholic

Sarah Allen Benton is not your average alcoholic. She is a good example of the functioning alcoholic with a masters in Science and a career as a licensed mental health counselor at Emmanuel College. She had this to say about co-dependency,

“Having outside accomplishments led me and others to excuse my drinking and avoid categorizing me as an alcoholic. My success was the mask that disguised the underlying demon and fed my denial.”

Many times, people around an alcoholic that seems to hold it together will not intervene. From the outside, there seems to be no negative outcome associated with the functional alcoholic. People may even feel the need to cover for them. The more this happens, the more it enables them to continue abusing alcohol. Remaining confident and strong is a constant effort for someone who is a functioning alcoholic.

Keeping up pretences will help them remain protected by the people in their lives. If a functional alcoholic should fall apart, people could lose jobs and families could split apart. When it comes to their family, loved ones might cover for the functional alcoholic because they fear they’ll lose the lifestyle. Even if a spouse and kids are deeply unhappy due to the “elephant in the room,” it usually won’t be mentioned. If there are no obvious consequences, it just seems like a better option to let things continue the way they are.

Here are some of the things that cause co-dependence in relationships:

  • When someone makes excuses chronically, protecting them from being “found out.”
  • Covering the functional alcoholic’s expenses that resulted from drinking.
  • Defending the alcoholic for their actions while they were drunk.
  • Cleaning up messes that the alcoholic made while drunk so the functional alcoholic doesn’t feel badly about it.
  • An attempt of controlling how much they drink.
  • The lack of honesty. They know something isn’t correct but don’t share it with the functional alcoholic.

One of the first things that occur in an intervention is close friends and family sharing how they are affected by the functional alcoholic. This is the first step to help the person seek out help for their alcohol addiction.

When Functional Alcoholics Can no Longer Pretend

When Functional Alcoholics Can no Longer Pretend

A functional alcoholic will often live in subtle fear that they’ll be found out. The alcohol dependency that they protect is slowly eating away at their health and mental capacity. Even if nobody can see what’s really going on, their health will get worse through time. Alcohol is a strong toxin for the liver and chronic drinking will eventually show its effects.

The possibility of fines from drinking and driving, hurting someone seriously, and public humiliation can occur through alcoholic behaviors. The risk to make a mistake that could change their life is there every time a person drinks. A functioning alcoholic may just have a breakdown from the pressure of trying to hold their life together while falling apart on the inside. All of these possibilities exist for the functional alcoholic.

Many people around an alcoholic that functions in a seemingly normal way will likely never speak up. The reality is that the behaviors and their dependency do classify them as an alcoholic. They are more likely to put themselves at risk, lose their children, lose their spouse, the respect of people, and their friends. Their health is put at risk, damaging organs like the liver. Alcoholism always has the ability to morph into a more serious type. The functional alcoholic may end up becoming an out-of-control heavy drinker.

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What it’s like to be a high-functioning alcoholic

2021-08-06T14:17:19+00:00July 8th, 2017|2 Comments


  1. S January 4, 2019 at 1:47 am

    I’m a functional alcoholic but I’ve tried to stop and I can’t and I can’t stop working overtime or I won’t be able to pay my bills

    • Northpoint Seattle Staff January 4, 2019 at 2:15 am

      That is a tough situation to be in. It seems like you know what you should do to get the situation back on track. We are here if you would like some assistance.

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