When someone is called a high-functioning alcoholic, it usually means that they’re able to cope with and carry out their daily lives despite technically having an alcohol use disorder. One of the primary traits associated with alcoholics is that they lose interest in their responsibilities and everything else around them. The high-functioning alcoholic is able to appear unaffected on the surface and around others, but they may maintain a serious drinking problem in private.
The goal of this page is to help you understand what constitutes a functioning alcoholic and to determine if you or your loved one might have an alcohol use disorder (AUD) or be at risk for one.
What Is a Functioning Alcoholic?
One of the criteria to diagnose alcoholism is the inability to control drinking even though it’s causing severe negative problems in the person’s life. For example, they may lose their job, get into legal problems or start having serious health problems, but they still can’t give up drinking. A high-functioning alcoholic or functioning alcoholic is someone who meets most of the other criteria for an alcohol use disorder but is not experiencing any serious negative effects in their personal lives.
Alcohol Use Disorder vs. Alcoholism
The terms alcoholic and alcoholism are commonly used to describe someone with a problematic drinking habit. However, the proper term is an alcohol use disorder. This is a chronic mental health disorder that causes chemical changes in the brain. These changes make it hard for the person to control their alcohol consumption without distress or impairment. There is a continuum of severity when it comes to alcohol use disorder. Some studies show that around 20% of people with some form of alcohol use disorder can be described as having high-functioning alcoholism. Other studies show that this number may be as high as 50% to 75%.
What Constitutes A Problem Drinking?
Current US dietary guidelines show that alcohol should be consumed in moderation. Moderate drinking means no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. One drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. A person with high-functioning alcoholism likely drinks more than this amount on a regular basis or engages in the occasional episode of excessive drinking.
What Is Functional Tolerance?
It’s common for people who use alcohol excessively to develop a tolerance. The body eventually adapts to compensate for the effects of alcohol. This makes it necessary for a person to drink more alcohol if they want to feel buzzed or drunk. Tolerance may decrease or disappear if the person stops drinking or reduces drinking for a certain period of time. Functional tolerance is when a person can drink large amounts of alcohol and not appear intoxicated to others. A person with functional tolerance can be legally drunk but still be functioning normally. Functional tolerance may indicate a functioning alcoholic.
Behavioral Signs of High-Functioning Alcoholism
If you’re wondering whether you or someone else can be described as a functioning alcoholic, there are a few behavioral flags to watch out for.
• Avoiding or refuting any criticism about your drinking habits
• Blacking out after drinking excessively
• Concealing the amount of alcohol you consume
• Continuing to drink even when it starts causing health problems
• Denying that you have a drinking problem because it’s not causing personal problems
• Drinking in the morning and/or on your lunch break at work
• Drinking before you drive somewhere
• Drinking as a reward and/or to cope with stressful situations
• Feeling guilty about your behavior when drinking or intoxicated
• Justifying drinking when the alcohol is expensive
• Lying to others and yourself about the amount you drink
• Comparing yourself to others with worse drinking problems to make yours seem less bad
• Trying and failing to control how much you drink
• Obsessing over alcohol and how to obtain it
These are all general warning signs of an alcohol use disorder, but they can also be experienced by someone who is a high-functioning alcoholic.
Diagnosing a Functional Alcoholic
It’s generally more difficult to recognize a functioning alcoholic vs. someone with a more severe form of alcohol use disorder. The functioning alcoholic by definition is someone who probably displays few outward signs that they have a problem. However, the functioning alcoholic may also be more aware than those with a more severe type of alcohol use disorder. If you can recognize your own behavior in the signs listed above, there’s a good chance that you’re a functioning alcoholic. Even though you may not view yourself as someone with an addiction, addiction therapy can help. It’s important to remember that a functioning alcoholic still has an alcohol use disorder, it’s simply on the milder end of the continuum.
It’s common for the functioning alcoholic to want to quit or reduce drinking. Addiction therapy can help you do this.
Doctor Howard Samuels is an Addiction Therapist in Los Angeles who specializes in substance use disorders including alcohol use disorder. A functioning alcoholic can also benefit from addiction therapy, especially if you have tried but failed to control your problem drinking. If you or a loved one can be described as a functioning alcoholic, reach out to Dr. Samuels today to find out how addiction therapy can help.