What is a High Functioning Alcoholic and How Can You Spot One?

A study in JAMA Psychiatry suggests that upwards of 1 out of every 8 Americans is an alcoholic, which is such a significant amount of people who are largely unsupported by society as a whole, many of whom are silently struggling against their demons. We are here to help give a voice to these people, whether it’s someone that is quite obviously an alcoholic or someone who is what’s known as a high-functioning alcoholic, where even people who are close to them might not know what they’re dealing with.

What is a High Functioning Alcoholic?

What’s the difference between a regular alcoholic and a high-functioning alcoholic? Well, a high-functioning alcoholic is an alcoholic, but they’re just someone who manages to keep their career, tier personal life, and their general health in order, more or less.

This doesn’t mean they’re any more or any less of an alcoholic, it’s just a different category that comes with a unique set of challenges.

One of the main ways that people are able to find the motivation to quit drinking is when they look at the harm and damage that alcohol is causing to their health, their careers, and their personal relationships. Many alcoholics have quit drinking because it was a matter of life and death, or because they faced severe consequences in their lives.

On the other hand, if an alcoholic is high functioning, and they need to drink to get through the day because their cravings are just as strong as any other alcoholic’s, but alcohol has yet to cause them any seriously consequences – it can be a lot harder to convince them to stop drinking or to convince them to face their alcoholism.

If you fall into this category, you might be thinking “If I’m not seeing any negative consequences of my drinking, then why should I stop?” 

That is a similar sentiment that many people have felt when they were in your situation. The thing is, you need to learn to cope with life without alcohol before things get worse. Just because you’re healthy right now, and your career is going well, and your family and social life is good – that doesn’t mean alcohol can’t creep up and take those things away from you at any moment. You might not be as in control as you think you are, and if you need proof of that – don’t have another drink for the next month. If you’re perfectly in control, that should be no problem, right? If you feel that nagging voice and you feel resistance to this hypothetical challenge, that should tell you a lot. 30 days isn’t a very long time to go without drinking, especially if you’re trying to prove that you could easily accomplish this. 30 days no drinking challenges are common, and there are many health benefits to stopping drinking, even for just 30 days.

That was just a thought exercise, and if you’re planning to stop drinking cold turkey, you should speak to a medical professional first to ensure that you aren’t putting yourself at risk of severe withdrawals.

How To Spot a High-Functioning Alcoholic

This is where it gets tricky. If someone is having their lives torn apart by alcohol, it’s usually pretty obvious to everyone around them, especially as they approach the so-called “rock bottom”. However, if someone is high-functioning, then you could life with them and have no idea unless you start paying very close attention to the warning signs.

  • Drinking small amounts throughout the day: Someone who is a high-function alcoholic might not get plastered first thing in the morning, but they may have a drink or two throughout the day in order to fight off cravings and to help avoid feeling hungover. Then, once their daily duties are done, they might dive in and drink a lot more – but not necessarily. Somebody can be a functioning alcoholic without getting wasted every day, too.
  • Denial of a drinking problem: It can be much harder for a high-functioning alcoholic to recognize or admit they have a problem, which stands to reason, since they aren’t feeling the negative consequences, necessarily. Sometimes, the health issues can take a while to catch up, but it’s still playing with fire.
  • Strong cravings: Having strong cravings to drink alcohol, especially at a time when you wouldn’t typically consume it. For example, being at a concert and wanting a beer doesn’t necessarily make you an alcoholic, but being at your nephew’s birthday party and sneaking shots into your cup is a pretty bad sign.
  • Concealing alcohol use: If you or someone you care about has been concealing the amount of alcohol that is being consumed, that’s a very seriously sign. When someone feels like they could be confronted about how much they’re drinking, even if they are functioning just fine, that shows that they probably know that something isn’t quite right.

Using alcohol as a reward: If you find yourself using alcohol as a reward, like “I made it through the day, I earned this” on a regular basis, that can be a warning sign of alcoholism. Now, it’s not terrible rare for people to do something like this, for example after a long week at work, to sit down and enjoy a few glasses of wine to unwind, but when it starts to become more prevalent, and the things you’re getting rewarded for are less and less noteworthy, it’s time to take a step back and evaluate.

Facts About High-Functioning Alcoholics

  • Just short of 20% of alcoholics are believed to fall into the category of being high-functioning
  • Most of them started drinking in their late teenage years
  • Many of them didn’t become alcoholics until their late thirties
  • Most of them will have full-time, stable jobs and solid careers
  • They will have strong relationships with their friends and family
  • They typically drinking every second day, give or take
  • The average high-functioning alcoholic will have 5 drinks at a time
  • Out of every other group of alcoholic, high-functioning alcoholics are most likely to have graduated from college
  • They are also the least likely group of alcoholics to abuse illegal drugs

Keep in mind that these are based on averages, and many people can fall outside of these averages and still fit the category. If you don’t meet all of these criteria, that doesn’t mean you can’t be, or aren’t, a high-functioning person with an alcohol problem.

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