Understanding High-Functioning Alcoholics

A high-functioning alcoholic  is someone who habitually drinks an unhealthy amount of alcohol while maintaining some level of professional and personal success. According to a government survey, about 20% of alcoholics in America are high-functioning alcoholics. Many of them are successful at work and at home, and sometimes their friends and family don’t even know that they have a problem.

A high-functioning alcoholic might hold down a job and have a family despite an underlying struggle with alcohol addiction.
High-functioning alcoholics often hide the severity of their abuse from friends and loved ones.

Many high-functioning alcoholics will deny their struggle with alcohol addiction. Some might even think alcohol helps them achieve success by making them more social or charming. High-functioning alcoholics are often unaware of their behavior’s impact on those closest to them.

It is important to understand that these people’s achievements are earned in spite of — not because of — alcohol use. Regardless of personal success, prolonged alcohol abuse carries serious health risks and poses many negative consequences. Unfortunately, a combination of denial and a lack of support from their family and friends often prevents high-functioning alcoholics from ever getting treatment. Nevertheless, high-functioning alcoholics face medical and legal risks from drinking excessively. For example, high-functioning alcoholic are more likely to drink and drive and develop cirrhosis from binge drinking.

High-Functioning Alcoholism in Popular Culture

The high-functioning alcoholic is an often-celebrated but problematic character type in the media. Popular TV programs like Mad Men depict advertising executives, lawyers, bankers and financial advisers balancing success and heavy alcohol use without consequences. The stereotype becomes more troublesome when contrasted to its counterpart, the rock bottom alcoholic. This contrast suggests acceptable, “charming” types of alcohol disuse as well as unacceptable, “bad” ones. This cannot be further from the truth.

There is no “best form” of alcoholism.

Regardless of success or personal achievements, everyone is vulnerable to alcohol’s mental and physical harms. These might include liver and brain damage, various forms of cancer and stroke. Learn the extensive side effects of alcohol abuse and addiction.

Signs of High-Functioning Alcoholism

High-functioning alcoholics often hide their struggles from loved ones and may be in denial. High-functioning alcoholics have built a resistance to alcohol’s sedative effects so they may not appear intoxicated. There are signs of alcoholism to look for in friends or loved ones, including:

  • Drinking to feel confident or relax
  • Hiding alcohol, denying heavy drinking, or becoming angry during confrontations
  • “Morning drinking” or drinking alone
  • Losing close friends or missing work or school
  • Causing friends and family to make excuses for or worry about their drinking
  • Having lapses in memory while drinking
  • Joking about alcoholism or about having a drinking problem
  • Drinking when they hadn’t intended to

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders outlines criteria identifying substance use disorders. Learn how professionals diagnose an alcohol problem.

Confronting a High-Functioning Alcoholic

It can be difficult to acknowledge that a friend or loved one is struggling with an alcohol addiction. After recognizing that someone needs help, it is important to approach them about their behavior. An intervention specialist can help a defensive high-functioning alcoholic see the truth about their addiction. Learn more about staging an intervention.

It is important to remember to confront high-functioning alcoholics when they are sober. During an intervention, you should be assertive and clearly explain how your loved one’s alcoholism has negatively impacted you, them, and everyone else you both know. However, avoid making accusations or seeming judgmental. After all, you are trying to help this person and convince them to seek treatment. Emphasize to your loved one that they will suffer even worse consequences from their alcoholism in the future if they fail to change. When the high-functioning attempts to make excuses, engage in denial, or attack you, respond with calmness and honesty. Eventually, your loved-one will realize that they have a problem, if they haven’t realized it already, and they might agree to try rehab.