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The general public tends to believe alcohol use disorder (AUD) stereotypes. They assume alcoholics look or act a certain way. Although some of these stereotypes are based in fact, they don’t apply when a person is a functional alcoholic.

Functional alcoholics, also called high-functioning or working alcoholics, look and act just like their peers. They might look healthy and be able to maintain a steady job. To recognize a problem with alcohol, you must look very closely. In some cases, only those who are living with them will know there is a problem. These people are high-functioning alcoholics.

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What is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

High-functioning alcoholics meet the criteria of having an alcohol use disorder (AUD), but they are still capable of maintaining their work and personal life.

They might be college-educated, have partners or be married, and have jobs with relatively good salaries. They tend to restrict their use and abuse of alcohol to specific situations or times. This presents the illusion that they are in control of their alcohol use.

Many functional alcoholics convince those around them that their drinking is not problematic, but they still suffer from the effects of their substance abuse. They minimize the problems they experienced caused by their alcohol consumption. Many even believe the problems would exist for them with or without alcohol.

Functional alcoholics might have co-occurring mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety.

In many instances, the functional alcoholic will have a family member, often a spouse, cover for them when alcohol-related issues arise. For example, one’s spouse might call in sick when the functional alcoholic has a hangover.

Functional alcoholics might also isolate themselves from other people in order to spend time alone drinking.

A functional alcoholics disorder has yet to create most of the noticeable effects of alcoholism. They likely experience negative consequences caused by alcohol abuse, but these things do not interfere with their functioning in everyday life.

High-functioning alcoholics tend to drink a moderate amount of alcohol consistently throughout the day without getting drunk. This ongoing stream of alcohol into their system usually keeps cravings at bay and prevents withdrawal symptoms. Some might binge, but it tends to be on the weekends or at night when it doesn’t affect their work.

Three characteristics of high-functioning alcoholics include:

  • Inability to limit alcohol intake to one drink
  • Replacing meals with alcohol
  • Hiding the amount of alcohol consumed

Functional alcoholics appear healthy even though they consume a higher-than-healthy amount of alcohol. They could spend years avoiding the consequences of heavy drinking, but eventually, their alcohol consumption will negatively affect their body. Many high-functioning alcoholics only realize they had a long-term problem when they are older and their liver, heart, and brain health are damaged.

Though it might seem as if a high-functioning alcoholic’s problem is not as severe as other types of alcoholics because they can maintain a job, a family, a social life, and appear “normal,” they have an addiction to alcohol. It has just progressed differently and they have learned to manage it better.

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Characteristics of High-Functioning Alcoholics

Every person with an alcohol use disorder experiences a unique combination of symptoms and side effects. There is no “typical alcoholic” and it could be impossible to identify someone with alcohol use disorder without knowing him or her very well. This is especially true if a person is a functional alcoholic. In many cases, only close friends and family, and maybe only a person’s spouse recognizes the signs of a problem.

There are several things you might notice if you or a loved one is a high-functioning alcoholic. For instance, high-functioning alcoholics tend to use alcohol:

  • To boost confidence
  • To relax
  • First thing in the morning
  • Alone
  • Everyday
  • For binging

A high-functioning alcoholic might also:

  • Deny or diminish the amount of alcohol he or she is drinking
  • Joke about having an alcohol problem
  • Drink enough to cause a blackout
  • Get arrested for drinking while under the influence of alcohol
  • Miss school or work without a legitimate reason
  • Get confrontational or upset about inquiries into his or her alcohol consumption

There’s a misconception that high-functioning alcoholics do not experience the same consequences as other types of alcoholics. This is not true. They might perform better at work and hide their alcohol use disorder better than others, but eventually, there are negative consequences.

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What Causes a Person to Become a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

An alcohol use disorder can develop quickly or progressively. The earlier a person begins drinking the more likely he or she is to develop a dependence on alcohol. Several environmental and genetic factors affect a person’s risk of developing alcohol use disorder, including:

  • Genetics
  • Family history of alcohol use disorder
  • Home life
  • School or work environment
  • Stress and stress management ability
  • Social relationships
  • Exposure to peer alcohol consumption
  • Cultural or religious views

Whether or not a person can function or not in response to his or her alcohol use disorder is unpredictable. Some people develop an addiction and have obvious problems shortly after, while others can abuse alcohol for decades without major problems.

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Is Treatment Necessary for High-Functioning Alcoholics?

Alcohol use disorder is progressive. It might develop quickly or gradually, but without treatment, it will get worse. Therefore everyone with alcohol use disorder needs treatment. Without intervention, it is only a matter of time before a high-functioning alcoholic becomes non-functioning.

High-functioning alcoholics tend to believe they do not need treatment. In rare cases, this type of alcoholic might passively seek support, but because of their ability to function, they never receive a diagnosis.

This is unfortunate because treatment is the best way to get alcohol use disorder under control. Treatment also makes it possible to avoid long-term risks, something all alcoholics eventually develop.

In addition, functional alcoholics often require corroboration from family members or friends (particularly spouses) to engage in their behavior. Some sources refer to these types of relationships as codependent, although this is not a formal diagnosis but more of a descriptive term that is used to identify patterns of interaction that occur in individuals with dysfunctional relationships.

Even functioning alcoholics who never experience major problems are not living their best life. Some people compare it to living with untreated depression or anxiety. Life goes on, but it’s always less than it could be and the person never feels his or her best. With treatment, high-functioning alcoholics can better manage their disorder and reach their full potential.

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