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Signs of a High-functioning Alcoholic: Signs and Symptoms of High-functioning Alcoholism

Alcoholism treatment

Josh gained a reputation as the “life of the party” starting in high school. He and his group of friends started experimenting with alcohol when one of their fathers left a six-pack of light beer unattended in the garage. From that moment, Josh was known for being able to drink the most, drink the quickest, and participate in the wildest of activities to get a laugh.

He carried these traits with him to college, where it was completely acceptable to binge drink on the weekends and engage in all manner of drunken mischief. In many situations, heavy drinking was even encouraged, and Josh wore his ability to drink large amounts of beer like a badge of honor. The thought of his drinking being any sort of problem never crossed his mind because he maintained an unremarkable but acceptable B average in all of his classes.

Fast forward to two years after college graduation, and Josh is thriving as a go-getter in a rapidly expanding marketing firm. The head of the firm takes note of his motivation and charisma, but he also takes note of the three beers Josh regularly orders at company lunches. Again, Josh doesn’t see his drinking as an issue because he consistently ranks at the top of the firm’s list of monthly performers.

As Josh thrives over the next few years, his drinking starts to increase. He’s married his college sweetheart, and they’re expecting their first child. But all is not well, and red flags of alcohol use disorder (AUD) start to pop up left and right. He’s had to deal with many complaints in the office about his temper and drinking on the job. His wife no longer sees his drinking as something that makes him “fun.” She’s starting to see the reality of Josh’s alcohol use as it makes him increasingly selfish and irritable.

Josh’s health is taking a significant hit as well. He’s now in his early thirties but has health issues, such as high blood pressure, that are typically experienced by people who are twice his age. Despite fully feeling the consequences of his years of heavy drinking, he’s still fulfilling all of his obligations at work and home. Everyone in his life can recognize his issue with alcohol, but Josh remains in denial about the root of his life’s problems.

With his first child on the way, it’s becoming increasingly unlikely he’ll be able to balance his life as a productive worker, a supportive husband, a heavy drinker, and a compassionate father.

Josh has lived most of his adult life as what’s known as a “high-functioning alcoholic.” He’s been fully able to carry out the tasks of daily life such as career progression, personal cleanliness, relationships, and participation in social activities without showing the signs and symptoms that are commonly associated with AUD. This doesn’t mean his alcohol use hasn’t had a significant negative impact on his life, it’s just not always outwardly apparent.

What Is a High-functioning Alcoholic? Alcohol Use and Alcoholic Habits on a Spectrum

When you think of someone who is suffering from alcohol use disorder, you may picture a person who’s been abandoned by friends and family, displays a disregard for personal cleanliness, and is unable to hold down a job. The truth is, AUD, like any condition that involves the complexities of human behavior, exists on a spectrum of severity.

The term “high-functioning alcoholic” is not a formal medical diagnosis, but rather a term used to describe a person who is physically or mentally dependent on alcohol but can still function as a member of society. Terms such as “currently functioning” are also used as alcohol use typically becomes worse, and it’s unlikely a person will remain functional forever.

Someone described as a high-functioning alcoholic may appear outwardly healthy both mentally and physically. They may even run marathons or be very involved in fitness. Their alcohol use habits rarely cause them to miss work or other obligations. They are typically able to successfully manage most aspects of life including their jobs, home life, and relationships. That being said, they’re most likely struggling with intrusive alcohol cravings, unsuccessful attempts at quitting drinking, and other negative effects on their physical health and wellbeing.

Signs of a High-functioning Alcoholic: Habits and Traits of High-functioning Alcohol Users

Alcohol use disorders in general can be difficult to identify from the outside. Because alcohol is legal, widely available, and even culturally acceptable in many circles, it can be even more difficult to identify a person who is suffering from a high-functioning form of AUD. That being said, there are certain behaviors that indicate a person may be suffering from an AUD. Those behaviors often overlap with the traits shown by someone who is suffering from a high-functioning form of the condition.

A high-functioning alcoholic will often consume the same amount of alcohol as someone with a crippling AUD. However, they will rarely show the same signs of intoxication. This is because they have developed a physical tolerance to alcohol over time. This means they require more alcohol to feel the effects of the drug. Because of this tolerance, they have to drink increasingly larger amounts in order to feel the “buzz” they desire.

Some other behavioral traits that may indicate someone is suffering from high-functioning alcohol use disorder may include:

  • Memory loss and blacking out from alcohol consumption.
  • Becoming defensive or avoiding any criticism of their alcohol use.
  • Being secretive or deceptive about how much alcohol they consume. This includes drinking alcohol before an event where alcohol isn’t available, hiding alcohol around the house, or drinking when they’re alone.
  • Continuing drinking habits despite negative effects on physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing.
  • Denial of a drinking problem because they’ve experienced no severe consequences due to drinking.
  • Not fitting the typical image of someone with an alcohol use issue, such as maintaining a fit physique or well-groomed appearance.
  • Drinking a large amount of alcoholic beverages without showing signs of being drunk.
  • Drinking at work or during lunch break.
  • Drinking to cope with difficult or stressful situations, or as a reward for doing a good job.
  • Experiencing a strong urge to drink in certain situations where alcohol isn’t available.
  • Taking care of responsibilities at work, at home, or with family or children in spite of drinking habits.
  • Hiding their drinking from coworkers, family members, and friends.
  • Justifying drinking as acceptable if drinking expensive wine and liquor or at upscale events.
  • Lying to themselves or others about the amount or strength of the drinks they consume.
  • Comparing the consequences of their drinking to others who’ve experienced worse in an effort to justify their habits as being “not so bad.”
  • Gaining a reputation for doing a great job at work or home despite excessive alcohol use.

If these habits sound familiar to you or you recognize them in someone you love, it may be helpful to seek advice from compassionate mental health professionals. At SUN Behavioral Delaware, we offer various live-in, outpatient treatment, and even telehealth options so you or a loved one can get the help they deserve.

Alcohol Statistics and the Potential Causes of High-functioning Alcoholism

All types of people from all types of different backgrounds can have alcohol use disorder. Studies conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism report that in 2019, 25.8% of people ages 18 and older reported that they participated in binge drinking in the last month. This same study also found that 14.5 million people ages 12 and older suffered from AUD in 2019 in the United States. Of those people, only about 7.3% sought any treatment for the condition.

There are many reasons why a person may develop alcohol use disorder. A majority of people with AUD are not what would be considered “high-functioning,” but the condition very often stems from the same issues. Some of the issues that may lead to the development of high-functioning AUD include:

  • Having an underlying mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety.
  • Experiencing cultural or peer pressure in regards to drinking alcohol.
  • Having one or more close friends or family members who suffer from AUD.
  • Having high levels of stress, either at home or at work.
  • Having low self-esteem or self-image issues.

Early Intervention Is Key for a Loved One with High-functioning Alcohol Issues

As discussed above, it’s not always easy to spot if a loved one is a high-functioning alcoholic. If you believe they’re showing signs of being a high-functioning alcoholic, you may be wondering what’s the best way to approach such a sensitive situation. One of the best ways to approach the subject is to consider having a frank and open discussion about the impact of their alcohol use. This can help encourage them to seek help from a licensed addiction treatment facility.

Catching and treating alcohol use disorder early on can be key in preventing the issue from progressing further. This can help you or a loved one avoid further mental, physical, and emotional damage due to alcohol use.

SUN Behavioral Delaware Is a Top-Quality Addiction Treatment Center. We’re Here to Help You Quit Drinking and Regain Your Mental and Physical Health.

Even if your alcohol use isn’t at a level where it’s taken over your whole life, we can help you regain complete control. Our team of experts takes the time to understand your situation, then we customize treatment programs and support services to fit your individual needs, no matter your age, gender, or severity of the substance use issue.

At SUN, our facilities offer a comprehensive menu of programs designed to promote health and recovery, and our teams work closely with referring doctors and therapists to ensure patients receive coordinated care in a nurturing, healing environment.

Call us today at 302-207-8762 to get started.


Frequently Asked Questions

What are some signs that a person may be a problem drinker?

If someone experiences memory blackouts, extreme mood swings, makes excuses to drink, chooses drinking over other responsibilities, hides the amount they drink, or gets defensive when their drinking habits are criticized, they may be suffering from issues with alcohol use.

What is the average life expectancy of someone with alcohol use disorder?

The National Institutes of Health has reported the average life expectancy of people hospitalized with alcohol use disorder is 47-53 years for men and 50-58 years for women. On average, people with AUD die 24-28 years earlier than people in the general population.

What qualifies someone as having an alcohol use disorder?

If someone has developed an emotional, physical, or mental reliance on the effects of alcohol, they may qualify as having an AUD. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines heavy drinking as follows: For men, consuming more than 4 drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks per week. For women, consuming more than 3 drinks on any day or more than 7 drinks per week

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