High-functioning alcoholics deny their drinking is a problem, swayed by their success. Here’s how to identify the warning signs, avoid codependency and seek support.

Alcoholism can take a devastating toll on a person’s physical health, emotional well-being, personal relationships and professional life. However, many alcoholics manage to function effectively, holding down jobs and maintaining households. A high-functioning alcoholic may hide their alcohol abuse for years without suffering any major losses. Under the surface, this form of alcoholism can cause severe psychological and emotional damage to the alcoholic and also their loved ones..

There are at least two categories of people involved in alcoholism:

  1. Functioning alcoholics (high-functioning alcoholics)
  2. Individuals who struggle with living a normal life as a result of their alcoholism

Functional alcoholics differ from those who struggle with alcoholism, primarily in how alcohol affects their lives. If you’re the loved one of someone in either group, it’s important to know how to deal with an alcoholic effectively if you want to help them get well.

Whether you have an alcoholic spouse, partner or other loved one, you may be wondering how to help. High-functioning alcoholics can benefit from having an at-home support system before, during and after any form of treatment for their addiction. There are hundreds of resources all over the country designed to address the issue of alcohol abuse and addiction. These include 24-hour hotlines, detox centers and rehab facilities.

Article at a Glance

  • High-functioning alcoholics are able to excel at work and maintain good relationships despite their addiction.
  • Many high-functioning alcoholics are in denial about their problem because they have avoided the negative consequences of drinking.
  • Warning signs of a high-functioning alcoholic are drinking alone, drinking in the morning and using alcohol for confidence.
  • High-functioning alcoholism affects everyone in a household – not just the drinker.
  • It may be necessary to plan an intervention to encourage a high-functioning alcoholic to get treatment.

What Is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

When hearing the word “alcoholic,” most people picture someone whose life is in disarray because they drink too much. Not all alcoholics fall into this stereotype. There’s another type of alcoholic: the high-functioning alcoholic. High-functioning alcoholics often seem to have everything going for them. They drink too much, but they excel at work and have good relationships with family and friends. Their success often works against them, making them think they have their drinking under control based on their achievements. Eventually, whether it takes months or years, alcoholism catches up with them.

What Makes Dealing with High-Functioning Alcoholics so Challenging?

Functional alcoholics are often in deep denial about their problem. After all, they have managed to maintain the appearance of success despite their addiction. But most high-functioning alcoholics have friends or loved ones who help them cover up the consequences of their drinking. These individuals may unconsciously encourage or enable the alcoholic’s behavior by allowing the alcoholic to avoid the negative consequences of destructive drinking.

What Percentage of Alcoholics are Functioning or High Functioning Alcoholics?

Nearly 20% of alcoholics are highly functional and well-educated with good incomes. Because these types of users appear stable and mostly unaffected by their drinking, the steps to effectively confront a functioning alcoholic and work with them on their behaviors can be even more difficult.

Warning Signs of a High-Functioning Alcoholic

High-functioning alcoholics will rarely admit that they have a problem. But if someone in your life has three or more alcoholic beverages per day (two or more for women), they are consuming more than the recommended amount. U.S. Dietary Guidelines define moderate drinking as one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. Binge drinking is defined as having four or more beverages in one drinking episode for women and five or more beverages for men (a typical drinking episode is around two hours).

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that nearly 20% of all alcoholics may be classified as “high-functioning.” High-functioning alcoholics tend to display specific behaviors that can help you identify this problem:

  • Uses alcohol for confidence
  • Drinks in the morning
  • Drinks alone
  • Drinks too much
  • Blacks out while drinking
  • Physical signs of alcohol withdrawal
  • Has a record of DUI arrests
  • Jokes about having an alcohol problem
  • Misses school or work for unexplained reasons
  • Gets angry when confronted about alcohol problems

Functional alcoholics are often intelligent, hardworking and well-educated. Their professional status or personal success can make it hard to approach them about having a “problem” with alcohol. However, it is impossible to continue drinking heavily for a long period of time without suffering the physical and psychological consequences of alcoholism, such as liver disease, heart disease, neurological damage, cancer or depression.

Typical Stages of High-Functioning Alcoholism

Stage 1: Using Alcohol as a Coping Mechanism

While many people enjoy having a few drinks occasionally, a functioning alcoholic takes this a step further. They begin to rely on alcohol to manage the stressors of a normal workday or to numb the effects of mental health issues like depression or anxiety. They may use alcohol “just to get going” or to “take the edge off.”

Functional alcoholics drink to feel better.

While their appearance may not be any different and they can still fulfill their responsibilities, you’ll start to see a pattern develop of turning to alcohol to cope with family, work or personal issues.

Stage 2: Increased Alcohol Tolerance

People can have a varied reaction and tolerance to alcohol and that doesn’t necessarily mean they are alcoholics. However, as functioning alcoholics drink more regularly, they develop a higher tolerance. They still want to feel the buzz or numb out from their problems for a while, so they will begin drinking more as their tolerance to alcohol increases.

You may begin to notice that a couple of beers after work has turned into a six-pack or even a case. Or, a glass of wine has become the bottle. As time goes on and tolerance increases, they may attempt to hide the growing problem, and a growing number of empty bottles or cans, from friends and family.

Stage 3: Excuses

As their reliance on alcohol increases, you may begin to notice that your loved one downplays the role alcohol has in their lives and makes excuses for their actions, especially their drinking.

They may also withdraw from social situations and find excuses to miss events or optional commitments where drinking is not available or possible.  There may also be new legal issues arising for them, like driving under the influence or making other poor decisions.

Stage 4: Physical Consequences

Liver damage is the most talked about physical consequence and that is a concern almost immediately. Alcoholics can go on to develop heart, respiratory and gastrointestinal disorders. There can also be declines in their mental and overall health, especially if they’re not eating healthy diets or engaging in physical activity.

Even though they may want to stop, many functioning alcoholics often won’t know where or how to begin the process. This is where family, friends and medical professionals can work together to create a plan to help end this cycle before they do more harm to themselves.

Related Topic: Am I an alcoholic

Living with an Alcoholic and Avoiding Codependency

Many spouses, significant others, parents and children of high-functioning alcoholics fall into the trap of codependency, in which they protect the alcoholic from the consequences of the disease. Codependents sacrifice their own needs to maintain a facade of normalcy at home. Typical codependent behaviors include:

  • Making excuses for the alcoholic’s actions: “I’m afraid she’s too sick to come to your party,” or “He’s really not that mean all the time, he’s just under a lot of stress.”
  • Covering the alcoholic’s expenses: paying legal fees, traffic tickets or fines that the alcoholic incurred.
  • Hiding the consequences of heavy drinking: cleaning up messes or washing soiled clothes before the alcoholic is sober enough to see them.
  • Trying to manipulate the alcoholic into changing: making emotional threats or using passive-aggressive behavior to make the alcoholic feel guilty.
  • Trying to control the alcoholic’s drinking: keeping a large supply of alcohol at home or drinking with the alcoholic to keep an eye on him.
  • Pretending that your own needs don’t matter: denying that the alcoholic has hurt you emotionally or physically, or that you weren’t disappointed by their failure to meet commitments.

Consciously or unconsciously, the codependent may help the alcoholic to continue drinking to maintain the status quo. Many high-functioning alcoholics earn a good living and can support their families while continuing to drink. Intervening in the addictive behavior may be seen as a threat to the family’s financial security — even if the family must put up with emotional neglect or physical abuse. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics noted that nearly 60% of violent incidents against a domestic partner or family member were committed under the influence of alcohol.

The best cure for codependency is a strong, healthy sense of self. Individual therapy, combined with marriage or family counseling, can strengthen your self-esteem and help you build a healthy, sober relationship.

Seeking Support From Others

If someone close to you is a high-functioning alcoholic, it’s just as important to seek support for yourself as it is to get help for your loved one. You likely have questions about how to deal with an alcoholic, or how to help an alcoholic. Self-help organizations, church groups, and 12-step programs like Al-Anon and Alateen offer advice, hope and encouragement to people involved with functioning alcoholics.

Alcoholism affects everyone in a household — not just the individual who drinks. Alcohol abuse increases the risk of physical and emotional violence, as well as substance abuse in other family members. An addiction therapist can help you find positive ways to deal with the stress of living with a functional alcoholic.

Holding an Intervention

If the consequences of high-functioning alcoholism have become overwhelming, and your loved one refuses to seek help for alcohol abuse, it could be time to plan an intervention. An intervention is a planned meeting in which the concerned parties confront the alcoholic about their behavior.

The goals of an intervention include:

  • Getting the alcoholic to see how drinking has harmed them and their loved ones
  • Presenting the alcoholic with a plan for recovery
  • Proposing consequences if the alcoholic refuses to seek treatment
  • Helping the alcoholic take the right steps to enter treatment

The participants in an intervention could include the alcoholic’s spouse or partner, children, parents, friends, coworkers, employer, friends and other individuals who have been affected. A substance abuse counselor, family therapist or spiritual advisor may also attend to provide an objective presence and keep the agenda on track.

Although an intervention can take many forms, many of these meetings open with each participant stating how the alcoholic’s behavior has harmed or disappointed them. The alcoholic is then presented with a plan of care, including a proposal of consequences if they decide to refuse. For instance, the alcoholic may be denied visitation rights or may be faced with a marital separation if he decides not to seek help. An alcoholic in denial may become extremely manipulative, tearful, angry or hostile when faced with the need for alcohol treatment. An experienced intervention specialist can help the participants prepare for these reactions so they can respond effectively.

Alcohol Treatment with Dr. Wandler

Getting the Help You Need

When you’re living with a high-functioning alcoholic, your own health is at stake as well as the welfare of your loved one. By getting help for your loved one, you may be able to avoid further consequences of alcoholism and build a healthier future for your family.

Treatment programs at The Recovery Village include a full spectrum of alcohol recovery services, from alcohol detox to rehab, aftercare and sober housing. When you’re ready to seek help, or if you have questions about how to live with an alcoholic, we’re here for you. Contact us today to learn more about our treatment options.

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Editor – Melissa Carmona
Melissa Carmona puts years of writing and editing experience to work helping people understand substance abuse, addiction and mental health disorders. Read more
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Dr. Jessica Pyhtila is a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist based in Baltimore, Maryland with practice sites in inpatient palliative care and outpatient primary care at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Read more

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: Appendix 9.” December 2015. Accessed May 11, 2020.

National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes.” June 28, 2007. Accessed May 11, 2020.

U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. “Alcohol And Crime: Data From 2002 To 2008.” July 28, 2010. Accessed May 11, 2020.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.