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High Functioning Alcoholic: 10 Signs That Booze is a “Behind-the-Scenes” Problem

The popular stereotype of someone suffering from alcoholism is a person that’s lost everything because of the bottle, his or her job, family, health, home and self-respect. Though there might be a grain of truth in that stereotype, the reality, as always, is more complex.

Someone who is a high functioning alcoholic, sometimes called a “working alcoholic,” is able to conceal and manage their disease of addiction in a way that staves off many of the personal, professional and legal consequences of alcoholism, at least temporarily.

Signs of a High Functioning Alcoholic

In the end, though, high functioning alcoholics are battling an illness just as serious as the person who has lost everything because of drinking and left untreated, the disease of addiction will always take a devastating toll.

10 Signs of a Functioning Alcoholic

1. Denial of a Problem

Because their life seems relatively normal and productive on the surface, working alcoholics tend to be in denial with themselves and others that their drinking is a problem, despite obvious indications.

Even those that aren’t high-functioning drinkers sometimes live in denial, but it’s a bigger issue for working alcoholics.

2. A High Functioning Alcoholic Likes to Drink Alone

Regularly drinking alone is a way to avoid scrutiny or judgment from concerned friends, loved ones or colleagues.

Drinking alone at home relieves the pressure and difficulty of moderating or limiting their alcohol intake.

They can relax and enjoy drinking without worrying that others will notice how much they’ve had to drink.

3. Binge Drinking

A functioning alcoholic may not drink at all during the week, but has a habit of binge drinking on the weekends.

For men, binge drinking is considered 4 drinks in a day and for women, it’s 3 drinks.

On a weekly basis, 14 or more drinks a week for men, and 7 or more drinks in a week is considered binge drinking.

4. Drinking Every Night

Consuming alcohol every evening as a way to cope with the pressure and stress of day-to-day responsibilities is a hallmark symptom of high-functioning alcoholism.

Many people can drink every night without issue, although it catches up to almost everyone in the long run.

5. Maintenance Drinking to Avoid Withdrawal Symptoms

Maintenance drinking, or taking “nips” of alcohol during the day, not necessarily to get drunk, but to stave off symptoms of alcohol withdrawal is often a sign that a person might be a functional alcoholic.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms are often a signal that alcohol use is beyond a normal limit.

6. Crave Social Gatherings Where Alcohol is Present

Functional alcoholics are very comfortable in social settings or at functions where it’s acceptable for people to be drinking alcohol and they tend to seek them out.

Because everyone is drinking in these situations, they are in their comfort zone and they don’t look out of place.

7. Avoiding Public Drinking

Even though they are able to easily mask their drinking problems, many functioning alcoholics prefer to not drink in public, and instead opt for relaxing at a friend’s house who shares the same affection for beer, wine, or cocktails.

They can let their guard down because they’re with similar company.

8. Making Jokes About Alcohol and Drinking

Regularly joking with others about how they “drink too much” or “have a drinking problem” as a way to cover or lessen the reality of the problem is a warning sign that a person has an issue with drinking.

There’s no reason to joke about drinking, and people that don’t have a hidden worry about it rarely mention the subject.

9. Using Alcohol as a Coping Mechanism to Self Medicate

Using alcohol as a coping mechanism to self-medicate the symptoms of depression, anxiety, or stress is often a troubling sign, especially if it becomes habitual.

The combination of alcohol misuse and a mental health condition is referred to as a co-occurring disorder and requires dual diagnosis treatment.

10. High Tolerance to Alcohol

Having an incredibly high tolerance to alcohol because of the frequency in which they drink signifies that a person is more than just a moderate drinker.

Building up a tolerance for any substance represents a functional change in the brain and that a dependence or addiction might be present.

Consequences and Treatment of Alcoholism

Nearly 20 million adults in the U.S. suffered from a substance use disorder, such as alcoholism, in 2017, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health put out about the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

For functioning-alcoholics, there is very often an underlying mental health issue, such as depression, anxiety or untreated symptoms from past trauma, that drive addictive behaviors.

The presence of a mental health condition and an alcohol use disorder create a cycle that makes each condition worse.

This type of addiction, while hidden, also comes with serious consequences on a person’s physical health, especially later in life.

Chronic alcohol consumption is linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, liver problems and a number of different types of cancers. A high functioning alcoholic, like others battling alcoholism, has a substantially shorter life span.

Fortunately, treatment for alcohol addiction can be effective. Therapies, such as one-on-one counseling, group counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) help working alcoholics to address the underlying issues that lead to self-destructive behavior and live a happy, healthy life in recovery from alcoholism.


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