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Functioning Alcoholic

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The Disease of Alcoholism

Alcohol is a highly addictive and frequently abused substance that is fairly normalized in American culture. It is not uncommon to visit a friend or family member’s house and be offered a drink, a beer, or a glass of wine. While drinking in moderation is low-risk, alcohol abuse can be dangerous and have many long-term effects on the body.

Some people have no problem drinking in moderation. These individuals are able to stop drinking and go about their day. Others have the inability to control the amount they drink and how often they drink, and, in the meantime, they wreak havoc on every aspect of their lives.

Many people think it is easy to spot an alcoholic. They may think of a jobless or homeless person carrying a brown paper bag. However, business executives, doctors, CEOs, lawyers, teachers, and other functioning professionals can also struggle with alcohol abuse. When these individuals become hooked on alcohol but are still able to manage their daily obligations, they may be referred to as functioning alcoholics.

What is a Functioning Alcoholic?

Functional alcoholics typically do not fit the stereotypical definition of an alcoholic. Instead, they are much better at hiding their addiction. These individuals can function normally and carry out day-to-day tasks while managing an addiction to alcohol. A functional alcoholic may even excel in his or her career and seem to be very successful.

Since these individuals go about their day, go to work, go to school, and/or care for their families, people often fail to suspect them of having a drinking problem. If these individuals drink openly in front of other people, their friends and family may not be concerned because the person still seems to have his or her priorities straight. They may even be able to maintain their relationships, social status, and physical health.

Moreover, these individuals are more reluctant to seek treatment for their drinking because they don’t encounter the same consequences as other people do. Most alcoholics will struggle to maintain healthy relationships, have run-ins with the law, or see their mental health and ability to function deteriorate significantly. A functional alcoholic, on the other hand, doesn’t experience the same problems, and when they do, the problems are of a lesser degree.

As a result, many functional alcoholics will go on drinking for many years until they do irreparable damage to their health. That is why it is vital to be able to spot the signs and symptoms of this type of drinker.

How to Spot a High-Functioning Alcoholic

When a person reaches “rock-bottom,” obtains multiple DUIs, or goes into liver failure, it is easy to label them as an alcoholic. A functioning alcoholic, on the other hand, is much better at hiding a drinking problem and maintaining the facade of a normal life. They may seem completely healthy. However, on the inside, a functional alcoholic will struggle with cravings, obsessive thoughts, and failed attempts at stopping drinking.

Additional signs and symptoms of functioning alcoholism include:

  • Appearing nervous, irritable, or agitated when events or meetings run over their scheduled time because it prevents the person from being able to drink
  • Drinking longer or more than intended on multiple occasions
  • Making jokes about being an alcoholic or drinking like an alcoholic
  • Stockpiling alcohol in secret or hiding empty bottles or receipts from loved ones
  • Using everything as an excuse to drink including mealtime, weekends, end of workday, failures, successes, etc.
  • Drinking before work or social events
  • Getting angry or defensive when confronted about a drinking problem
  • Blacking out from drinking on regular occasions
  • Becoming ill with withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
  • Having memory lapses due to frequent alcohol consumption


The more a person drinks over an extended period of time, the more alcohol his or her body will be able to tolerate. And, even though a functional alcoholic may drink just as much as any other alcoholic, he or she may not exhibit any outward symptoms of alcohol intoxication. Functional alcoholics may have an extremely high tolerance that contributes to the fact that they can function well while still being under the influence of alcohol.


Denial is a common feature among all people who struggle with substance use disorder. When it comes to the functional alcoholic, their sense of denial may be even stronger. They often don’t struggle financially or socially, so they have avoided many of the negative consequences of their drinking. They may completely believe that they don’t have a drinking problem or be able to rehearse a list of excuses as to why they drink in the first place. Since denial can be so strong, this type of drinker may require an alcohol abuse intervention.


There are many risk factors that can increase a person’s chance of becoming an alcoholic. While most functioning alcoholics are middle-aged, educated, working individuals with stable jobs and families, people are more likely to abuse alcohol if they:

  • Binge drink
  • Experience high levels of chronic stress
  • Struggle with mental health conditions
  • Have a parent or loved one who suffers from alcoholism
  • Have low self-esteem
  • Are a survivor or trauma
  • Living with an Alcoholic

Living With a Functional Alcoholic

functioning alcoholic

Alcoholics who can successfully hide their drinking are particularly concerning because they could end up drinking longer than most and causing irreversible damage to their health. It may be difficult for this person to get help because they may be in denial and their loved ones may not realize something is wrong. Usually, the first person to recognize a subtle alcohol problem is someone who lives with the alcoholic, such as a parent, child, spouse, or roommate.

Many functional alcoholics work a successful career, are leaders in the workplace, are responsible with their finances, and easy to get along with. When living with one, however, another side of the drinker may come out. Some signs to look out for that may be apparent while living with an alcoholic include:

  • Drinking early in the day
  • Drinking immediately after getting home every day
  • Getting sick from hiding
  • Hiding liquor bottles around the house
  • Stealing liquor or money from others in the home
  • Experiencing frequent hangovers
  • Drinking a lot but not seeming intoxicated
  • Being irritable before having a drink
  • Suffering from depression and/or anxiety

If an alcohol problem is suspected, but the individual refuses to admit a problem or get help, an intervention may be required to convince the individual to seek treatment.

Treatment for Functioning Alcoholic

Depending on the severity of the person’s alcohol use disorder (AUD), alcoholism can be treated at inpatient or outpatient rehab. First, however, patients should detox at an alcohol detox program so they can avoid potentially severe symptoms.

Treatment for a functioning alcoholic will involve behavioral therapy to help uncover the reasons why the person drinks in their first place. It will also involve life-skills therapy to help the individual learn how to function successfully without using alcohol as a crutch.

In addition to counseling and behavioral therapy, having a strong support group is critical. Support groups can be found in alumni groups, 12-Step meetings, or church programs. High-functioning alcoholics are often able to overcome their alcoholism with the help of therapy and peer support.

Alcohol Rehab in Massachusetts

Alcoholism can be deadly, even to those who are functioning well with a job, home, family, and social life. Over time, people who continue to drink are prone to developing mental and physical health conditions that can severely impact their lives. Left untreated, any alcoholic will become progressively worse.

At Elevate Recovery Center, our alcohol treatment program utilizes evidence-based therapies that can help functioning alcoholics learn to function without depending on a drink. To learn more about our treatment programs or to find an alcohol rehab near you, pick up the phone and call us today.


Valerie Tecci, Program Director

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We believe everyone struggling with substance use disorder deserves the treatment they need. Our team is here to help you every step of the way.

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