There is a common misconception in our culture that someone who is an “alcoholic” or “addict” is someone who is non-functional, living on the streets, or getting treated in a rehab somewhere. The reality, however, is starkly different from this. In fact, there are many, many people across the world who are alcoholics who you might not know are alcoholics. These people may hide their usage of drugs and alcohol, using and drinking only in secret. Many of these individuals might deem themselves “high functioning alcoholics.”


While high-functioning alcoholics sound like they have their life together and can somehow function despite abusing alcohol, the reality is, that beneath their facade, they are deeply dysfunctional and struggling. Most functioning alcoholics1 simply don’t look like the addicts we have gotten used to seeing in books and movies. People who are sometimes called high-functioning alcoholics can surprise us with the extent of their struggle with alcohol. This is because, on some levels (or at least for some time), they do well in society. High-functioning alcoholics often have great jobs, lots of friends, and a busy life. However, their appearance of being high-functioning is usually a facade, masking a life in which they somehow suffer from despair, depression, and isolation.

You might know someone who seems to struggle with their relationship to alcohol—but who also seems to have it together in most other areas of life. If there is someone you worry might be masking the reality of their struggle, one good place to start is to learn the signs of a functioning alcoholic. When you understand what indicators in a person’s life usually point to the fact that they are struggling with a substance abuse disorder, you’ll be able to have a better understanding of the battle they are fighting (usually completely on their own). You’ll also gain a better understanding of how you might be able to help them help themselves. This will ultimately be a step towards freeing themselves of addiction and ensure they are able to start living life to their fullest potential.

What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

To understand why high-functioning alcoholism is dangerous to begin with, it helps to have a full understanding of alcoholism—or what most professionals call alcohol use disorder today. Essentially, alcohol use disorder is an addiction to alcohol. While no longer a popularly used term, alcoholism essentially means that a person has mental health disorder, and that they use alcohol in a way that impairs their ability to think clearly, regulate their emotions, or function socially or in an occupation. People with alcohol use disorder often have disturbed behavior, and alcohol is usually getting in the way of their development—whether that development is biological or psychological. Alcohol use disorder is an incredibly dangerous, debilitating, and destructive disease.

What Does it Mean to Have Alcohol Use Disorder AND be High-Functioning?

If you understand alcohol use disorder as we have defined it above, it is hard to understand how it could be possible to both have alcohol use disorder and also function well in society. After all, by definition, the disorder significantly impairs your ability to function in many ways. However, there are some individuals who suffer from the disorder whose impairment is only limited to certain areas of their life. So, they are able to present as normal and healthy in other areas.

However, just because the full extent of their disorder is not obvious, it does not mean that alcohol is not a problem for them. In reality, many of these people have practiced, over the years, how to have alcohol in their life in the way that they want, while doing their best to juggle the other most important areas of their life simultaneously. Often, these people struggle in secret, or they are experiencing severe biological consequences that aren’t readily present to the rest of the world. Alternatively, they are going through emotional challenges that it’s impossible to know by simply looking at someone.

Common Misconceptions About Functioning Alcoholics

Because functioning alcoholics are so common, there are many cultural misconceptions about what it means to have alcohol use disorder and also be a high-functioning member of society. Here are some of the most common misconceptions about high-functioning alcoholics. These have helped perpetuate the idea that high-functioning alcoholics can safely manage their alcoholism, or that they do not need as much help as addicts who are functioning poorly.

  • You can’t tell they’re an alcoholic: Very superficially, it might be hard to tell a high-functioning alcoholic is struggling with a substance use disorder. However, if you look beyond the exterior of a high-functioning alcoholic, you will undoubtedly find signs of a problematic relationship with alcohol.
  • You can just call them heavy drinkers: Heavy drinkers differ2 from high-functioning alcoholics. While misuse or overuse of alcohol is never good for a person’s health, there is a true difference between a person who drinks heavily but is not dependent on the substance, and someone who is legitimately addicted to alcohol. This holds even if the person is able to maintain many “normal” aspects of their life.
  • High-functioning alcoholics are actually in control of their addiction: by definition, someone who is addicted to alcohol is not in control of their usage—the substance is controlling their behavior. Even high-functioning alcoholics cannot get their alcohol usage under control. They may feel very out of control in multiple areas of their life, even if they are able to put up a facade of being put together.
  • They don’t need any help: Any person who is struggling with their use of alcohol deserves and needs help. Healing from an addiction on one’s own is incredibly difficult (or potentially impossible). High-functioning alcoholics could benefit from rehab or professional medical help like any alcoholics, and they may need serious medical supervision to help them stop their usage of the substance.

Signs That Someone Might be a High-Functioning Alcoholic

You may know people in your life who drink heavily, but you’re not sure if the behavior is problematic or just a poor health decision they make from time to time. Here are some of the common behavioral signs3 or characteristics of high-functioning alcoholics, beyond the fact that they drink far too much alcohol to be healthy:

  • They are educated, usually at a college level or beyond.
  • They have very structured drinking habits, like only drinking in certain places or situations, or only drinking certain types of alcohol.
  • They believe that their drinking is normal for them and that the level they drink is just their own regular habit, which may vary from other people’s habits.
  • They have good jobs and they usually have decent incomes, which allow them to afford the alcohol they drink.
  • They have other mental health issues they deal with, such as anxiety, anger, depression, and low self-esteem. Often, alcohol is a way that these people self-medicate painful problems.
  • They like to drink alone. This ensures that no one is able to see the extent of their alcohol abuse.
  • They are careful about who sees them drinking and who sees them when they’ve drunk too much, so they can try to stay in control of their image in other people’s eyes.
  • They are married or partnered, and they often have children or a family.

Take This Quiz to Determine If You’re a High-Functioning Alcoholic

Answer the following questions to see if you might be a high-functioning alcoholic. If you find yourself answering “yes” to at least two of the following questions, it may indicate an alcohol use disorder and that you could benefit from getting professional help.

  1. Has alcohol ever caused me to miss school or work?
  2. Do I drink to relax or destress?
  3. Do I drink before social events to feel more confident?
  4. Has my use of alcohol ever ended up causing an argument between me and a loved one?
  5. Do I have a routine regarding my use of alcohol?
  6. Do I ever try to hide my drinking? Will I lie about how much I’ve drunk to people to make it seem like I’ve consumed less than I actually have?
  7. Have I ever tried to cut down on my drinking, but it’s been unsuccessful or only temporary?
  8. Do I feel guilty about the way I use alcohol?
  9. Do I ever black out from drinking alcohol?
  10. Is alcohol affecting my financial situation in any way?
  11. Do people consider me a heavy drinker? Do I have the reputation of being a drinker in social situations?
  12. Have I ever told someone I wasn’t drinking, when I was planning to later or already had?
  13. Has drinking ever resulted in me engaging in risky behaviors, like driving while drunk or going home with a stranger while impaired?
  14. Has my use of alcohol ever caused any legal issues for me?
  15. Have any loved ones exited by my life because they are worried of or disapprove of my drinking?
  16. Have I ever asked someone close to me to lie about the amount I’ve been drinking?
  17. Have I ever told people I was ill when I missed events, but I was actually hungover?

If you’ve answered yes to two or more of the above questions, there’s a good chance that your usage of alcohol is problematic, Consider consulting a medical professional or recovery specialist. If you are able to be open with them about your drinking, they may help you get on the path to sobriety, and ensure that you do it in a safe and healthy way. This is especially valuable since withdrawing from alcohol can be dangerous or even deadly if you try to stop on your own.

Ways to Help a High Functioning Alcoholic in Your Life

If you are not worried about your own alcohol use but you have a feeling that someone you love is a high functioning alcoholic, you may want to step in to do what you can to help them. However, helping anyone get help is tricky. The reality is, a person has to want to get sober in order to get and stay sober. And often, high-functioning alcoholics do not feel ready to admit they have a problem and stop drinking or seek treatment. After all, if their life is going somewhat okay, they most likely won’t want to give up the substance they use for relaxation, stress reduction, entertainment, etc.

However, if you want to help a high-functioning alcoholic4 in your life get on a path to a safer, healthier, happier existence, there are some ways you can offer your support. Here are some of the best things to keep in mind if you decide you want to help a functioning alcoholic get better.

Do Not Enable Their Drinking

It is easy to slip into a codependent relationship with a high-functioning alcoholic. A co-dependent relationship involves your enabling their drinking—or helping them to seem as normal and okay as possible so that you can try to maintain the status quo. If you’ve determined that you love a high-functioning alcoholic, avoid the following behaviors so that they are forced to confront their problem and be accountable for their actions:

  • Don’t make excuses for how they act when intoxicated.
  • Don’t try to convince the alcoholic to stop drinking with emotional threats or passive-aggressive behavior.
  • Don’t try to control their drinking by purchasing alcohol and monitoring how much of it they consume.
  • Don’t neglect your own needs to ensure the alcoholic stays as safe, healthy, and comfortable as possible. The best thing you can do in this situation is take care of yourself.
  • Don’t pay for the alcoholic’s expenses. Don’t buy the alcohol, pay court fees or fines, etc. Make sure the addict feels the full financial effects of their drinking.

Get Support From Others

It can be tempting to keep someone’s drinking a secret if they are high-functioning. After all, you don’t want to disrupt the parts of their life that are actually working. But in order to stay healthy and get the addict help, you need to seek out the support of other people. Confide in a loved one or friend. Go to a support group for people who love alcoholics, like Al-Anon, or speak to a counselor or therapist. Getting support can ensure that you stay healthy and safe while you do the best you can to encourage your struggling loved one towards recovery.

Consider an Intervention

With the help of a professional, you may be able to hold an intervention5 At an intervention, loved ones confront an addict and demand they seek treatment. During the intervention, people explain to an addict how their drinking has affected everyone’s lives. They also lay out consequences of what will happen if the addict refuses to seek recovery (e.g. they may cut off contact with the addict, refuse to let the addict into their home or work, etc.) If an intervention is led by a professional interventionist who knows how to control a high-stakes, highly emotional confrontation like this one, it can be very successful at convincing someone to enter treatment. This holds true even if they hadn’t admitted to themselves before the intervention that they need it.

Seeing the Signs of a Functioning Alcoholic? Windward Way Recovery Can Help

So, you know the signs of a functioning alcoholic, and you’re pretty sure someone you know and love is battling their alcohol usage on their own. You may want to try to hold an intervention, and you may want to start doing what you can to take care of yourself—to ensure you are no longer enabling the drinker.

If you aren’t quite sure yet if you or your loved one has the signs of a functioning alcoholic, or you are thinking about treatment for a functioning alcoholic, one good choice is to look into professional treatment with Windward Way Recovery today. At Windward Way Recovery, we treat a wide range of individuals struggling with addiction—whether they are addicted to alcohol, drugs, or other harmful behaviors or substances. Our experts at Windward Way Recovery can help walk people through their journey to sobriety, teach them how to withstand physical discomfort from withdrawal (or treat it medically); stand by them as they practice riding out cravings; and demonstrate how to rebuild a truly fulfilling life that does not have alcohol 6 a part of it.

If you have questions about the best way you can help someone you love (or even yourself), please don’t hesitate to contact us today. We can explain all of our recovery programs to you so you can understand how they help addicts shed their harmful, dangerous addictions, and go on to live meaningful, thriving, happy, and healthy lives.

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