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How To Get A High-Functioning Alcoholic Into Treatment

Debra Wallace, MA.Ed, LPCC-S, LICDC-CS

Medically reviewed by

Debra Wallace, MA.Ed, LPCC-S, LICDC-CS

March 21, 2018

Many high-functioning alcoholics may not even be aware that they have a drinking problem. Knowing the signs of alcoholism and how to spot a high-functioning alcoholic can help save a loved one’s life.

Like a “typical” alcoholic, high-functioning alcoholics (HFAs) suffer from alcohol addiction but the signs can be more difficult to spot. Despite the fact that a person suffering from alcoholism’s job and life may begin to fall apart from drinking, an HFA can be very successful. Because of this, far too often HFAs slip through the cracks and don’t get the help they so desperately need. Many HFAs don’t realize they have a problem. Learning how to spot the signs of a high-functioning alcoholic can enable you to better help your loved one get the treatment they need.

An HFA appears to keep their life together while struggling with addiction in secret. Contrasting the adverse affects of the more well-recognized form of alcohol addiction, from the outside, an HFA appears to be in control. Instead of losing their grip on their career, schooling, or family responsibilities, most HFAs stay on top of these things. Not just this, but many even excel within their careers or educational pursuits.

Is A High-Functioning Alcoholic Really An Alcoholic?

Society has painted a picture of the stereotypical alcoholic as an individual whose life is in shambles from alcohol abuse. This misconception fuels the misinformed mindset that surrounds HFAs. It also prevents far too many people from getting the help they need, when they need it.

Even though they may not struggle in obvious ways, HFA’s drinking behaviors are still considered harmful and compulsive drinking. An HFA has an alcohol addiction, no matter what he or anyone else thinks. In 2007 the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism identified five sub-types of alcoholism, one of which was functional. At that time, this sub-type accounted for nearly two out of ten people with alcohol addiction.

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What Are The Signs Of A High-Functioning Alcoholic?

The lifestyle of a high-functioning alcoholic is like a cleverly crafted disguise. An HFA might not (or very rarely) miss work from a hangover or lose their job. They may continue to pay their bills on time instead of using the money for booze. These individuals may not have a falling out with their loved ones over their drinking and may remain very involved within their family life and social circles.

Here are some common behaviors and signs of an HFA. A person(’s):

  • Jokes about having a drinking problem.
  • Conversations revolve around alcohol
  • Sets boundaries separating their drinking from their professional or personal lives.
  • Hides alcohol or lies about their drinking.
  • Drinks on a daily basis or binge drinks.
  • Becomes intoxicated after what appears to be their first or second drink, hinting that they were drinking secretly prior to “starting.”
  • Acts strangely or out of character when they begin drinking.
  • Experiences periods of memory loss after drinking or “blackouts.”
  • Becomes excessively angry or emotional if you bring up their drinking.
  • Sleep patterns and quality are poor.
  • Hands shake or they become ill with no clear cause (signs of withdrawal).
  • Is often irritable or anxious (this happens when they abstain from drinking).
  • Misses work or important social events without a clear, good reason.

An HFA commonly makes excuses for why they drink (e.g. work was stressful or to celebrate success). By doing so, they are indirectly reminding you that they do well at their job. They’re also using their hard work as an excuse to consume alcohol. When confronted, they may be quick to point out their success at work and question how they could do so well if they really had a drinking problem.

Why Do They Need Help?

Being an HFA isn’t a magic bullet. It can’t protect a person from the harm of alcohol addiction. And most importantly it doesn’t mean that an individual can go without treatment. An HFA isn’t immune from the heavy toll of an alcohol addiction just because the effects aren’t as evident.

The sad truth is, while an HFA (or their family) is waiting for the bottom to drop out, the alcohol is still damaging their body and brain. Eventually, the adverse effects will catch up and begin consuming them similar to any other person who suffers from addiction. Even though they may appear to have it all together, these individuals need help now, just as much as the stereotypical alcoholic.

While any form of alcohol addiction is highly damaging, the high-functioning type can intensify the risks. Denial often leads to a person going far too long without help. Within this time, the alcohol is depleting the body and brain. Alcohol is toxic and linked to numerous forms of illness and disease. The risks decrease the sooner an HFA gets treatment. The quicker your loved one gets to rehab, the earlier their body and brain can begin to heal.

How Can I Help Them Get Treatment?

Many drinkers may not even realize why they’re drinking and/or the dangers of their behaviors. It can be challenging to get an HFA help due to the unique ways their addiction manifests. But help is possible. As a family member or friend, you’re in a unique role to support them. Here are some tips:

Recognize the signs: If they’re in denial, communicate to them how their drinking is beginning to negatively affect their life (and yours). This can help an HFA to become more accepting of their problem and the need for treatment.

Distinguish self-medication: Perhaps they suffer from anxiety or depression. If you know this, casually bring it up in conversation. Pose the question: are you drinking as a way to cope with these things or something else? Allowing them to discover these connections could help them to come around to the necessity of treatment.

Identify the risks: Alcohol is hard on your body and brain. If you’re beginning to see the physical, mental, or emotional toll of their drinking, outline to them what you see. This is a good opportunity to warn them of the risks, too.

Be supportive: It can be easy to become angry as you watch an HFA suffer from denial. This can push them away. Instead, strive to be patient, understanding, and non-judgemental. After succeeding for so long, they may struggle to admit they have a problem. They may also worry about taking time away from their personal and professional roles to address it.

Assure them of your support and acknowledge that you recognize how important it is for them to get help. Let them know that you can help out while they’re gone, too, so they don’t feel like it’s all their responsibility.

Discover your options: Taking the time to do a little legwork on treatment options can help, too. Some rehabs offer professional or executive rehab programs which allow participants to continue their careers during treatment. Many people don’t know this. This information may greatly shift an HFA’s perspective on treatment.

Consider an intervention: Sometimes denial is so deep-seated that no matter what you do or say, an HFA can’t see the truth and harm of their ways. A professionally-led intervention often yields the best results.

Together We Can Get Your Loved One Help

Don’t let a high-functioning alcoholic talk you out of caring. These individuals need help just as much as any other person. If you’re feeling a little lost and don’t know the best way to approach this situation, let us help you. RehabCenter.net can give you more information on the risks of alcohol abuse and phenomenal treatment options. Reach out today.

NIDA - Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes

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