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5 Signs Of A Functioning Alcoholic

John Schaffer, LPCC

Medically reviewed by

John Schaffer, LPCC

March 18, 2019

Not everyone who is addicted to alcohol exhibits the same signs or symptoms. Some individuals are adept at hiding their addiction well and still manage to go about their daily lives while maintaining a normal appearance. These individuals are commonly referred to as functioning alcoholics. It is important to be able to spot the signs of a functioning alcoholic as it may help save a loved one’s life.

When someone says the word “alcoholic,” typically, we picture someone who is in need of a hot shower and carrying around a little brown paper bag to hide the bottle of whatever they are currently drinking. These are common stereotypes that society has linked to being an alcoholic. But what if there is more than one type of alcoholic?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there are five alcoholism subtypes. One being the functional subtype, which make up 19.5 percent of all alcoholics accounted for in the U.S. Sometimes referred to as high-functioning alcoholics or HFAs, they can manage to drink large quantities of alcohol and still maintain a normal outward appearance.

What A High-Functioning Alcoholic Looks Like

The NIA with assistance from researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) determined that HFAs are most commonly middle-aged, with a good education, and stable income. Of the estimated 17.6 million adults in the U.S. with an alcohol use disorder, about 21 percent are considered to be highly-functioning or functionally dependant on alcohol.

Although only roughly 21 percent of all U.S. alcoholics are considered to be high-functioning, they can also be included in three of the five other alcoholism subtypes, with the exception of chronic severe. HFAs can be difficult to recognize because they are attempting to keep their addiction a secret.

5 Signs Of A Functioning Alcoholic

Although there are a lot of indicators that can point to someone falling into the highly-functioning alcoholic type of alcoholism, these five signs are the most common:

  1. Denial
  2. Tolerance
  3. Family History
  4. Increased high-risk behaviors
  5. Isolation

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1. The Biggest Problem Is Denial

Denial is the most common trait seen in HFAs. Because HFAs are usually highly educated and intelligent they are often able to convince themselves that because of their professional or personal success they have their drinking under control. This happens when HFAs feel they have successfully hidden their drinking from the outside world.

While they may be able to keep up the act for awhile, it is nearly impossible to do so forever. A lot of the time it is an extreme scenario, like a drunken car wreck, that forces the HFA admit that they need help.

2. Tolerance: How Highly-Functioning Alcoholics Function

Most people do not understand how others are able to drink in excess and still appear normal to their family and friends. A large part of this phenomena is tolerance. Tolerance to alcohol happens over a long-period of time.

Tolerance builds in the liver as well as in the brain. The liver begins to react more quickly, producing more enzymes to break down the alcohol than in a person who drinks rarely. The receptor in the brains that received the alcohol response also build a tolerance and this encourages the person to consume more alcohol to receive the same relaxing effects.

3. Family History

Studies have shown that alcoholism runs in families. Although it is not a requirement to becoming a highly-functional alcoholic, about 30 percent of them do come from families with a history of alcohol abuse.

This is thought to occur because children of alcoholics face an increased risk for developing alcoholism and the associated brain changes. More than 10 percent of U.S. children live with a parent who suffers with alcohol problems, according to a study completed in 2012.

Family history of severe depression can also be an indicator that someone is more likely to develop into being a highly functional alcoholic. The NIAAA reports that up to 25 percent of HFAs are or have suffered from depression at sometime in their life. The chance of this increases if it is found that they also have a family history of depression or anxiety.

4. More likely to engage in high-risk behaviors

HFAs are more likely than the other subtypes of alcoholics to take part in:

  • Binge drinking
  • Drinking while taking care of minors
  • Driving under the influence of alcohol
  • Participating in unsafe sex while under the influence of alcohol

It is thought that HFAs are more likely to take part in these behaviors because they have convinced themselves that they will not get caught. They believe that this is their life, and are consumed by the lie of their addiction.

5. Isolation

Those suffering from alcohol use disorder, even a mild or moderate case, will still show signs of addiction. One of the biggest signs to look for is isolation. A big part of keeping their addition hidden is the urge to drink alone, and isolate or distance themselves from normal obligations.

This gives them space, in their minds to say that the alcohol is not affecting them the way it affects others, and the people they care about. It can be dangerous though and is likely to lead to the eventual finding out of their addiction.

Experts do not like the term highly-functional alcoholic because they know that it cannot last forever. No matter how good someone is at hiding their addiction, eventually it will get the best of them and they will be exposed.

More Warning Signs Of A Functional Alcoholic

Here are a few things to be wary of if your loved one exhibits these behaviors, it is possible that they may be a functional alcoholic:

  • Replacing meals with drinks
  • Drinking to produce confidence or relaxation
  • Becomes angry or aggressive when confronted about problems with alcohol
  • Waking up without a hangover, after heavy drinking
  • Periods of memory loss or blackouts
  • Makes jokes about having an alcohol problem
  • The need to drink alone
  • Missing work or other family obligations
  • Obsessing over the next time they will be able to drink
  • Inability to set limits on the amount of alcohol they consume
  • Noticeable behavioral changes with under the influence of alcohol

Dangers Of Alcoholism

Alcoholism never occurs without consequences. Chronic alcohol abuse is dangerous, and in some cases can be life threatening. Chronic diseases caused by damage done to the liver by alcohol abuse can occur.

Unintentional injuries are more likely to happen while under the influence of alcohol. This can include operating heavy machinery like a car or boat, and resulting in an accident. Severe violence has also been linked to drinking to excess. This can include, but is not limited to child abuse, spousal abuse, and homicide or suicide.

Do Highly Functional Alcoholics Need Treatment?

Research has suggested the some HFAs will never experience major problems related to their alcohol abuse. But the truth is that they will never be able to live their life authentically until they deal with their addiction.

There is no shame in suffering from alcoholism. It is most often the case that HFAs do not remain highly-functional forever. DUIs, trouble at work or school, and issues with friends and family can be avoided by seeking help before the disease progresses too far.

Want To Find Out More?

Still have questions about functioning alcoholism? Want to find out more about signs and indicators that you or a loved one may be suffering from alcohol addiction? You are not alone, contact us at One of our specialist is standing by to assist you 24/7.

National Institutes of Health - Understanding Alcohol’s Impact on Health

Center for Disease Control and Prevention - Frequently Asked Questions, Alcohol

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