“I would rather go through life sober, believing I am an alcoholic, than go through life drunk, trying to convince myself that I am not.”
Creating an accurate profile of a functional alcoholic is easier said than done for two reasons. First, it can be very difficult to identify high-functioning alcoholics. The truth is, functioning alcoholics are very effective at convincing both themselves and those around them that their drinking habits are not problematic. This can be either conscious manipulation or unconscious rationalization of behavior. Second, creating a concrete profile is difficult because addiction can take on many different shapes and sizes, so to speak. No two cases of alcoholism are alike, and this is particularly true for those who struggle as high-functioning alcoholics.
In simple terms, the definition of high-functioning alcoholism is alcohol abuse that is hidden behind normal and unhindered behaviors. Because of this, the behaviors of a high-functioning alcoholic can be hard to pinpoint. This is particularly true because the only person who can completely monitor one’s drinking habits is the one who is struggling with alcohol addiction. Given the fact that alcoholism looks different for nearly everyone, there is no single functional alcoholic test that can be used to determine whether or not someone fits within the definition. However, there are several symptoms of high-functioning alcoholism that manifest in a person’s life, no matter how separate they try to keep their drinking habits from the rest of their life.
These are the signs and symptoms we discuss here. For the functioning alcoholic, the symptoms of addiction have much more to do with how much and how often they drink rather than how alcohol affects their responsibilities and relationships. This is important to keep in mind since it can be easy to dismiss the possibility of alcohol abuse or addiction if someone does fit a specific mold or preconceived notion of how this mental disorder takes shape.
The Major Functional Alcoholic Signs to Look Out For
Alcoholism, otherwise known as alcohol use disorder, can take many different forms. One of these forms is high-functioning alcoholism, which is essentially the ability to consistently abuse alcohol without showing many (if any) external symptoms of this dependence. First and foremost, it is important to understand what constitutes alcoholism as a whole. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the best way to determine whether or not you or someone you love suffers from alcohol use disorder is to ask the following questions:
- Have you ended up drinking more, or longer than you intended?
- Have you tried to cut down or stop drinking but could not?
- Have you spent a lot of time drinking?
- Have you experienced a craving for alcohol – a strong urge to drink?
- Have you found that drinking has interfered with taking care of your responsibilities (family, home, employment, school, etc.)?
- Have you continued to drink even though it has caused trouble with loved ones?
- Have you given up or cut back on important activities in order to drink?
- Have you continued to drink even though it made you feel depressed or anxious?
- Have you found that the number of drinks you consume has increased over time?
- Have you experienced withdrawal symptoms?
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism goes on to note that if you see any of these symptoms, either in yourself or someone you know, your drinking habits are most likely already problematic. While actually being diagnosed with alcohol use disorder requires a more formal assessment, consider that answering yes to any of the questions above may be cause for concern for treatment for alcohol use disorder. According to the U.S. Library of Medicine, alcohol dependence usually results in four specific symptoms:
- Craving: Feeling a strong urge or need to drink alcohol
This is not necessarily a constant craving. Instead, it can look like feeling the need for a stiff drink after getting home from work, needing a few shots to calm down after a stressful situation, or even thinking of taking a drink right when you wake up.
- Loss of Control: Being unable to stop drinking after starting
Being unable to stop does not always mean getting blackout drunk. This can also look like always finishing off a bottle of wine after opening up, constantly running out of beer in the fridge, or drinking faster than everyone else in a social situation.
- Physical Dependence: Experiencing withdrawal symptoms
While some extreme withdrawal symptoms include vomiting, nausea, and sweating, this can also be as straightforward as getting irritable around the time you usually have a drink each day.
- Tolerance: Needing to drink increasingly larger amounts of alcohol to reach the same effect
This one may be the most obvious. Drinking large amounts of alcohol over time requires drinking even larger amounts of alcohol to get the same buzz or have the same physical reaction. This works as a vicious cycle to increase dependency and loss of control simultaneously.
While the signs outlined above have to do with alcoholism as a whole, they also make for a useful functional alcoholic test. Because drinking habits can be hidden, the definition of a functional alcoholic is not so much dependent on their behaviors as it is on their level of drinking, as well as how frequently they drink.
“What is heavy drinking? Women who have more than three drinks a day or seven a week are ‘at-risk’ drinkers. For men, the limit is four drinks a day or fourteen a week. If you drink more than either the daily or weekly limit, you’re at risk. You’re not alone – one in four people who drink this much already has a problem or is likely to have one soon. Overall, as many as 20% of alcoholics may be highly functioning.”
~ Melissa Bienvenu, writing for WebMD
Building a Profile: A Detailed Description of a High-Functioning Alcoholic
So far, we have discussed both the symptoms of alcoholism as a whole and the signs that someone is a high-functioning alcoholic more specifically. The behavioral signs outlined above are the best way to tell if you are, or someone you know and love is, struggling with alcohol addiction. However, many high-functioning alcoholics are quite good at hiding these signs and signals – sometimes even from themselves. To give a better understanding of what high-functioning alcoholism looks like in practice, it is helpful to imagine how these signs and symptoms would look on a daily basis. With that in mind, we finish up our discussion with a hypothetical description of a functional alcoholic in daily life.
Charles is a 33-year-old software engineer. By most accounts, he has a successful life: a rewarding and well-paying job, a partner, a four-year-old son, and a good work/life balance. What most people do not know is that Charles struggled with depression for several years after college, and continues to struggle with issues of anxiety. As a means of self-medicating, Charles began drinking heavily when he landed his first software job. That was nine years ago, and Charles has been able to hold down the same job for the entire time. His depression largely dissipated after he met his partner and they had a child together, though he still feels anxious from time to time – particularly if he goes too long without an alcoholic drink.
Charles does not think of himself as an alcoholic – after all, it’s not like he starts each morning with a drink. Despite this denial, the young professional drinks frequently, and often drinks more than he means to. At work lunches, he will have a few beers to reduce the stress from the morning and gear up for the afternoon to come. When he gets home in the evening, the first thing he does is to pour himself a few fingers of gin or whiskey from the wet bar. He nurses this over a few hours, and it is usually effective in reducing his anxiety and helping him wind down after the long day at work. On weekends, Charles indulges in more drinks, often throughout the course of an entire day.
Truth be told, Charles has tried giving up alcohol altogether a couple of times but never found that it was worth the effort. His partner has brought up Charles’ drinking habits a few times as well, but it has never caused any real arguments or divisions within the family. This may be because a lot of his drinking is done behind closed doors, when his partner is away and when their child is asleep. Over time, these drinking habits have increased – Charles has gone from a few drinks a week to a few drinks a day, though he is rarely drunk. Instead, he feels slightly buzzed for a good portion of each evening.
Clearly, this account challenges preexisting notions regarding what a functional alcoholic looks like and how a functional alcoholic acts. From the outside, Charles would appear as any other young professional with a family. However, the description makes it clear that his drinking habits are problematic.
“Functional alcoholics may seem to be in control, but they may put themselves or others in danger by drinking and driving, having risky sex, or blacking out. Heavy drinking carries other risks. It can lead to liver disease, pancreatitis, some forms of cancer, brain damage, serious memory loss, and high blood pressure. Heavy drinkers have a higher chance of dying from car accidents, murder, and suicide. Any alcohol abuse raises the chances of domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, fetal alcohol syndrome, and car accidents.”
~ Melissa Bienvenu, writing for WebMD
Charles’ life may look put together from the outside, but there is no question that his drinking habits are dangerous. As the quote above makes clear, alcohol abuse in any form increases health and safety risks. Drinking is not only problematic when it begins to show external signs or cause external social issues. This is how functional alcoholics get by. Instead, drinking is objectively problematic when it exceeds a certain number of drinks each week, or even each day. Given his history of drinking, it is unlikely that Charles could quit drinking altogether on his own. This is the definition of alcohol addiction, even if it does not initially appear like alcoholism.
In this post, we have discussed the various possibilities in creating a profile of a functional alcoholic. Given the various signs and symptoms discussed here, the main take away is that alcohol abuse and addiction can take on many different forms, depending on one’s family history, social status, personality, occupation and more. While there may not be a set list of high-functioning alcoholic symptoms, the main sign to look for is problematic drinking.
This litmus test is independent of an individual’s behavior and how they respond to alcohol and provides a much more objective measure of a functioning alcoholic in daily life. If you still have questions about high-functioning alcoholism or have a story to share, feel free to either contact us or leave a comment in the section below.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2016). Alcohol Use Disorder. Retrieved from: https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders
Wendy Glauser. (2014, January). High-functioning Addicts: Intervening Before Trouble Hits. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3883816/