What Does It Mean To Be A High-Functioning Alcoholic?

A high-functioning alcoholic is a person who currently maintains degrees of professional and personal success (in their careers, responsibilities, and relationships) while exhibiting an unhealthy relationship with alcohol that qualifies as an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

The reality of what an addiction to alcohol looks like in terms of outward appearances varies for different individuals. While some alcoholics rapidly spiral out of control and experience visible turmoil in their lives early on, high-functioning alcoholics tend to keep their problems well-hidden. High-functioning (or perhaps more accurately, currently functioning) alcoholics defy the usual stereotypes that people have of those caught in the grip of addiction.

Identifying A High-Functioning Alcoholic

With high-functioning alcoholics, the negative consequences of their drinking may be obscured by their outward successes. In many cases, their addiction is taking a gradual toll, but because they have good jobs, perform the expected tasks of daily life, and avoid legal problems, the problematic effects are not yet observable.

High-functioning alcoholics effectively live a double life wherein they appear highly functional on the outside but are anxious, depressed, angry, and preoccupied with their next opportunity to drink on the inside.

There is ongoing anxiety and fear about their addiction being revealed and this creates a tremendous amount of stress, which can drive them to drink even more. Ongoing alcohol abuse is like a riptide that eventually captures and controls anyone who gets swept up in it.

While the adverse impacts of alcohol may be harder to discern in professionals who suffer from addiction, there are specific signs that may identify an AUD, including:

High Volume Of Consumption

When drinking socially or with colleagues, one drink often leads to several. This happens every time or frequently enough that drinking seems to become out of control and raises questions.

Drinking As A Reward

An individual suffering from alcohol addiction will often defend their drinking by claiming they’ve “earned” it by working hard or they are “just blowing off steam” and enjoying their time away from work.

Drinking To Cope

The professional lives of high-functioning alcoholics are often challenging and stressful. Drinking is a way to cope with that stress. However, it also exacerbates it. This can become a vicious circle in which going out for drinks provides a temporary escape from stressors.

Socializing Usually Involves Drinking

An individual who is suffering from addiction is more likely to socialize with others who drink and attend social events where drinking is encouraged (i.e., at bars, clubs, or cocktail parties).

Cancelling Or Rescheduling Often

As alcohol use increases, high-functioning alcoholics may begin to cancel appointments or other engagements in an effort to hide hangovers, withdrawal symptoms, and other indications of addiction.

Difficult Mornings

High-functioning alcoholics may begin to show up for work with a headache, digestive issues, other illness, unusual grumpiness, or appear “worse-for-wear,” especially on Monday mornings.

Negative Consequences Of Alcohol Addiction

Multiple areas of a high-functioning alcoholic’s life are greatly affected by the addiction.

Personal Interests And Hobbies

As alcoholism progresses and increases control over someone’s life, the first significant area to suffer is that of recreational interests, participation in which decreases and often stops completely.

Personal Relationships

Increasing difficulty and conflict in family and social relationships is common as the person’s mood and thought process become more erratic and influenced by their addiction. As a result, their follow-through on responsibilities and commitments becomes less reliable.


Health is the next important area to be negatively affected by drinking. It can take many months or years for alcohol-related health problems, such as liver damage and cancer risk, to manifest. However, once they do, they can turn into chronic and life-altering health issues.

Career And Work Life

For some high-functioning alcoholics, the final major life area to deteriorate is their career, as they know that “good-enough” job performance is essential to rationalize their continued drinking and help keep it under cover.

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High-Functioning Alcoholics And Denial

Because these indicators tend to appear gradually over time, they can be challenging to identify, as well as to connect directly to drinking. Denial is such that the individual tries to believe there is no serious problem that needs to be addressed. Generally, functioning alcoholics are convinced that they have everything under control and are often able to convince others of the same.

Unfortunately, as they are so good at masking their struggles and covering their tracks in their efforts to “keep it together,” high-functioning alcoholics are less likely to seek treatment for their addiction.

Support For High-Functioning Alcoholics

Acknowledging that there is a problem is the first step towards recovery. If you have an addiction to alcohol and are tired of its negative impacts on your life, contact a treatment provider today to explore your treatment options.