What is High Functioning Alcoholism?
We often think we can spot someone struggling with alcohol abuse and alcoholism. They might miss work, forget important dates, or have trouble in their relationships. But there’s a side to alcoholism that’s harder to see.
Some people seem to have it all together. They’re great at their jobs, always there for friends, have a strong family unit, and seem happy. Yet, they’re quietly battling with alcohol. This is called high-functioning alcoholism.
What Is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?
High functioning alcoholism can be defined as an individual with an alcohol addiction, but it has little to no impact on their ability to maintain their responsibilities and day-to-day life. Individuals with this form of addiction are also simply referred to as a ‘functioning alcoholic’.
When someone is a functional alcoholic, they are still very much dependent on alcohol. The issue is it can be tricky to spot, meaning that intervention and recovery are often not seen as necessary.
High functioning alcoholism is a subtype which is far less common than typical alcohol addiction. Recent research indicates that only about 20% of those battling alcohol addiction qualify as high-functioning alcoholics.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported that those with alcohol addiction exhibit pathological habits that form due to repeated activation of the basal ganglia, which is a group of structures in our brains that is responsible for motor control.
This fact is what directly contributes to forming a compulsive need to consume alcohol, and it’s the same for functioning alcoholics. The other difference is that these individuals do not conform to what society deems to be a ‘stereotypical’ alcoholic.
The Subtle Signs of High-Functioning Alcoholism
As mentioned above, functioning alcoholic signs are a little harder to detect. Here’s a general overview of several less overt signs that someone may have an alcohol addiction.
- A high tolerance to alcohol, with the ability to drink moderately during the day, never getting drunk but keeping the cravings and withdrawal symptoms at bay. Others might not drink alcoholic beverages at all in the week but indulge in heavy binge drinking at night or on weekends.
- An overreliance on products to mask the smell of alcohol, such as chewing gum, mouthwash or perfume. They might also be vague about their whereabouts or activities, especially during times when they might be drinking.
- Functioning alcoholics may seem like the ‘life and soul’ of a party, if you will. What this can look like is, that once they start drinking, they can’t stop drinking. They may ‘take it too far’ or have a reputation for being a fun person to have around at a celebration.
- In our experience, a frequently mentioned observation from loved ones discussing their experiences is the mild alcohol smell. Often, the person with the addiction would dismiss or rationalise this scent.
- Individuals who are hiding their alcohol abuse may also seem overly protective of their personal belongings. For example, they may feel uncomfortable with someone touching their portable coffee cup, as it may actually be an alcoholic beverage hiding in plain sight.
- Functioning alcoholics can have specific routines or opportunistic rituals related to drinking, such as always drinking at a particular time or after specific events.
- Memory lapses are common among high-functioning alcoholics. So, they might have episodes of blackouts even if they seem alert at the time. A subtle indication of this might be when your partner can’t recall a sentimental memory you both experienced.
- Storing alcohol in secret places is also a common sign of alcohol abuse. This might mean a loved one finding bottles of alcohol stashed away in random cupboards or in the car.
- Detectable changes in mood that correlate with their drinking patterns. For example, a functioning alcoholic may be overly enthusiastic regarding an event that seems odd to others, such as a minor achievement at work, as they may view this as a justification to indulge in alcohol.
- Functioning alcoholism can, of course, impact mental and physical health. This can look like subtle complaining about feeling drained, or unexplained high blood pressure, stomachaches or digestive issues without an apparent medical reason.
- It’s not uncommon for those with functioning alcoholism to appear ‘flushed’. This can look like facial redness.
Factors Linked to the Development of High-Functioning Alcoholism
Like any form of addiction, many factors can contribute to someone developing functioning alcoholism.
- Societal pressure – Being in environments or professions where frequent drinking is normalised (and even encouraged) can lead individuals to develop patterns of excessive alcohol consumption without recognising the harmful impact.
- Mental health struggles – Individuals with anxiety, depression, or other mental health disorders might use alcohol as a self-medication method, leading to high-functioning alcoholism.
- Coping mechanisms – Functioning alcoholics may use alcohol to cope with feelings of stress. They might see alcohol as a way to relax or escape their troubles, even if it’s just momentarily.
- Self-rationalisation – They might justify their drinking habits by pointing to their success in other areas of life. This can include work, family or being in good physical health.
- High expectations – This is particularly true for those classed as ‘high-achievers’ or individuals with perfectionist tendencies. They may drink to alleviate the pressure placed on them.
- Genetics – A family history of high functioning alcoholism can increase someone’s risk of becoming a functional alcoholic.
Typical Alcoholism vs High-Functioning Alcoholism
Each type of alcohol addiction has its distinct characteristics regarding the visibility of symptoms, public perception, self-recognition, duration of the disorder, and consequences.
In relation to how visible symptoms are, those with typical alcoholism experience somewhat obvious disruptions in their daily lives. For example, this can look like being unable to maintain a job or missing important occasions, such as a family member’s birthday.
On the other hand, individuals with high-functioning alcoholism are often not only able to maintain a semblance of normality but may also thrive.
The way society perceives these two categories also differs. Those with typical alcoholism are more likely to be recognised by friends, family or colleagues as having a problem with alcohol. Functioning alcoholics might remain undetected due to the assumption that a successful or productive individual cannot possibly have an alcohol use disorder.
Regarding self-recognition, individuals with typical alcoholism might somewhat be able to acknowledge they have a problem with alcohol. This may even be something they can only admit to themselves. Functioning alcoholics, on the other hand, are highly prone to denial. They often believe they have control over their drinking, mainly because they can manage different, important aspects of their life.
The duration of the disorder varies as well. The blatant consequences of typical alcoholism may lead to quicker identification and potential intervention from loved ones. However, high-functioning alcoholism can continue for years (or even decades) without anyone noticing.
The repercussions of both forms of alcoholism, while different, are severe. Typical alcoholism might result in overt consequences such as driving under the influence. The repercussions of high-functioning alcoholism might be more subtle. This can look like strained relationships, a dip in work quality, or a gradual decline in mental well-being.
What To Do If You Suspect High Functioning Alcoholism
As you may now be aware, high functioning alcoholism can be deceptive, as those affected often maintain an outward semblance of normality. Recognising this hidden form of addiction early can be instrumental in providing support and intervention.
If you think someone you know is suffering in silence, don’t confront them to start with. Instead, try to learn more about the subtle signs of high functioning alcoholism. This can help you differentiate it from other behavioural patterns. These individuals may not show overt signs of disruption. But, they might still engage in risky behaviours, neglect responsibilities, or become increasingly isolated.
Once you’re more informed, opening a dialogue between the two of you is the next step. When addressing the suspected individual, it’s essential to approach this topic with empathy, concern, and understanding, free from judgment or blame. Make sure to communicate your observations and concerns in a manner that makes them understand that you are coming from a place of genuine care.
The journey to recovery almost always requires professional intervention. An inpatient treatment programme would be the best option to achieve lasting recovery. However, encouraging any form of support is better than none at all. There are also specialised therapists and support groups that can help them navigate the challenges of high functioning alcoholism, leading them towards a healthier relationship with alcohol and themselves.
Alcoholism is often, sadly, a progressive disease. Without intervention or counselling, there will eventually be serious consequences.
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At Ocean Recovery, we can provide comprehensive care for those who require inpatient rehabilitation. If you believe that you or someone close to you is living with alcohol addiction, you need to seek help as soon as possible.
With support and perseverance, alcohol recovery is possible. For more information on how we can support you or a loved one, please call us today on 01253 847 553.
John Gillen - Author - Last updated: October 12, 2023
John is one UK’s leading professionals in the addiction recovery industry. Pioneering new treatment techniques such as NAD+ and ongoing research into new therapy techniques such as systematic laser therapy, John is committed to providing the very best treatment for people throughout the UK and Europe. During his extremely busy schedule, John likes to regularly update our blog section with the latest news and trends in the industry to keep visitors to our site as well informed as possible on everything related to addiction treatment.
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