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“High-functioning alcoholism” is a bit of an oxymoron. Discover why, including tips for spotting it in a friend or loved one.
Problem drinking or functional alcoholism and binge drinking is a growing concern in the United States, affecting millions of individuals and their families. In the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an estimated 15.7 million people aged 12 and older were classified as heavy drinkers or having a substance use disorder (SUD). That’s out of a total of 138.3 million Americans who reported current alcohol consumption … How many of these heavy drinkers are high-functioning alcoholics, how can you recognize them, and what can you do to help?
WHAT IS A HIGH-FUNCTIONING ALCOHOLIC
The term “high-functioning alcoholic” sounds contradictory. How can anyone function well and be an alcoholic at the same time? Yet, this is exactly the definition of someone who is a high-functioning alcoholic. Outwardly, he or she appears to have everything under control and not appear to be addicted to alcohol. This is a person who holds a steady job, dresses well, can socialize without drawing attention to his or her excessive drinking, never gets to the point of being a falling-down drunk, never leads others to believe there’s a problem with drinking. On the contrary, it is only a matter of time before the cumulative effects of excessive drinking exact a tremendous toll.
HOW TO IDENTIFY A HIGH-FUNCTIONING ALCOHOLIC
While you may suspect, but not be certain, that someone you know or care about has a problem with alcohol dependence, there are some straightforward signs that point to a high-functioning alcoholic. While any one of them by themselves may not be indicative of alcoholism, several or all of them paint quite a different picture. If you pay careful attention to the overall demeanor, patterns of behavior, and evidence of negative consequences due to drinking piling up, you’ll be able to identify a high-functioning alcoholic.
Here’s what to look for and what you can do to help:
1. AN EXPERT IN DENIAL
“I don’t have a problem with alcohol.” This is the first in a string of denials that the high-functioning alcoholic is adept at making. Not only does he or she refuse to acknowledge drinking too much, there’s also the tendency to hide liquor around the house, keep a bottle in the car or shed, or in the drawer or filing cabinet at work. Once the habit of daily drinking has taken hold, even if no other outwardly discernible problems are present, the functioning alcoholic is already on the downward spiral. Family members, loved ones, co-workers, bosses and friends may be able to spot this trend, and it’s important that they’re able to recognize what’s happening so they can figure out a plan and offer help. Excessive drinking and alcohol dependence will eventually lead to severe consequences like losing their job and damaging important relationships with their partners and family.
2. A SOLO DRINKER, ESPECIALLY IN THE MORNING
One of the premier signs of alcoholism, including a high-functioning one, is the compulsion to down a drink first thing in the morning. Drinking alone at other times is another hallmark trait of a high functioning alcoholic and a warning sign for others to pay heed to. Be vigilant to spot accumulated liquor bottles and empty six-packs of beer around the house as warning signs of alcoholism and excessive drinking. Take photos as evidence so you can use these later when confronting the high-functioning alcoholic and encourage a treatment program, possibly during a formal intervention.
3. USES ALCOHOL TO RELAX OR BOOST CONFIDENCE
“Want to have a drink after work?” This might be the go-to comment from a high-functioning alcoholic to a co-worker. In fact, it’s likely to be a regular practice to invite peers to go out drinking. Surrounding him or herself with others drinking makes the high-functioning alcoholic feel more confident, relaxed and eases any stress or problems that might be present. This is a false assumption, of course, but it doesn’t deter the high-functioning alcoholic from seeing alcohol as the best way to relax and feel confident. Often, the high-functioning alcoholic feels compelled to surround him or herself with others who drink heavily. Lacking the company of like-minded individuals won’t prevent him or her from continuing to drink, but it may slow it somewhat.
4. CREATES A STRAIN ON LOVED ONES
Those closest to the high-functioning alcoholic find themselves making excuses for his or her behavior. They also worry about what’s going to happen, what’s already happened, how life can continue without serious negative consequences because the high-functioning alcoholic refuses to acknowledge a problem with alcohol abuse or get help to overcome it. Such a strain on loved ones erodes the family dynamic, often fracturing it completely. The high-functioning alcoholic isn’t the only one who suffers, though. The entire family does. It’s important to have help yourself to cope with the effects of the high-functioning alcoholic’s drinking on the family. Get the support you need in groups like Al-Anon Family Groups and Alateen, offshoot groups of Alcoholics Anonymous.
5. IS QUICK TO ANGER
Don’t ever believe that you can confront a high-functioning alcoholic about his or her drinking on the spot and not witness an angry reaction. Whether veiled and courteous or peppered with expletives, angry verbal outbursts—or physical attacks—on the part of the high functioning alcoholic occur when they’re challenged about their drinking habits. It’s best to wait until they are sober and then broach the subject with tact, respect and forearmed with facts.
6. WORK PROBLEMS BEGIN TO SURFACE
The high-functioning alcoholic can’t keep juggling long nights of drinking, consuming alcohol to the point of passing out, and the cumulative effects of alcohol on the body and mind. After weeks or months, depending on the number of episodes of excessive drinking, the high-functioning alcoholic begins missing days at work, frequently comes in late, may be disciplined or fired for poor attendance or shoddy performance. Getting fired or suffering a demotion must take a toll on the family, who often fail to recognize earlier signs that their loved one—husband, wife, father, brother—is a high-functioning alcoholic. It’s never too late, however, to offer encouragement and support to someone who is prepared to accept his or her alcoholism and get professional treatment to overcome the disease.
7. GETS DRUNK WHEN NOT INTENDING TO
The high-functioning alcoholic doesn’t set out to get drunk. Indeed, he or she believes that drinking doesn’t affect his or her behavior, that they’ve got it under control. What often happens, however, particularly if this self-deception goes on for some time, is that the high-functioning alcoholic gets drunk when he or she doesn’t intend to. One drink is never all there is. It always leads to more, until it’s past the point of no return. If you are the loved one, family member, friend or co-worker of a high-functioning alcoholic, don’t enable their drinking behavior. Remind them of obligations, an early meeting, the kids’ soccer game, a family dinner. Be explicit that enough is enough and it’s time to leave. Insist on driving the excessive drinker home or make other arrangements, but don’t permit him or her to get behind the wheel.
8. ENGAGES IN RISKY BEHAVIOR
Unconcerned about the effects of his or her continued drinking on others, the high-functioning alcoholic engages in increasingly risky behavior. Not only will he or she drink and then get behind the wheel and drive, putting countless others in danger, it’s highly likely that the high-functioning alcoholic will become involved in unprotected sex, promiscuous sex, and having sex with strangers. Drinking to excess on a somewhat constant basis also increases the frequency, duration and severity of blackouts. As negative consequences from risky behavior because of excessive drinking on the part of the high-functioning alcoholic increase, be prepared to step in with other loved ones, family members and friends with a formal intervention.
9. LEGAL PROBLEMS MOUNT
After non-stop bouts of heavy drinking and driving, the time will come when the high-functioning alcoholic gets arrested for driving under the influence (DUI). This is the beginning of a series of negative consequences that involve legal fees, court appearances, fines and even jail time. An accident involving the high-functioning alcoholic driver that causes damage, injury or death to others or property damage will similarly add to his or her legal problems. The same holds true for domestic disputes, arguments in public or private that escalate to physical violence.
10. RELATIONSHIPS SUFFER
Home life begins to rapidly deteriorate for the high-functioning alcoholic. Not only close family relationships suffer, though. Friendships become strained as the high-functioning alcoholic continues to alienate friends, miss functions, cause a scene, behave in a manner not considered polite or at all respectful of the friendship. Learn all you can about treatment options for the high-functioning alcoholic and other members of the family.
FINAL TIPS ON HOW TO HELP A HIGH-FUNCTIONING ALCOHOLIC
While it may seem like an uphill battle to confront a high-functioning alcoholic about his or her drinking and encourage attending professional alcohol treatment program, addiction experts say that it’s crucial to let him or her know how much their drinking hurts you, as well as how it negatively affects you and the family. The high-functioning alcoholic should consent to and accept treatment—you can’t force him or her into it— but you can use these tips:
- When you do talk with the high-functioning alcoholic about getting help, make sure the conversation isn’t defensive. Instead, emphasize your feelings and concerns as you talk about how you’d like things in the family to be.
- Then, you might discuss how some people appear to be able to drink over prolonged periods of time and seem to have it under control, yet negative consequences add up. Say that these people are considered high-functioning alcoholics. This is where the evidence you’ve gathered in the form of photos of drunken behavior, arrest records, fines, vehicle repairs, hospital bills, foreclosure notice and other documentation should be presented. It may be the only thing that finally convinces the high-functioning alcoholic that he or she needs to get help.
- Be sure to never put yourself or your children at risk. Avoid abrupt confrontation and conflict, which will never solve the problem and likely will exacerbate it.
- Consider the services of a skilled interventionist. These professionals are often able to chip away the high-functioning alcoholic’s resistance and denials and convince them to accept the treatment they need to overcome alcoholism.
- Finally, it’s important to never give up on the high-functioning alcoholic. Do set boundaries. Encourage him or her to get professional help. Insist on an honest, open discussion about what effect the high functioning alcoholic’s behavior has had on the family. Be persistent, loving, safe and supportive. Rock-solid family support and encouragement is perhaps the only way to get through to the high-functioning alcoholic.
Use these tips and take our quiz, “Could my Friend Have a Drinking Problem?” to see if your friend or loved one may have a drinking problem.
Mayo Clinic, Diseases and Conditions, Mental Illness, “Intervention: Help a loved one overcome addiction.” Retrieved May 25, 2017
National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), Video Bank, “Treatment options for loved ones of alcoholics – Al-Anon interview with Dr. Robert Huebner.” Retrieved May 25, 2017
National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), “What Happened? Alcohol, Memory Blackouts and the Brain.” Retrieved May 24, 2017
New York Times, “High Functioning, But Still Alcoholics.” Retrieved May 24, 2017
WebMD, “Are You a High-Functioning Alcoholic?” Retrieved May 25, 2017