Blog - Beach House Rehab Center
November 29, 2018

What is a Functioning Alcoholic?

The cliché image of an alcoholic is the stumbling drunk who is incapable of stringing together coherent sentences. While this description may describe some alcoholics, it’s far from comprehensive. There is an entire class of alcohol users who manage to mask their excessive drinking, who are able to hold down professional jobs and relationships without making their alcohol use apparent. These people are called functioning, or high-functioning alcoholics.

Often, high-functioning alcoholism is more insidious than other forms. Because these users are able to maintain their composure and present the outward look of normalcy their drinking habits can go unaddressed for years. The health risks are immense. Psychological and physical tolls can build to a breaking point, and often the people closest to the functioning alcoholic are negatively affected.

Characteristics Of A Functioning Alcoholic

Compared with other types of alcoholics, functioning alcoholics often seem like they have their life put together. They may even excel in their professional lives, and maintain relationships with family and friends. The sad irony is that their relative composure is what makes the issue so easy to hide or properly address. 

Sometimes functioning alcoholics can hide their condition from people they don’t interact with frequently. However, for the people closest to them it’s usually clear that something is wrong. The functioning alcoholic may not drink every day, but they might engage in binge drinking behavior every few days. This habit makes it easy for users to deny the problem.

They are frequently middle-aged, intelligent and well-educated. However, these characteristics don’t describe everyone who classifies as a functioning alcoholic.

Warning Signs Of A Functioning Alcoholic

Because it’s easy for functioning alcoholics to mask their condition, clues are sometimes subtle. As previously stated, The signs that can be identified for a functioning alcoholic may be difficult to pinpoint, which means that these are the alcoholics that take the longest to seek treatment. Many will categorically deny that they have a problem. It’s good to note that if you’re trying to point out someone’s functioning alcoholism, it’s often unhelpful to throw these clues in their face. Later, we’ll discuss the appropriate ways to help someone who is a functional alcoholic.

The list below will review some of the key behaviors associated with a functional alcoholic.

Restricted Drinking Hours

As a way to conceal or defend against accusations of alcoholism, many high functioning alcoholics will restrict their drinking hours or habits. Often they do this vocally, announcing to friends and family that they “only drink wine” or “only drink during the weekend.”

While this may be used as a ruse to throw family members off their track, this can also be a trick of self-deception. If an alcoholic has trouble admitting their problem to themselves, they can build these barriers to justify their habit. 

Isolation Outside Of Social Events

Part of what makes functioning alcoholism so tricky to identify is that users are often outgoing in social settings. However, in many cases, once a functioning alcoholic is outside of these settings their sociability fades and they prefer isolation. They will leave to drink in bars alone or hide away within the home with alcohol.

Avoiding Commitments

While a functioning alcoholic might always make it to events that help maintain their professional life, they may consistently avoid or drop out of personal commitments. Missing family events because of a hangover is a telltale sign of high functioning alcoholism.

“Holding Their Liquor”

High functioning alcoholics have conditioned their bodies to manage large quantities of alcohol and may have even developed a tolerance to binge drinking. For this reason, when they’re out drinking with others they might be able to consume large amounts without appearing intoxicated.

First One To The Bar

At events where a bar is provided, it’s not unusual for the functioning alcoholic to head directly to the alcohol. This sort of behavior can suggest that they see alcohol as a way to be comfortable in a social situation. 

Makes Jokes About Excessive Drinking

Making jokes about alcoholism is a common red flag. Functioning alcoholics will try to use humor to gloss over their problem, or to make others feel relaxed when they might otherwise be wary. They often use humor as a way to preempt a confrontation about their alcoholism. 

Legal Problems Related to Alcohol

When people are issued DUIs, many try to write it off as a one-off or a single instance where they made a horrible mistake. Often, this is just a consequence of alcoholism in disguise. Their inability to correctly judge their condition, or their confidence in their ability to handle the responsibilities that drivers are beholden to, suggests an ease with drinking that is symptomatic of alcoholism.


It’s common for alcoholics to suffer from a foggy memory associated with their drinking. Functioning alcoholics might not be able to remember what happened the night before, even if they’re able to get up and get to work. Often they will make light of their forgetfulness as a way to mask the problem.

Health Risks

Most people are aware of the common health risks associated with alcoholism. Liver complications as a result of cirrhosis and automobile injuries receive the most coverage. However, many people who suffer from alcoholism are doing much more harm to their bodies than they might be aware of. Sustained, long-term drinking can lead to numerous complications that grow worse over time. 

Researchers are constantly studying alcohol to uncover the full scope of its effects on the body. While we might not have the full picture, we do know that it can be harmful in a myriad of ways:

  • Alcohol can compromise the immune system making it difficult to fight disease
  • Anemia lowers red blood cell count causing fatigue and shortness of breath
  • Cardiovascular disease make blood clots likely which leads to heart attacks or strokes
  • Cardiomyopathy gradually weakens the heart until it fails
  • Cirrhosis develops when alcohol attacks liver cells—some long-term drinkers never develop cirrhosis while some occasional drinkers do, suggesting a biological predisposition
  • Seizures result from heavy drinking or from withdrawal symptoms which are often intense enough to be fatal
  • High blood pressure results from disruption to the sympathetic nervous system which can lead to strokes, heart disease, and kidney disease
  • Nerve damage manifests in a pins-and-needles feeling in extremities, muscle weakness, constipation, erectile dysfunction, and incontinence
  • Pancreatitis develops when alcohol inflames the pancreas causing intense abdominal pain and diarrhea—this condition is often untreatable
  • Withdrawal symptoms can lead to intense physical reactions like delirium tremens and hallucinations among other unpleasant physical reactions

Alcohol and Addiction

On the most basic level, most people drink because they claim it makes them feel good. In the case of functioning alcoholics, most use drinking as a way to relax or feel more confident in social or business situations. Eventually, using alcohol as a crutch in this way lets the chemicals dig in their claws, resulting in addiction. However, researchers are always trying to figure out why alcohol affects the body in the way it does.

Underlying functioning alcoholics’ rationale that drinking “makes them feel good” are complicated biological processes. Heavy drinkers, compared with lighter drinkers, react differently to alcohol because their bodies have been exposed to it in higher concentrations over longer periods of time. For example, heavy drinkers release more endorphins when they consume alcohol compared to light drinkers who experience stronger feelings of intoxication.

Long-term use also depresses the central nervous system. This effect is what produces the “relaxed” sensation that many alcohol users crave. Neurotransmitters in the brain fire off commands to the rest of the body, and when alcohol is introduced into the body it suppresses this reaction. In many functioning alcoholics who have been using for a long time, this suppression becomes constant. When they attempt to cease alcohol use, neurotransmitters are sent into overdrive because they are used to working extra hard to send signals to the rest of the body.

Risks of Codependency

For much of the history of alcoholism, it was believed that the disease was self-contained. The alcoholic was the one who was doing the drinking, and therefore they were responsible for the harm being done to their bodies and relationships. Since the 1950s, however, counselors started identifying what they called the co-alcoholic or the alcoholic’s partner.

For functioning alcoholics to maintain their outward appearance of normalcy and competence, it usually takes a partner or a series of individuals in their life who enable their behavior. They probably don’t mean to contribute to the alcoholic’s behavior but they are still culpable.

There are several signs of a codependent relationship. The actions of the codependent person often protect the alcoholic from revealing their illness to the world.

Hiding Evidence of Alcoholic’s Drinking

While a functioning alcoholic may be careful to be clean around their office to convey the impression of togetherness to their coworkers, life at home can be a completely different story. Codependent people will often clean up messes or wash clothes that reek of alcohol to mask the alcoholic’s behavior from others.

Helping Alcoholics Restrict Their Drinking

Close members of the functioning alcoholic’s family may hate the idea of their loved one drinking alone at a bar. In order to keep an eye on the functioning alcoholic, they may keep the household stocked with alcohol as an incentive to stay home. In effect, they are just making alcohol more accessible and encouraging controlled drinking. 

Denying Damage Done

Often, functioning alcoholics can be physically or mentally abusive to the people closest to them. Even if the harm is being done on a small scale, codependents will often deny that anything harmful is being done at all. They will lie to the functioning alcoholic about how their behavior is affecting them in order to avoid a difficult conversation. 

Covering Expenses

While functioning alcoholics often maintain a spiffy outward image, they might incur fines or tickets that are related to their alcohol consumption. Codependents will often pay these bills so as to keep the alcoholic’s drinking private.

Making Excuses

This is perhaps the most common way codependent people will help cover the secret habits of a functioning alcoholic. When others inquire why the functioning alcoholic missed a meeting or important social event, the codependent will make up excuses that validate the alcoholic’s absence. Often this is done to protect the image of the alcoholic, but it can also be done to protect the image of their family.

Holding An Intervention

Eventually, the behavior of a functioning alcoholic can wear people down. Even if their outward appearance doesn’t betray any sort of problem, their close relationships often suffer as a consequence of their heavy use. If you feel like someone you know or care about is a functioning alcoholic, one option is to stage an intervention. Often, it’s important to include a substance abuse counselor or family therapist in your plans. These situations are intense and it’s important that they are handled with delicacy.

When gathering participants, it’s important to include individuals who care about the wellbeing of the alcoholic and those who have been affected so they can give their testimonials. The goals of the intervention should be to:

  • Offer the alcoholic a path to recovery
  • Make the alcoholic see how their sustained use has negatively affected or harmed loved ones and others

It should go without saying, but it’s important that the intervention atmosphere and environment is not hostile. The person who is participating in the alcohol abuse should not feel like a punching bag. Do not throw accusations at them. Instead, open the meeting with the attendees listing the ways in which the alcoholic’s behavior has disappointed or harmed them. Once everyone has aired their problems, it’s important to have a have a plan on hand, a suggestion for treatment that will help the person with an alcohol addiction address his or her drinking.

Alcohol consumption does not only affect the alcoholic’s health but can be detrimental to those in their immediate sphere. Mentally and physically, alcoholism can wear down relationships and create rifts between people who would otherwise have love for each other.

If you or somebody you know shows signs and symptoms of being a functioning alcoholic and needs an alcohol detox, it’s important to seek inpatient alcohol treatment at a qualified treatment center like Beach House. In recovery, people regain control of their lives and create the necessary distance to repair damaged personal relationships. 

For more information on alcohol addiction and recovery, please contact our Florida treatment center today.