What is a Functioning Alcoholic?

Functioning Alcoholics

Oftentimes people have a certain idea or notion of how an alcoholic looks, acts, or functions. While alcoholics are often noticeable, there may be one class of alcoholics that are harder to identify. High functioning or functioning alcoholics may not exhibit the same signs and symptoms therefore making them harder to recognize. However, they are alcoholics nonetheless and need to receive help.  So what is a functioning alcoholic and how do we identify them?  Keep reading to find out.

What is a Functioning Alcoholic or High Functioning Alcoholic?

A functioning or high functioning alcoholic differs from an alcoholic in the sense that they do not seem to or haven’t really experienced adverse consequences as a result of their chronic, heavy, or binge drinking. They maintain a level of control over their life that often leads them to think that they are functioning just fine. People are often able to become or remain highly functioning alcoholics due to people in their life who are considered enablers. Enablers do not “help” the person to drink, but they do make the continuation of drinking without negative consequences possible by helping to clean up any issues or fix any negative results of drinking.

High functioning alcoholics can participate in binge drinking and heavy drinking. If a woman drinks more than one drink a day or a man more than two drinks, it is considered heavy drinking. Binge drinking is considered to be 4 or more drinks at one time for a woman, or 5 or more for a man.

Signs to Look For

There are specific signs that identify a high functioning alcoholic. They explain or identify specific rules they have around drinking. These rules may not be followed however, and if they aren’t, alcoholics don’t have to worry because of the unknowing enablers. They utilize family and friends to help them fix the situation. If an alcoholic experiences negative consequences, they expect or will ask family and friends they rely on for help, and offer assurances that it won’t happen again, or the drinking must have got away from them or another excuse. Alcoholics may spend time alone, when not at work or meeting professional or social obligations. This time alone is used to drink, but they do not let people in their professional life know that they have this non-social side of them.

Because drinking takes place on personal time, the commitments and promises that are broken will most likely be on personal time as well. They want to maintain the illusion that they are doing very well for colleagues and will not risk performing badly professionally. Family will suffer the consequences while the high functioning alcoholic reaps the benefits of doing well at work and having their family cover for their failures.

A Possible Dual Diagnosis

Like any other, a functional alcoholic may suffer from mental illness.  Many people with mental illness use alcohol to cope with the symptoms of their addiction. They may fear exposing their mental illness to others or it interfering with their life. Without drinking, they may feel glum, reserved, short-tempered and other negative and so use alcohol to keep up their façade.

Side Effects

A high functioning or functioning alcoholic will have the same consequences as all alcoholics. Though it may not occur right away, they are not immune to the effects alcohol has on the body and brain. They will experience depression of the nervous system, poor decision-making, reduced inhibitions, effects on their appearance, and eventually organ damage and disease. Aside from that, drinking will begin to affect their wallet as well. This can additionally affect their family, as money may go toward supporting the addiction rather than the family, and children can grow up emotionally missing a parent.


High functioning alcoholics need to seek treatment before these consequences catch up with them. For some families, this may be harder because a high functioning alcohol may not believe that they truly have an alcohol use disorder.  In this case, an intervention may be recommended. Though to some it may have negative connotations, an intervention really just explains to the alcoholic how their behavior affects others, offers solutions and consequences if no solution is accepted. This may be the eye opener that a functioning alcoholic needs. Treatment for a high functioning alcoholic may include detox, day treatment (partial hospitalization), outpatient treatment, and aftercare. Aside from the alcoholic receiving treatment, the family may benefit from treatment as well. This is because in many cases the family is codependent or enablers and they need to learn new, healthy patterns to support the recovering alcoholic as well as support themselves.

A functioning alcoholic may consider themselves a professional drinker, but if they are drinking more than the recommended amount and are feeling effects of the alcohol negatively in any area of their life, then they are an alcoholic. Alcohol can affect everyone and anyone, there is no specific criteria that a person has to meet to be an alcoholic. It does the same thing to everyone – negatively affects the mind, body, and relationships with others.