How to Recognize a High Functioning Alcoholic

Most of us think of alcoholics as a stereotype, a person who can’t keep a job, who prioritizes alcohol over everything else, and who is actively and visibly drunk much or most of the time. While this stereotype can and does apply, as much as 19.5% of the 17.6 million people who qualify as alcohol dependent or addicted are high functioning.
High Functioning Alcoholics or HFAs are addicted and chemically dependent on alcohol, but who achieve or even overachieve in their life, and are therefore not typically viewed as alcoholics. Because they do not fit the stereotype of alcoholism, many people assume that they are okay, and the alcoholic is often even able to delude themselves into thinking they are in control. Despite that false sense of control, high functioning alcoholics are as addicted as addicts who allow their lives to fall apart, suffer the same health repercussions, and often lose control, damage themselves financially, and create lasting mental damage that is difficult to reverse.
If you think that a loved one, a friend, or a family member may be an alcoholic, it is important to step in, talk to them, and try to get them into professional treatment so that they can get their life back. The reality is that even a ‘functional’ alcoholic is doing irreparable damage to their liver, damaging their ability to live a healthy life, and consistently putting themselves and possibly others at risk.
They Drink Regularly – 87.6% of the population drinks at least occasionally but alcoholics drink regularly and consistently. If someone heads for the bar first, always looks for an excuse to drink, always has a glass in their hands, it is something to consider. Some high functioning alcoholics prevent themselves from becoming physically addicted by abstaining for days or even weeks at a time, so this isn’t always a sign of a high functioning alcoholic, but it is one to watch out for. If an otherwise successful and functional adult frequently binges on alcohol, they have a problem.
They Have Memory Issues – Many high functioning alcoholics will drink until they black out, which creates memory issues. If someone doesn’t know what they did, often can’t remember how a night ended, or even can’t remember things after they went home, the cause could be alcohol. Blackouts are memory gaps where people are so drunk that they can’t remember what they did during that period, even if they were fully functioning and able to work or do housework at the time.
They Have Trouble Controlling Intake – “I’ll just have one” turns into four or more, one drink at the bar turns into an all-night binge, and they can’t say no when offered a drink. Many high functioning alcoholics have trouble controlling themselves around alcohol, which often results in higher consumption.
They Obsess About When or Where They Will Drink Next – Someone who is constantly talking about where to go to drink, what to drink, and when they can go drink is thinking about alcohol. An alcohol enthusiast discusses flavors, textures, new brands, and different places to go. An alcoholic just wants to drink and will often romanticize how, where, and when they get to do that.
They Hide Their Drinking – Addicts hide their drinking, they lie to themselves, and they often feel shame and guilt relating to their addiction and drinking. Catching someone taking nips from a bottle at work, sneaking alcohol into their beverage, or hiding bottles in the trash is a good indicator that the person has a problem, knows it is a problem, and is trying to hide it.
They Behave Differently When Drunk – High functioning addicts often function by compartmentalizing their lives and approaching day to day tasks and responsibilities rigidly. Then, when they drink, they lose this control and often become completely different people.
They Get Angry When Confronted – While avoidance behavior is perfectly normal in alcoholics, high functioning alcoholics are often experts in self-illusionment and may have thoroughly convinced themselves that they don’t’ have a problem. At the same time, they are constantly plagued with guilt and shame each time they do pick up a drink, and this can result in anger and aggression when asked even simple and polite questions about their drinking habits.
They Use Excuses to Drink More – High functioning alcoholics are always ready to excuse their drinking as a reward or find an excuse for it, typically to defend their own behavior for themselves. “I’ve finished this, I’ll have a drink to celebrate”, “You’re getting a new apartment, let’s have a drink to celebrate”, “Today sucked, I’ll have a drink today to loosen up, but tomorrow I won’t have one” and other similar excuses are all commonly used by high functioning alcoholics. Anyone who regularly responds to a situation with alcohol is likely thinking too much about alcohol.
They Ignore Consequences – Someone who likes to drink will do so, but will often do so in moderation and will know when to stop, when their drinking is getting in the way of their life, and when they’ve had enough. Alcoholics, even high functioning ones, will ignore consequences including emotional and career ones, and will sometimes become sloppy enough to let it affect their lives. Persons who drink when their partners ask them not to, who drink before driving, or who drink before work definitely have a problem. Ignoring potential consequences in favor of alcohol is a huge red flag for alcoholism.
They Drink to Relax or Feel Confident – Many high functioning alcoholics drink to relax, to feel confident, or to feel better as a normal part of social situations. This leads to systemic repeat behavior, resulting in dependence and eventually addiction.
They Often Drink in the Morning or When Alone – High functioning addicts often drink when no one is watching, outside of social situations, in the morning, and when alone. Repeatedly drinking or binging on alcohol outside of social situations can be a red flag, however, many people do have the occasional beer or glass of wine after work on their own so light drinking is not a concern. However, repeatedly getting drunk with no social stimulus is a problem, and a sign of addiction.
They Attempt to Quit and Fail – Repeatedly – Someone repeatedly attempting to quit and failing is a sign of alcoholism, and one that is often ignored. Many high functioning alcoholics will make jokes or brush their attempts to quit off as nothing, but if someone is trying and failing to put down a habit, they are addicted.
They Show Signs of Anxiety When They Don’t Have a Drink – Finger twitching, sweating, paranoia, nervous tics, and jitters or shaking hands are all symptoms of early withdrawal, and are often present just a few hours after an alcoholic has had his or her last drink.
While high functioning alcoholics seem to be in control, they aren’t. Many are a short step away from making a bad decision, and many could lose their jobs, careers, and even their lives over those mistakes. For example, over 121 million alcohol related car accidents are reported each year. More than 20% of functional alcoholics also struggle with a mental disorder, and they need help.
If you or a loved one struggles with alcohol dependence, help is available. There are millions of Americans suffering from the same problems and there is no shame in it. A professional alcohol rehabilitation center can help an addict to safely move past physical addiction and then to build up the mental and emotional tools to beat psychological addiction.
If you or a loved one may need treatment  for alcoholism or substance abuse addiction, contact our Southern California Drug Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center today to discuss detox and treatment choices. One of our professional and experienced intake advisors will be happy to speak with you at 877-279-1777 today in confidence.