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How to Identify High-Functioning Alcoholism

July 14, 2022

Alcohol abuse can manifest itself differently in anyone suffering from addiction. Although many people can be significantly affected by their unhealthy drinking habits—causing them to have problems in their lives—others may remain high-functioning in their daily lives. They may not experience any immediate consequences and can even succeed until it catches up with their health later in life. Despite their outward appearance of having everything together, those with high-functioning alcoholism still have problems with drinking. They may still be able to maintain a job, complete school, have a polished appearance, have an active social life, and have seemingly healthy relationships even though they have a dependence on, cravings for, and a high tolerance for alcohol consumption. 

These people may be experiencing inner turmoil while keeping up a highly polished outward appearance, making it challenging to identify an issue. A high-functioning alcoholic may also be difficult to recognize as they can be secretive about their drinking levels and habits. These individuals may be in denial about their problem because they may believe that if they can keep a job and maintain their life, there is no concern. Because of this, they may be less likely to recognize the problem, admit they need help, or accept that they need it. Some of the most common signs to look for include:

  • Drinking to cope with stress – Using alcohol as the sole means of stress relief can indicate a problem. If someone uses any major or minor stress-inducing event as a reason to drink, it can very quickly lead to dependence. Although using alcohol may temporarily relieve stress, it can later have negative effects such as increased stress levels, anxiety, depression, and concentration problems. 
  • Frequently drinking alone – People who develop an addiction may drink alone to avoid others noticing or for fear of shame and embarrassment. This can reveal a stark difference from people who drink on occasion in times of celebrations or at other events where drinking is considered an accepted social pastime. These individuals may attend these festivities but either continue drinking on their own beforehand or afterward. They can also occasionally avoid these outings to drink heavily on their own, which can be problematic. In these cases, it may be useful to ask the individual who drinks alone why they chose to do so. 
  • Day-drinking frequently – When someone has developed an alcohol dependence, day-drinking may be used as a tool for them to prevent withdrawal symptoms. This can lead to unhealthy behaviors such as drinking in places that are looked down on, such as at school or work. 

Some other indications a person may be struggling with high-functioning alcoholism are:

  • Making jokes/making light about how often they drink
  • Showing signs of withdrawal (headache, anxiety, fatigue, nausea, foggy thinking)
  • Deny drinking, hiding alcohol, getting angry when confronted about drinking
  • Justifying their heavy drinking as a reward 
  • Being unable to socialize without alcohol
  • Changes in mood or attitude
  • Loss of focus or memory
  • Drinking at work, school, or other inappropriate times

How to Talk to a Functioning Alcoholic About Their Denial

It can be difficult to start a serious conversation with someone who may not be able to admit they have a drinking problem. Sometimes when you confront this individual, the conversation can be met with irritability, anger, and denial. Here are some strategies that you can implement when starting a conversation:

  • Discuss their drinking habits when they are not under the influence. In a sober state, a person may be able to think more clearly and may better understand the physical and emotional consequences of their drinking habits.
  • Speak with compassion. It is understandable to be tense during a conversation like this due to the subject matter. However, remember the individual is likely in denial, ashamed, embarrassed, or feeling lost, which may be why they hide their drinking. Being harsh and confrontational may only make them more upset and defensive before you have a chance to get through to them. 
  • Express how their drinking affects their loved ones. Emphasizing how their drinking is affecting others around them—or may start to affect others if they continue to drink—can help them see things with a broader perspective. It can help them understand how their actions may end up hurting the ones they love if they haven’t already. 
  • Share your knowledge. The person may not know that what they are dealing with is substance abuse due to not knowing the signs, symptoms, or definitions. Helping them understand some of the signs, symptoms, and definitions of high-functioning alcoholism can help them become more aware of what they might be going through.
  • If the person becomes confrontational or hostile, walk away. You can always pick up the conversation at a different point in time. However, just addressing some of these concerns might plant the seed that will end up helping them come to their own realization. 

Substance abuse and alcoholism may show up differently in the lives of those who experience it. Some may be capable of maintaining social and professional lives while struggling with drinking in their personal lives. Carrying out their responsibilities while still drinking heavily and compulsively does not mean an individual is free of alcoholism. It may mean they are struggling with high-functioning alcoholism. This can be challenging to identify in others because they can be secretive and private about it or deny that they have a problem at all. Still, it is essential for them to receive help and treatment as it can cause serious health problems. To do this, it is critical to identify it and talk about it before they may be ready to seek treatment. At Alta Centers, we believe treatment and recovery can be a life-enhancing journey that provides a healthy new start. For more information on how we can help, call (888) 202-2583.