How To Recognize A Functioning Alcoholic?

Last Updated: June 10, 2020

Authored by Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Alcoholism is normally a disabling condition. But functioning alcoholics can mask their chemical dependency from the outside world while holding down jobs, maintaining relationships, and handling their daily responsibilities despite their substance abuse issues.

What Is A Functioning Alcoholic Condition?

A functioning alcoholic is someone who abuses alcohol regularly but is still able to work, go to school, handle parenting or marital responsibilities, maintain their appearance and manage an assortment of daily tasks. A few family members, friends, or co-workers may suspect the truth, but for the most part, others are not aware of how serious the person’s drinking problem is.

Functional alcoholics think having a stable and prosperous life means their drinking is under control. But they are living an illusion.

Functional Alcoholism Statistics

According to research sponsored by the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence (NCADD), approximately 14 million American adults—or one out of every 13—suffer from an alcohol use disorder. Out of this total, as many as 20 percents may be functional alcoholics.

Functional alcoholism is a silent epidemic, and far more people are suffering from its hidden symptoms than most would ever imagine.

Identifying a Functional Alcoholic

It takes courage to ask oneself this question, and even more courage to answer it honestly.

Unfortunately, most functional alcoholics live in denial, too ashamed or too proud to admit the truth to themselves or others. In their minds, they rationalize their behavior by its apparent lack of effect on their lives. They may even congratulate themselves on being able to handle their alcohol consumption without slipping into real alcoholism.

But make no mistake: functional alcoholism is real alcoholism, and people who suffer from this form of chemical dependency do not have control of their lives and are ultimately at risk for many dangerous life and health consequences. They are living on the edge, and they will pay a high price for their hubris if they continue to deny reality.

The Telltale Signs of High-Functioning Alcoholism

Is someone a functioning alcoholic? Here’s how to tell:

  • When they wake up in the morning, alcohol is the first thing on their minds.
  • They often feel shaky when they first get up and are not above “calming the nerves” by sneaking a quick drink.
  • They view lunchtime at work as a golden opportunity to imbibe.
  • When they come home from work, getting a drink is their priority.
  • They plan to have only one or two drinks, but they end up having twice that amount or more (and this happens in a variety of circumstances).
  • They experience blackouts or memory problems related to their drinking, on at least a semi-frequent basis.
  • They feel compelled to hide their alcohol consumption from others, especially loved ones.
  • They’re uninterested in attending social events where alcohol isn’t served.
  • They drink to help cope with emotions (stress, anxiety, boredom, anger, frustration, and so on).
  • Hangovers are a routine side effect of their drinking.
  • They drink every single day—and miss alcohol dearly if, for some reason, they can’t.

If someone recognizes themselves in these symptoms, they should consult with a physician or addiction specialist as soon as possible to receive a full evaluation for substance abuse.

In 2013, NY Times published a story: A ‘Perfect Mother,’ a Vodka Bottle and 8 Lives Lost, about a 39-year old mother named Diane Shuler, who died in an accident when she was under the influence of alcohol. She was a high-functioning alcoholic.

Too often, the loved ones of so-called high-functioning alcoholics end up as collateral damage, and that was the case with Diane Shuler. In this sad incident, her son and three nieces also lost their lives, casualties of a disorder that selects its victims mercilessly and without discrimination.

Can High-Functioning Alcoholism Be Controlled?

The answer to this question might surprise one, but it is no, such people cannot, at least not all on their own. Functional alcoholism can be overcome with time and treatment, but one cannot wish it away or take command of it through willpower alone.

The alcoholism undoubtedly snucks up, as an individual began drinking more in response to stress, relationship troubles, workplace disappointments, or the loss of a loved one. A person probably didn’t notice the way alcohol was taking over life, but with time the body’s tolerance for alcohol increased, and one needed to drink more and more to achieve the same effects. The individual didn’t realize it, but ethanol was slowly gaining control, and its mastery over their life has only been gaining in strength.

A person may be functional now. But if they continue down this path without seeking professional help, their performance and health will gradually deteriorate as profound alcohol dependence develops.

Living With A Functioning Alcoholic

Living with a Functioning Alcoholic

In the privacy of their own homes, functioning alcoholics are not the confident, self-assured achievers they normally pretend to be when they’re hiding behind their facade. While family members may not be sure of what’s going on (although they often do have strong suspicions), they know the functioning alcoholic is dealing with a plethora of problems. Their anxiety and depression may be obvious, and their moodiness and secretiveness impact spouses, children, and other loved ones who are puzzled by their inconsistent behavior.

Functional Alcoholism and its Long-Term Impact

A functioning alcoholic who tries to quit drinking may be derailed by the strength of their cravings and withdrawal symptoms, and they may retreat into rationalization and denial once again as they slide back into chronic substance abuse. With functioning alcoholism, the drinking frequently escalates, and the eventual deterioration in home life, working life, and overall well-being are inevitable.

Anyone suffering from so-called high-functioning alcoholism should be encouraged to face their problems honestly and openly, and to take whatever steps are necessary to separate from alcohol. If the person is receptive and willing to commit to change, they should be urged to seek the expert services of a trained addiction specialist.

Functioning Alcoholics in the Workplace

Alcoholics in the workplace can be a danger to themselves and others. They can be reckless and unreliable, either drinking on the job (as their condition intensifies) or showing up for work hungover and unprepared to perform.

Many employees don’t realize it, but federal law guarantees them time off for work for substance abuse treatment, and their employers must keep their jobs open for them until they return. Rather than risk future unemployment, functioning alcoholics would be wise to seek professional help right away, before it is too late.

Functional Alcoholism Treatment and Recovery

Outpatient treatment programs are usually the best course of treatment for high-functioning alcoholics, likely supplemented by an initial period of medical detox.

The latter procedure usually takes place in a treatment facility or clinic, and will allow patients to be carefully monitored as medications, vitamin supplements, diet plans, and therapy are offered to help them pass through the withdrawal process with a minimum of difficulty and discomfort.

Government websites are an excellent source of information for people with alcohol use disorders. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence provides vital support and assistance to men and women with drinking problems and their families.

If someone may be suffering from undiagnosed and untreated functional alcoholism, they should seek medical attention and evaluation for substance abuse quickly before the situation gets out of control. Functional alcoholism responds well to sustained treatment, and customized options are always available to help recovering alcoholics who have special needs and life situations.


Page Sources


Published on: March 9th, 2018

Updated on: June 10th, 2020

About Author

Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Nena Messina is a specialist in drug-related domestic violence. She devoted her life to the study of the connection between crime, mental health, and substance abuse. Apart from her work as management at addiction center, Nena regularly takes part in the educational program as a lecturer.


Leave a comment