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Functional alcoholism – sometimes called high-functioning alcoholism – is a form of alcoholism whereby the alcoholic can perform his/her activities of daily living properly and without assistance from others. In addition, a functional alcoholic may hold a job, take part in child care, help with community activities, and otherwise appear normal to the outside world. Functional alcoholics can maintain financial stability and avoid legal trouble.

functional alcoholism example of woman sitting at her desk sneaking liquor into her coffee mug

But, the reality is that the functional alcoholic is on the path to self-destruction, suffers from emotional turmoil, and lives a very different life in private than in public. Sometimes, a functional alcoholic will live and work in a environment where drinking is part of the everyday culture. In this way, the highly-functioning alcoholic’s dependence on alcohol can easily go unnoticed. But the consequences tend to catch up.

Think of the stock broker, or bar tender, who has worked and functioned in family unit his/her entire life, all the while drinking alcoholically. And then suddenly there is a life changing event, and the alcoholism gets so out of control that they can no longer function. Or, one day the alcoholic wakes up and are suddenly diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver.

The convincing a functional alcoholic to enter treatment can be a challenging task. Because the consequences are relatively minor and few, the highly-functioning alcoholic probably will need to undergo a laborious process to fully understand the impact that alcohol has had on his/her life. This will also occur in family members, coworkers, friends, and other companions. But, in the end, it is more likely than not that the alcoholic’s support network will notice the problem before the alcoholic.

Profound denial is one hallmark of a highly-functioning alcoholic. This denial, as stated above, extends into the alcoholic’s support network. Because they have excelled in most areas of life, such as family obligations, sports, friendships, work, and financially, convincing a functional alcoholic that they truly are suffering from a grave medical disorder can take a significant amount of time and effort.

Other than the obvious goals of the cessation of alcohol and clinically treating any underlying medical, psychiatric, and emotional issues, one of the main reasons for the treatment of the functional alcoholic is to stop the progression of the addiction before severe consequences occur. Many functional alcoholics believe that they can just stop drinking whenever they want. But, when this is attempted it may not be long before the functional alcoholic ends up in line at the liquor store, or finds themselves with a drink in their hand at a bar or restaurant.

Alcohol rehab can stop the progression of alcoholism in its tracks. By learning innovative ways to cope, better understanding the disease of alcoholism, and finally learning the reality of the situation, functional alcoholics can replace drinking with other healthy forms of relaxation and recreation.
In fact, it may be necessary for the alcoholic to make serious adjustments to his/her lifestyle to be able to maintain sobriety; whether this means a relationship change, a geographic change, or a change in employment. Oftentimes, a functional alcoholic gravitates to a community network, lifestyle, and employment that supports his/her drinking lifestyle.

Another challenging aspect of sobriety that a functional alcoholic will face is disclosing the situation to the appropriate persons around them. Because the disease may have gone unrecognized by most, getting over the shame, guilt, and humiliation of the fact that the functional alcoholic is destroying his/her life with alcohol should prove to be one of the most challenging aspects of changing this behavior.
Without disclosure to the appropriate people, a relapse is likely. But, once one is able to overcome the shame and guilt of alcoholism, there will be a new sense of freedom. This process makes the long-term recovery from alcoholism much more likely.

Other than the clear frequent heavy drinking, functional alcoholics display an array of signs and symptoms that are linked to this subset of alcoholics.

Signs & Symptoms of Functional Alcoholics

  • Hiding alcohol and hiding drinking behaviors
  • Breaking commitments at the last minute
  • Making “funny” statements about being an alcoholic
  • Strong denial about drinking problems, from the alcoholic and his/her family
  • Hiding emotional problems
  • Secretive behavior and spending a lot of time alone, even when they could be taking part in activities
    with their support network
  • Pushing others to drink with them
  • Only attending events that include alcohol, or attending events only after “pre-drinking” at home
  • Suffering from long-term health problems from drinking

Since highly-functioning alcoholics are often well-educated, intelligent, hard-working, and are admired by their peers and family, the entire community covertly and unknowingly plays a role in fostering the continuation of the alcoholism.

Unfortunately, the fact that the functional alcoholic “has a lot to lose” if they continue to drink doesn’t typically result in a halt of the progression of the disease. This is because functional alcoholics suffer from the same cravings and inability to stop drinking despite negative consequences or the risk of consequences that every other type of alcoholic suffers from. Because of this, alcohol rehab is often necessary to stop the disease in its tracks.

As surprising as it may be to the functional alcoholic and his/her support network, many functional alcoholics will need alcohol detox prior to entering inpatient or residential alcohol rehab. The quantity of alcohol that is routinely consumed is oftentimes downplayed, not to mention the duration of the alcohol abuse.

If you, or a loved one, suffer from alcoholism, but are still functioning, it is critical that you seek help before the disease progresses. The addiction specialists at the Behavioral Wellness and Recovery can refer you to a program that has the experience and knowledge necessary to treat highly-functioning alcoholics. Give us a call before it’s too late at 800-683-4457.


Behavioral Wellness & Recovery is a Joint Commission accredited program. The Joint Commission recognizes excellence in health care organizations and programs.


Behavioral Wellness & Recovery is a Joint Commission accredited program. The Joint Commission recognizes excellence in health care organizations and programs.

Your decision to regain your life helps and heals your entire family. Do it for them. Do it for you.


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