Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic

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The High-Functioning Alcoholic

The term alcoholic conjures up many images and assumptions of the individual labeled with this diagnosis. Most of the general population imagine an individual living at or below poverty, with difficulty finding or keeping a job, potentially unhygienic, and with strained or broken relationships. These are just a few thoughts that may run through a person’s mind when they hear this term.

Unlike common belief, alcoholism impacts a variety of people and doesn't differentiate between gender, age, or socio-economic status. An individual can be an alcoholic yet seemingly have their lives together. These individuals are known as functional alcoholics, or, more often, high-functioning alcoholics. In this article, Avenues Recovery, leading experts in addiction rehabilitation, explores the struggles of a high-functioning alcoholic.

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What Is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) classifies alcohol use disorder (AUD), alcoholism, as a psychological condition. The medical diagnosis of alcoholism is an umbrella term that encompasses all forms of alcoholism: mild, moderate, and severe. 

A high-functioning alcoholic is an individual who is dependent on alcohol but is otherwise able to function normally within society and their daily lives. They may be classified as having mild AUD based on the diagnostic criteria they meet. These individuals do not meet the diagnosis based on their alcohol use causing issues in their job or personal life, but other criteria, as explained below.

The DSM-5 poses 11 questions regarding alcohol use in the last year. Depending on the number of questions answered yes to, the alcoholic is placed into one of the three categories: mild, moderate, or severe. A high-functioning alcoholic will answer yes to at least two of the questions, resulting in a diagnosis of mild.


Identify the high-functioning alcoholic with this guide by Avenues Recovery.

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The High-Functioning Alcoholic Signs and Symptoms

High-functioning alcoholic symptoms vary from person to person. A high-functioning alcoholic generally refers to an individual who relies on alcohol as a means of coping, relaxing, or unwinding yet appears physically and mentally healthy.

Some red flags and high-functioning alcoholic signs include:

  • Having an alcoholic beverage right after work
  • Drinking longer than they intended to
  • Easily irritated when they are unable to drink
  • Hiding their alcohol consumption
  • Focused on ensuring there is enough alcohol in their environment

High-functioning alcoholism often causes functional tolerance. This is a condition in which the individual has consumed so much alcohol that their body has developed a tolerance to its effects. Functional tolerance requires the highly functional alcoholic to drink increasingly higher volumes of alcohol to achieve the same results. Individuals with functional tolerance can often drink more alcohol than others without appearing intoxicated at all.

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Risk Factors and Causes of High-Functioning Alcoholism

Most high-functioning alcoholics consume alcohol at levels that could damage organs and lead to cognitive impairment. These individuals are at a greater risk of becoming moderate to severe alcoholics due to their growing alcohol dependence. Their slow progression into severe alcoholism is dangerous - because it happens so gradually, the individual and their loved ones may not realize it is happening.

Denial is another danger the high-functioning alcoholic may face. High-functioning alcoholics genuinely believe they are okay. Because their lives seem unharmed by their alcohol consumption, they are more likely to deny they have an AUD and ultimately not seek help. While their alcohol consumption may not impact their lives at present, their physical and mental health is still at risk.

Avenues Recovery lists the signs and symptoms displayed by the high-functioning alcoholic.

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Is Your Loved One a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

You might be wondering whether a loved one is a high-functioning alcoholic. You may see them consume large amounts of alcohol regularly, which concerns you, yet they are rarely intoxicated, and their lives are generally together. Experiencing this regularly can be confusing and may prevent you from providing the right support for the high-functioning alcoholic, or worse, you may become a source of enabling. Therefore, it is a dire concern to understand the high-functioning alcoholic, what it’s like to be a high-functioning alcoholic, signs to look out for, and how to support a recovering alcoholic once they are on the road to recovery.

High-Functioning Alcoholic Spouse

Being married to a high-functioning alcoholic can be difficult. But many people do not know how to tell if someone is a high-functioning alcoholic. Those living with a high-functioning alcoholic husband, wife, or partner may not realize there is a problem until the condition has become dangerous. The longer the condition goes undiagnosed and treated, the harder it is for them to admit and get help.

This can place strain on a relationship, as the high-functioning alcoholic’s spouse may become irritated regarding their alcohol consumption. They may not understand the alcoholic’s compulsory need for alcohol. In their ignorance, they may forego getting help for their loved ones. 

Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic

It is important to understand the high-functioning alcoholic, how they arrived at this point, and why it is difficult for them to realize they need help. Understanding what it's like to be a high-functioning alcoholic can help loved ones provide more support and empathy. Due to genetic and social factors often outside of their control, these individuals are at a higher risk of becoming dependent on alcohol. Although they can maintain their lives in a seemingly normal capacity, their dependence on alcohol to function is still genuine. Genetic factors play a part in 50 percent of alcoholism.

Avenues Recovery explains the signs and symptoms of high-functioning alcoholics so you can identify them.

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The High-Functioning Alcoholic Quiz

If you or a loved one are concerned that you are a high-functioning alcoholic, there are many available high-functioning alcoholic quizzes online. Our quiz is based on the diagnostic questions in the DSM-5 and will help you determine if or where you fall in terms of an AUD diagnosis. The full list of questions can be found here.


How to Help a High-Functioning Alcoholic

If you are concerned that you or a loved one is a high-functioning alcoholic, it is important to get help. A quality alcohol rehab facility, like Avenues Recovery, is equipped to support any high-functioning alcoholic in alcohol detox treatment and recovery. Contact us to hear how our professional addiction specialists can help you get your life back.

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