Signs Of A Functioning Alcoholic: How To Know If You Or Someone You Love Is Struggling With Alcoholism

Signs Of A Functioning Alcoholic

Alcohol use is common in our society, making it harder to spot when someone crosses the line between being a casual drinker and a functional alcoholic

Despite the difficulty, knowing when someone is a functional alcoholic is especially important in a society that drinks alcohol freely and often. 

Whether you’re worried that you have become a functional alcoholic or are worried about a loved one or friend, this article will help you learn the difference. We’ll talk about the signs and symptoms of functional alcoholism, the techniques functional alcoholics will often use to hide their addiction, even from themselves, and the support systems and treatment options available to functional alcoholics. 

Before we get started, it’s important to remember that alcoholism is no one’s fault, and shame isn’t a good tool for stopping drinking, either for yourself or for the people you love. 

Instead, try to be realistic about the situation and honest in your efforts to overcome functional alcoholism. Support and love are two of the best tools to help someone move from alcoholism to recovery. 

What Are The Signs Of A Functioning Alcoholic?

The hallmark of a functional alcoholic is that they can still live mostly normal lives around their alcoholism – at least on the outside. Many functional alcoholics are high-achievers, people in top positions at companies, salespeople who consistently outsell their coworkers, business owners, CEOs, investment bankers, doctors, and lawyers. 

Of course, not everyone that’s a functional alcoholic is a high achiever. Factory and service workers are just as likely to become functional alcoholics as CEOs and lawyers. Still, people are often more willing to see the signs of alcoholism in working- and middle-class people than in high achievers. 

You need to remember that anyone can be an alcoholic and not let your impressions about the rest of an alcoholic’s life impact your analysis of their behavior and the hidden signs of alcoholism. 

Heavy Drinking

This sign is important, but it’s also obvious. A heavy drinker isn’t necessarily an alcoholic or dealing with alcohol use disorder, but regular heavy drinking is one of the most common signs someone is a functional alcoholic. 

Heavy drinking varies depending on the gender of the drinker. For most women, heavy drinking is 3 or more drinks in a night or 7 or more a week. For most men, heavy drinking is 4 or more drinks per day or 14 or more weekly. 

They Joke About Alcoholism

Surprisingly, one of the most common signs of functional alcoholism is that the person starts joking about alcoholism, especially while drinking. 

Typically, alcoholism isn’t something people think about or want to joke about. Joking can signify hidden insecurities and fear that they are dealing with something more serious. 

Jokes about alcoholism can be directed at people with alcohol use disorder or maybe more general, like saying, “At least I’m not an alcoholic!” or “This drink is so good it’s going to turn me into an alcoholic!”. 

They Struggle With At Home Responsibilities

Functional alcoholics are often able to prioritize work enough that their working personas don’t necessarily change. They might still be high achievers at work and even seem to be doing better than usual professionally. 

On the other hand, most high-functioning alcoholics don’t do as well at home. Their alcoholism might cause straight in their family relationships, or they might not keep up with their normal chores and responsibilities. 

You Feel Like You Need Alcohol To Relax

One of the hallmarks of alcohol use disorder is that you don’t feel like you can relax and enjoy yourself without alcohol. You might even feel like you need to pre-game social events, or you won’t be up to acting like yourself. 

You might need a drink before bed or watch your favorite TV shows. 

All of these are signs that you might be a functional alcoholic. 

From the outside, these tendencies can look like someone drinking more than others at social events or having an extensive liquor cabinet at home that consistently needs to be restocked. 

Functional alcoholics also often prefer harder liquors rather than beer or similar drinks. This is because they can get more of an effect from the liquor while appearing to drink less. 

Forgetting What You Did While Drinking

This is another common symptom of high-functioning alcoholism. This is also one of the most obvious signs you’re a functioning alcoholic, both for you and other people looking in. 

If you drink and can’t remember what happened while drinking, that’s a sign that you drank much more than you should have. Chances are you’ll also have a hangover and may have a stronger urge to drink more when this happens. 

heavy drinking

Benefits Of Seeking Help Even If You Can Function Under The Influence

One of the under-addressed truths of alcoholism is that many more people probably have some form of alcohol use disorder than we admit. 

Alcohol is everywhere in our society, so most of us think a little irresponsibility around drinking isn’t a big deal. 

Unfortunately, that reality means that many people don’t realize that they’re dealing with alcoholism, and many people who might otherwise notice alcoholic behavior dismiss it. 

The other problem with functional alcoholism is that most of the dysfunction that comes with alcohol abuse happens behind closed doors. A functional alcoholic usually isn’t going to drink at work, isn’t going to seem hungover even when they are, and may not even have a performance decline associated with their drinking. 

That means many classic signs of someone spiraling out of control may not be present in a functional alcoholic. 

At the highest levels of achievement, drinking may even reinforce class and status, like keeping high-quality brandy in your office for business colleagues. 

Those social norms all make it easier for people to miss the signs that they are functional alcoholics and for the people around them to miss the signs of functional alcoholism as well. 

Even in the face of personal issues like divorce or custody arguments, drinking might not come up as a reason for the conflict or why a functional alcoholic struggled in their marriage. Many functional alcoholics can even hide their alcohol use in their homes. 

Signs You Need Treatment & How To Find The Help You Need

Even though functional alcoholics are usually more stable and can accomplish more than other people with alcohol use disorder, it’s still important to notice the signs that you’re a functional alcoholic and seek treatment. 

For one thing, if you can succeed as a functional alcoholic, think about how much more you’d be able to do and accomplish without alcohol in your life. 

It’s also important to see treatment for functional alcoholism from a medical standpoint. Heavy drinking is hard on your liver, brain, and other important organs and body functions. Alcohol contains a lot of calories for relatively little nutritional content, and alcohol can interfere with your body’s ability to process nutrients and even heal and normally recover from illness and injury. 

Long-term heavy drinking comes with a lot of other health risks as well. Your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer increase when you’re a heavy drinker for a long time. 

The good news is that your risk starts to go down almost immediately when you stop drinking. Going into recovery can help quickly turn around short-term health risks, and long-term health risks diminish the longer you go without drinking or drinking to excess. 

Here are some signs that you’ve reached the point of alcohol dependence and that it’s time to seek help: 

  • You drink even when you don’t want to
  • You feel like you can’t relax without a drink
  • You feel like your best self when you’re drinking
  • Your drinking has started to cause social tension in your relationships
  • You feel like you need to drink to be ‘fun’ or ‘good enough’ around your friends and family
  • You’ve started to take more risks while drinking
  • You’ve driven under the influence of alcohol
  • You drink every day or get drunk very often
  • You feel like you can’t control how much you drink when you start
  • You’ve started sneaking alcohol into normally sober situations

risk starts to go down almost immediately when you stop drinking

Any of these behaviors are strong signs that you’re a functional alcoholic, and the more familiar they sound, the more likely you’re dealing with alcohol dependence or alcohol use disorder. 

If you’re ready to get help and are interested in a treatment program that helps you overcome alcohol use disorder, congratulations! It’s true that admitting the problem can often be the most difficult part of the process. 

The next steps include talking to your primary care physician about your concerns, treatment options, and what options you have while figuring out treatment. 

Depending on your situation and how long you’ve been drinking, you may consider outpatient or inpatient intensive programs that help you start with withdrawal and detox to rebuild healthy habits and coping mechanisms. 

When you’re ready, there are a lot of treatment options available to you. There’s no time like today to get started

 

Sources:

  1. Kranzler HR, Soyka M. Diagnosis and Pharmacotherapy of Alcohol Use Disorder: A Review. JAMA. 2018;320(8):815-824. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.11406
  2. T B. What Is a Functional Alcoholic? Verywell Mind. Published September 9, 2022. Accessed November 27, 2022. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-functional-alcoholic-67879
  3. Drinking Levels Defined | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Accessed November 27, 2022. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking
  4. Drinking too much alcohol can harm your health. Learn the facts | CDC. Published April 14, 2022. Accessed November 27, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm#:~:text=Over%20time%2C%20excessive%20alcohol%20use,liver%20disease%2C%20and%20digestive%20problems.&text=Cancer%20of%20the%20breast%2C%20mouth,liver%2C%20colon%2C%20and%20rectum.

 

Amanda

Amanda is a prolific medical content writer specializing in eating disorders and addiction treatment. She graduated Magnum Cum Laude from Purdue University with a B.S. in Social Work. As a person in recovery from disordered eating, she is passionate about seeing people heal and transform. She writes for popular treatment centers such as Ocean Recovery, Ascendant NY, Infinite Recovery, Epiphany Wellness, New Waters Recovery and adolescent mental health treatment center BasePoint Academy. In her spare time she loves learning about health, nutrition, meditation, spiritual practices, and enjoys being the a mother of a beautiful daughter.

Last medically reviewed November 27, 2022