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Functioning Alcoholics: Know the Signs

Mar 13, 2021

From the outside, a “functioning alcoholic” may appear to have it all together: successful career, loving family, reliable friends. What others see is only a version of their life, though. Those close to them see something different. Today, let’s talk about how to recognize the signs of a functioning alcoholic and what you should do next.

A functioning alcoholic is someone who drinks excessively yet manages to hold down a steady job and take care of their personal and family responsibilities. Their high tolerance may suggest to them that they don’t have a drinking problem. They may even look healthy and seem stable, and may deny they have a problem when confronted. Learning how to help a functional alcoholic in denial can start with educating yourself on the complications (bone damage, liver disease, lower immunity) and treatment resources for a loved one with an alcohol use disorder.

What is a functioning alcoholic?

You may hear the term “functioning” or “high-functioning” alcoholic. They mean the same thing. This is a person with an alcohol use disorder who manages to keep a job, build a career, be a productive partner, and raise a family. Drinking remains a significant part of their life through it all, yet they may look physically healthy and seem mentally healthy.

Risk factors for a functioning alcoholic include high stress levels, being around other drinkers, and binge drinking. Some other underlying factors might be low self-esteem or mental health concerns. A person raised by a functional alcoholic may have normalized heavy drinking.

How do you identify someone as a functioning alcoholic?

Look for ways their behavior is affected by their relationship to alcohol. It appears in their actions and in their words. They may joke about being an alcoholic or constantly talk about drinking. They may make excuses about their drinking, explaining it’s only to blow off steam or to celebrate something. They may deny they have any real problem.

Behavior can reveal a lot, too, when you’re living with a functional alcoholic. Driving after drinking, especially with children in the car, suggests they feel their high tolerance helps them. Drinking at every meal or using alcohol as a reward are signs of a functioning alcoholic. Someone who goes directly to the bar after work or comes home daily and pours a drink first thing may have an alcohol use disorder, too.

What you can do to help a functioning alcoholic?

When you’re living with a functional alcoholic, confronting them about their drinking may be a natural response. It doesn’t necessarily help, though. When confronted, your loved one may get angry or irritated. It could create unmanageable family conflict. It doesn’t mean the problem should be avoided.

Helping a person with an alcohol use disorder can start with inviting them to talk about their choice to drink. Talking to others who have been through it can help. Consulting your family doctor can be helpful, too. Physicians will emphasize the potential physical consequences (bone damage, liver disease, lower immunity, etc.) that your loved one faces from drinking too much.

When do functioning alcoholics become full-fledged alcoholics?

As we said earlier, functioning alcoholics seem to meet the expectations of work and home life most of the time. The turning point becomes the moment when managing their life with an alcohol use disorder is no longer possible. That could be during their attempt to quit drinking, when they experience serious withdrawal symptoms.

As alcoholism gets progressively worse, a person may experience new consequences connected to drinking. These may be the kind that they can’t hide from others. It could be blacking out at a company party, losing their job, or getting arrested for drinking and driving.

Origins Texas is a valuable resource for functioning alcoholic

We created programs specifically for people with an alcohol use disorder who still function in society. Some of these people have tried treatment before in programs that only address alcohol use. Some of these people have never been to treatment of any kind.

We believe in helping each patient understand what factors are quietly influencing their drinking and helping them overcome those factors. Mental health, including anxiety, depression, and trauma, is often a factor. We teach patients the skills they need to begin and sustain their recovery in treatment and during their post-treatment efforts to stay sober.


Origins Recovery Center is a well-known care provider offering a range of treatment programs targeting the recovery from substance use, mental health issues, and beyond. Our primary mission is to provide a clear path to a life of healing and restoration. We offer renowned clinical care for addiction and have the compassion and professional expertise to guide you toward lasting sobriety. For information on our programs, call us today: 866-875-1558.

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