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What is a high-functioning alcoholic?

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Written by Karen Pontious

You manage to get through your nine-to-five work day. You get home to your family, finish your responsibilities at home and the first thing you do is pour yourself a drink.

Finally, it’s time to unwind from the day. But it turns out your one-glass rule has turned into a one-bottle rule. Before you know it, it’s eight in morning and the cycle continues.

You wake up groggy, anxious and irritable. But hey, this is what the working lifestyle is supposed to be like, right?

No, not exactly.

Just because that’s what your aunt, grandpa and friends do and have done for decades doesn’t make it normal. This kind of normalcy on drinking culture has blurred peoples understanding of addiction for generations.

It’s time we understand all types of alcoholics, so let’s start by defining and recognizing High-Functioning Alcoholism.

How do you know if someone has a drinking problem?

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This may seem like a simple question to answer.

Generally, we define an alcoholic or a person with an alcoholic use disorder (AUD) as someone who wants or needs to drink excessive amounts of alcohol. However, if someone doesn’t show obvious signs or symptoms it can be hard to tell that they have an AUD.

There are many successful and driven people who have a drinking problem and even though their alcohol consumption doesn’t seem to be impacting their lives negatively it cannot be ignored.

These people are called “High-Functioning Alcoholics” (HFAs). HFAs live their lives normally despite their drinking problem. The National Institutes of Health found that functional alcoholics are generally “middle-aged, well-educated, with stable jobs and families.”

In Sarah Benton’s book, Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic she discusses the prominence of High-Functioning Alcoholics and the dangerous of HFAs staying below the radar.

Since it’s hard to spot an HFA, how do you know if you or a loved one has an alcohol problem?

Here are 10 signs to pay attention to:

10 Signs of a High-Functioning Alcoholic

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1) They convince themselves that their drinking isn’t a problem because they have a job and a family


2) They can't control how much they drink and often drink excessively without planning on it


3) Blacking out is common when they have a night out


4) They act completely different when they are drunk than when they are sober


5) They hide alcohol from their loved ones to keep them from finding out how much they are drinking


6) They drink alone and feel the need to take the "edge off" the day.

7) They use alcohol as a coping mechanism

8) They joke about having a drinking problem

9) They are constantly trying to explain and justify their drinking

10) They worry about their drinking, but not enough to do anything about it

What are common symptoms of withdrawal?

Unfortunately, when High-Functioning Alcoholics start to worry about their drinking they are still less likely to reach out for support than others. Over time, they grow dependent on alcohol, which can create severe withdrawal symptoms.

Symptoms of withdrawal could include:

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Irritability

  • Headaches

  • Nausea

  • Mood swings

  • Lack of energy


However, if you don’t encounter these symptoms it does not mean you’re out of the woods. No matter how subtle the signs and symptoms of High-Functioning Alcoholics endure we need to shed light on the dangers of normalizing High-Functioning Alcoholics.

Getting help as a High-Functioning Alcoholic

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Our society associates alcoholism with the idea of hitting "a rock bottom." This illusion not only creates stigma around addiction but also depicts High-Functioning Alcoholics as a normal reality for many.

No matter the collateral damage, an alcoholic will only seek help and start to get better when the pain they endure exceeds their pain threshold. — Matt Salis

Just because you haven’t hit rock bottom or don’t identify as being and “addict” doesn’t mean you don’t have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Getting help can look different for everyone, there’s no one-size-fits-all recovery method.

Speak to your doctor or therapist for guidance before you quit. At Avalon we offer free services and resources for those looking for support during their recovery. Finding a supportive community can help you surpass denial and find the recovery that you need.

Karen Portious

Karen Pontious is a professional communicator working on her dream to be a freelance writer and editor. She is currently completing a summer placement with Avalon Recovery Society.

Her passion is intercultural relations and communication. She writes about relationships, immigration stories, gender norms, and mental health.

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