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Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic

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A young businesswoman works on her computer, while thinking about a possible drinking problem.
High-functioning alcoholics may seem like they’re climbing the corporate ladder. But they’ve lost control over their drinking and are headed for a fall.

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Here’s an alarming statistic: Only 8.9 percent of people aged 12 or older who needed treatment for alcohol use actually received it.

That statistic comes from a national survey done by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). And it raises an interesting question. Who are the 91.1 percent that need help, but aren’t getting it?

There’s no way of knowing the answer for sure, but it’s a safe bet that the group is made up of both obvious alcoholics, who are easy to spot, and high-functioning alcoholics, who do a great job of concealing their disease.

The high-functioning alcoholic still has a job, friends and family. You won’t typically see him doing drunk karaoke at a work party. Nor will you catch her passing out on Christmas Eve after too much eggnog.

So what is a high-functioning alcoholic?

High-Functioning Alcoholic Symptoms

The consensus among experts is that the telltale sign of addiction is a lack of control. A high-functioning alcoholic might recognize that they should drink less, but they are unable to do it. Whereas a heavy drinker, who has not yet crossed that line, is still able to moderate his or her drinking. They are able to set limits and stick to them. Maybe they promise themselves they will only drink on weekends. Or perhaps they resolve never to drink more than four drinks on any one occasion.

Unless your loved one has shared his or her struggle with you, it can be difficult to make the distinction between alcohol abuser and addict. Here are a few symptoms to watch out for.

  • Losing interest in activities other than drinking.
  • Justifying heavy alcohol use as something that comes with a high-stress job or as a reward for a long day.
  • Behaving aggressively or impulsively while drinking.
  • Skipping meals for alcohol.
  • Sneaking and hiding alcohol.
  • Experiencing frequent blackouts.
  • Only wanting to socialize with friends who drink.
  • Finishing other people’s drinks or rushing to get one last drink before the night ends.
  • Drinks in the morning.
  • Frequently feels sick in the morning, either from a hangover or from withdrawal.
  • Drinks more than he or she intends to on a regular basis.

You’re right if you’re thinking these are symptoms also shared with the obvious alcoholic. The main difference is that high-functioning alcoholics are better at hiding their symptoms—at least for the time being.

Some prefer the term “still-functioning alcoholic” because, once a person loses control, the downward spiral begins. It is only a matter of time. He or she may not end up in the literal gutter, but they will suffer problems related to work, family, health or even the law.

There is, however, hope. The functioning alcoholic has not suffered any serious consequences yet. The key is to get help before that happens.

Hope at The Raleigh House

The Raleigh House is a residential treatment center located in Denver founded on the belief that addiction treatment must address the whole person. Our master’s level trained therapists get to the root cause of addiction and help residents build a strategy for a successful future. Fill out our form or contact us today to learn more about the alcohol addiction treatment program at The Raleigh House.

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