If you know someone you suspect is a functioning alcoholic, it can be challenging to know when and how to help them.
Likewise, if you are a heavy drinker who can still work and tend to responsibilities, you may wonder if you have a problem. Our team can help with rehab interventions and counselling for those with alcohol addiction to encourage them to start recovery.
In this article, we look at the signs of functioning alcoholism and what it means to be a high-functioning alcoholic. We also provide step-by-step instructions on how to spot and help someone suffering from this life-threatening disorder.
What Does Being A Functioning Alcoholic Mean?
A functioning alcoholic is a person who appears to have their life together and can maintain responsibilities despite suffering from alcoholism. They may be able to continue to work, strengthen relationships, and fulfil daily obligations, all whilst drinking frequently and to excess.
Because a high-functioning alcoholic can still function in the critical areas of their life, it can be difficult for them to accept they have a problem.
What’s A High Functioning Alcoholic – The Signs & Behaviours:
- Consistent Alcohol Consumption: Consistently consumes alcohol in large quantities (binge drinks) or regularly throughout the day.
- Denial and Rationalisation: A functioning alcoholic will often deny or downplay the impact of their drinking habits on their health, relationships, or overall well-being.
- Hiding Drinking Habits: Hiding bottles or cans of alcohol, drinking secretly to avoid confrontation from others.
- High Tolerance of Alcohol: High-functioning alcoholics often have a high tolerance for alcohol and can consume large amounts without displaying apparent signs of intoxication.
- Prioritising Alcohol: Prioritising drinking over other activities, hobbies, or responsibilities.
- Alcohol Dependence: A functioning alcoholic may experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms when attempting to cut back on or stop drinking altogether.
- Suffering Consequences & Continuation: Despite experiencing negative consequences such as relationship problems, work issues, or health concerns, they continue to drink.
- Driving whilst intoxicated: A high-functioning alcoholic may feel that alcohol doesn’t affect their judgement as they are used to it. Because of this, they may cause a car or operate heavy machinery whilst over the legal limit.
- Taking pills or drugs to sober them up: To function, they may try to counteract the effects of alcohol with prescription stimulants, painkillers or medications.
It is important to remember that every individual’s experience with high-functioning alcoholism can differ slightly.
If you suspect someone may be a functioning alcoholic, it’s crucial to approach the situation with empathy. Try to encourage them to seek professional help and support for their recovery journey.
How to Help a Functioning Alcoholic: Supporting Their Recovery Journey
Supporting a functioning alcoholic’s recovery journey can be challenging, but some strategies can make a difference.
Educate yourself about alcoholism, express your concern, and encourage open communication. Suggest professional help and offer assistance with research. Be patient, set boundaries, and promote healthy coping mechanisms. Create a supportive environment and prioritise your self-care.
Remember, your role is to provide support and resources as they decide to seek help. This is something that cannot be forced. If they are resistant, you may want to seek our advice and enlist a professional interventionist.
Getting A Functioning Alcoholic To Accept Help
Helping a high-functioning alcoholic can be challenging. They may be resistant to acknowledging their addiction or seeking help. However, there are steps you can take to support them on their journey towards recovery.
Here are some strategies to consider:
1. Educate Yourself
Before attempting to help a functioning alcoholic, it’s essential to educate yourself about alcoholism and its effects. Understanding the nature of addiction will enable you to approach the situation with empathy and knowledge.
2. Express Concern and Offer Support
Approach a high-functioning alcoholic non-confrontationally and express your concern for their well-being. Let them know that you care about them and that you are there to support them throughout their recovery journey.
3. Encourage Open Communication
Create a safe space for open communication, allowing people to express their thoughts and feelings without judgment. Listen actively to their experiences, showing empathy and understanding.
4. Suggest Professional Help
Encourage the person to seek professional help from healthcare professionals or addiction specialists who can provide guidance, support, and treatment options tailored to their needs.
5. Offer Assistance with Research
Assist a functioning alcoholic in researching detox clinics, rehab centres, therapists, support groups, or rehabilitation programs specialising in treating alcohol addiction. Please provide them with resources and information that can help them make informed decisions about their recovery
6. Be Patient and Persistent
Recovery is a process that takes time, so it’s essential to be patient with the person. While they may not initially agree with what you say, you will have sown the seed. Reminding them you are there to support them provides them with the opportunity to turn to you at any point
7. Set Boundaries
While supporting a high-functioning alcoholic, it’s crucial to establish boundaries for your well-being. Communicate your limits clearly and stick to them consistently. Not having boundaries only further enables a person with alcoholism to continue without consequences.
8. Foster a Supportive Environment
Create a supportive environment by involving friends and family members willing to offer their support and understanding. Please encourage them to participate in the recovery process and provide a network of people who can help the person stay accountable.
9. Take Care of Yourself
Trying to help a functioning alcoholic can be emotionally draining. It is crucial to prioritise your self-care. Seek support from professionals or support groups to ensure you have the necessary resources to continue offering assistance.
Remember, ultimately, it is up to the individual to seek help and commit to their recovery from alcohol. You provide support, encouragement, and resources along the way.
Avoid Enabling A High Functioning Alcoholic
Someone with high-functioning alcoholism may frequently need your help to continue to function. By assisting them, you will prevent them from reaching a place where they become desperate enough to seek treatment.
A functioning alcoholic is more likely to be ready to accept professional help when they start dropping the ball or are in constant fear of being found out. It is, therefore, vital that you do not cover up for them nor assist their alcohol consumption in any way.
If you are wondering what constitutes enabling an alcoholic, ask yourself whether you are helping the person or their illness. If it is the latter, don’t do it.
Not enabling someone you love’s alcoholism, such as a spouse, child, partner or parent, can be heart-wrenching. You may feel guilty that you are contributing to their downfall. We suggest that you seek counselling or attend a support group to help you navigate any feelings this may bring up.
Do High Functioning Alcoholics Work?
Someone who is considered to be a high-functioning alcoholic will often continue to work. They may even excel at it. The problem with alcohol addiction is that it always gets progressively worse without the correct treatment. Losing their ability to work is usually only a matter of time.
Once a functioning alcoholic has lost their job, they often lose their purpose and direction in life. This sends them spiralling downwards very quickly.
Not all functioning alcoholics will have a job, but they will remain accountable in critical areas of their life. They may still pay their bills on time, get the children to school or present a clean and tidy house. Take away the alcohol; from the outside, it would be hard to see anything wrong. Look more closely, however, and the cracks are apparent.
What Happens When A Functioning Alcoholic Stops Drinking?
Someone who suffers from high-functioning alcoholism will likely suffer from alcohol withdrawal symptoms if they try to stop or significantly decrease their drinking. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe depending on the amount a person drinks and the frequency of consumption.
A common sign of alcoholism is feeling shaky in the mornings when the body has had a period without alcohol. This dangerous/jittery feeling will go away once the alcohol has been consumed.
Understanding Alcohol Withdrawal
Alcohol withdrawal is caused by chronic use of ethanol, the primary alcohol ingested. Ethanol acts as a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. When the body becomes reliant on it due to extended exposure, it inhibits the activity of glutamate receptors in the brain while enhancing the inhibitory function of GABA receptors.
When alcohol is suddenly stopped or decreased, the central nervous system becomes overexcited as the depressant effects have been removed. The brain remains in this overexcited and reactive state for days after alcohol use has been stopped. This overactivity in the brain is what causes alcohol withdrawal symptoms to occur.
Signs of Alcohol Withdrawal Include:
- Tremors (uncontrollable shaking)
- Excessive sweating
- Nausea and vomiting
- Retching (dry heaving)
- Muscle spasms
- Delerium Tremens (tremors, hallucinations, disorientation, severe anxiety)
- Alcoholic seizures
- Cravings for alcohol
Unmanaged alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be highly distressing and can become life-threatening. The pain of alcohol withdrawal can be managed safely with a complete medical detox.
If you or anyone you care for displays alcoholic withdrawal, immediate medical assistance should be sought. Alternatively, call our experts, and we can arrange an urgent admission to a registered detox facility.
Overcoming Denial In A Functioning Alcoholic
Denial is often the main factor that prevents a person with alcoholism from accepting help or seeking treatment. It can often be solid in a person with high-functioning alcoholism as they can rationalise that they can still work and attend to commitments.
Living a life without alcohol is a very frightening prospect for a person who uses alcohol to cope with emotions and escape the drudgery and stress of daily life. It is not until a crisis happens that they will eventually ask for help.
The simple fact is that alcohol use disorders damage the brain. The changes in brain circuits involve pleasure, learning, stress, decision-making, and self-control. This results in worsening denial and compromises insight regarding the illness.
A person who is scared to give up drinking may also use denial as a way of protecting their illness. This is because when someone admits they have a problem, they are usually expected to do something about it.
How To Speak To Them
When speaking to a functioning alcoholic who displays denial around their drinking, it is often helpful to relay specific events and consequences that have happened. You may also refer them to some signs of alcoholism.
Telling them how their drinking affects you can also help to make a dent in denial. They may be able to rationalise how their drinking affects them but not how it affects others.
When speaking to someone with high-functioning alcoholism, they need to understand that they suffer from a disease that is not their fault. Alcohol use disorders compel people to seek and drink alcohol, rendering them powerless to stop. Understanding that they are unwell can help a person accept the nature of their condition and seek appropriate treatment.
Treatment For A High Functioning Alcoholic
Getting a high-functioning alcoholic to see the bigger picture is vital. Once they truly understand the nature of alcoholism, they can see exactly what they stand to lose. Functioning alcoholism is treated with a bespoke approach. This ensures that the person can still do the things they love without the need or desire for alcohol.
Detox Plus U.K. offer many treatment options in the U.K., and overseas that can be tailored to your or your loved ones’ specific treatment needs. Rehab treatment doesn’t mean giving up on your life. It means regaining control.
Our treatment centres deliver proven therapies and teach strategies that help people thrive in sobriety and reach their true potential.
For more information and free expert advice, call us. We are waiting to hear your story and assist you in taking those first difficult steps to a better way of life
- Finn DA, Helms ML, Nipper MA, Cohen A, Jensen JP, Devaud LL. Sex differences in the synergistic effect of prior binge drinking and traumatic stress on subsequent ethanol intake and neurochemical responses in adult C57BL/6J mice. Alcohol. 2018 Sep;71:33-45. [PubMed]
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General. Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health. Washington, DC; 2016.