What is a Functioning Alcoholic?

Friends In A Circle Cheersing Alcohol

Alcoholism, also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a condition that’s characterized by an inability to control one’s alcohol consumption despite negative consequences.1 Many people assume that all alcoholics struggle to fulfill their day-to-day responsibilities. However, this isn’t the case. 

Functional alcoholics are people who struggle with AUD and still manage to satisfy their daily duties and not display outward signs. For instance, a functional alcoholic may hold a steady job, pay their bills on time, take care of their children, and participate in social events. Meanwhile, their alcohol addiction may be deteriorating their health and relationships behind the scenes, sometimes without displaying telltale signs of alcoholism. 

If you’re worried that you or a loved one may be a high-functioning alcoholic, you’re in the right place. Below, we’ll outline the characteristics of functioning alcoholism. We’ll also explain how people with AUD can overcome it. 

Characteristics of a Functioning Alcoholic

AUD occurs along a spectrum—it can be mild, moderate, or severe. Functional alcoholics are people who may currently be on the milder side of this spectrum. With that being said, what are a functioning alcoholic’s most common characteristics?

  • Drinking excessively – According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderate alcohol consumption is defined as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.2 Functional alcoholics often drink well beyond these guidelines, though not necessarily every day.

    Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to drink every day to be an alcoholic. Some functional alcoholics may go days or weeks without drinking. However, when they drink, they often do so in excess. They may also drink at socially inappropriate times, such as during the morning or mid-day. In turn, their relationship with alcohol can still be classified as addictive and destructive.
  • Blacking out and losing control while drinking – Alcohol abuse can lead some people to blackout. A blackout is a period of time that someone can’t remember because they were heavily intoxicated. Blackouts typically occur once someone’s blood alcohol concentration exceeds 0.16 percent.3

    During a blackout, a person’s cognitive abilities become significantly impaired, which can lead them to behave impulsively, exhibit poor judgment, and make reckless decisions. Some functional alcoholics may wake up feeling very anxious about their blacked-out behavior. In turn, they may drink more to cope with these feelings and avoid discussions with loved ones.
  • Finding excuses to drink – Functional alcoholics are often on the lookout for reasons to drink, such as rewarding themselves for a minor accomplishment or recovering from a stressful day at work. They may also lose interest in activities or events that don’t involve alcohol abuse. 
  • Getting defensive about their alcohol consumption – Functional alcoholics often react defensively to criticism about their drinking habits, even if it’s coming from a well-meaning place. Some functional alcoholics may deny having a drinking problem and use their high-functioning status as evidence.
  • Hiding or lying about alcohol consumption – To avoid scrutiny from others, some functional alcoholics may drink in secret. For instance, they may hide alcohol around their house, drink alone before social events, or sneak alcohol into situations where it isn’t being served.
  • Drinking despite negative health consequences – Excessive drinking can cause a lot of damage to one’s physical and mental health. Functional alcoholics may continue to drink despite mounting health problems related to their consumption. 
  • Getting into risky situations due to drinking – Some functional alcoholics may be more likely to drink and drive or get into physical altercations while under the influence.
  • Maintaining a well-groomed appearance – Despite the issues listed above, many functional alcoholics defy the stereotypes of severe alcoholics. Rather than looking disheveled and intoxicated, they may appear well-groomed and clear-headed, even after consuming large amounts of alcohol. 
  • Keeping up with daily responsibilities – Another characteristic of a functional alcoholic is that they seem to keep up with their home, work, and school responsibilities despite their drinking habits.
  • Experiencing relational conflict – While functional alcoholics fulfill many of their daily duties, their relationships are often the first area to experience negative effects. Loved ones of functional alcoholics may become concerned with their drinking habits, intoxicated behavior, and deteriorating health. This, in turn, can cause arguments and defensive behavior that erode the trust between friends and family.
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Can a Functioning Alcoholic Develop Alcohol Use Disorder?

Yes, most people who exhibit the characteristics of functional alcoholism above would likely qualify for a diagnosis of AUD, though only a medical professional can provide a formal diagnosis. 

To qualify for AUD, a person must exhibit at least two of the following symptoms:1 

  • Having a strong urge to drink
  • Drinking more and more over time
  • Struggling to stop drinking
  • Spending a lot of time drinking and recovering from alcohol
  • Giving up on some hobbies and goals
  • Developing a tolerance to alcohol
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms in the absence of alcohol
  • Drinking to avoid these withdrawal symptoms
  • Drinking despite issues at work, home, or school
  • Drinking despite alcohol-related relationship problems
  • Drinking despite physical, emotional, or mental health issues

As you can see, many of the AUD diagnostic criteria overlap with the signs of high functioning alcoholism. So then, what is a functioning alcoholic exceptionally talented at? Hiding their symptoms from loved ones. 

Long-Term Effects of Being a Functional Alcoholic

Alcoholism can lead to a host of negative consequences over time. Some of these consequences can include:

  • Physical health problems – People suffering from alcoholism are at a greater risk of developing high blood pressure, strokes, irregular heartbeats, heart muscle disease, fatty liver disease, cirrhosis, alcoholic hepatitis, pancreatitis, fibrosis, and several types of cancers.4 Some of these health problems can be fatal. Alcohol can also weaken the immune system, making functioning alcoholics more susceptible to infections and diseases.4
  • Mental health issues – Alcohol isn’t just bad for the body—it can also wreak havoc on one’s mental and emotional health. Alcoholism is associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.5 Oftentimes, people struggling with these mental health conditions may use alcohol to self-medicate, perpetuating a damaging cycle.
  • Legal issues – If someone suffering from alcoholism engages in drunk driving or other risky behaviors, they may eventually get into legal trouble, which can be expensive, time-consuming, and professionally damaging.
  • Financial issues – Functioning alcoholics may face financial issues as their AUD worsens over time and their financial management falls to the wayside. If their ability to work becomes impaired, they may get fired and struggle with ongoing unemployment.
  • Relational issues – Alcoholism can cause a lot of damage to one’s relationships. Some functional alcoholics may get out of control while they’re intoxicated and treat their loved ones in regrettable ways. They may also become moody or irritable if they have to go for prolonged periods without alcohol. In turn, alcohol may become a growing issue in their relationships.

Since alcoholism can impact nearly every aspect of someone’s life, it’s important to seek treatment for it sooner rather than later. Getting treatment early on can help functioning alcoholics prevent the more severe consequences of AUD before it’s too late. 

How to Stop Alcoholic Tendencies

In 2019, over 14 million American adults were suffering from AUD.1 If you suspect that you or a loved one is a functioning alcoholic, you’re certainly not alone. Luckily, alcohol addiction treatment programs can help functioning alcoholics and others with AUD get their lives back on track. 

The treatments utilized include:

  • Rehabilitation – Rehabs are inpatient health centers where people can go to detox from alcohol and receive treatment:
    • Detox – Detoxification is the process of eliminating alcohol after someone has become chemically dependent on it. Individuals suffering from alcoholism who detox from drinking can experience distressing withdrawal symptoms. Without learning how to detox from alcohol properly alongside professional monitoring, undergoing the stages of alcohol withdrawal may be dangerous, and in worst-case scenarios, fatal. Thus, the first step of many holistic rehab programs is a carefully-monitored medical detox. 
    • Addiction treatment – Once the detox process is over, rehab patients can receive treatment for their addictions and any co-occurring mental health issues. The goal of treatment is to give recovering alcoholics the tools they need to manage their cravings and develop healthier coping mechanisms. Alcoholism treatment often includes talk therapy.
  • Therapy – Talk therapy for high-functioning alcoholism can take place in groups or individually. Therapy sessions can help people with AUD come to terms with their drinking problem, understand its root cause, and practice healthier coping mechanisms going forward. Therapy can also help people improve mental health conditions that may have been fueling their alcoholism. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most common modalities used in alcohol recovery treatment.1 
  • Support groups – Support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and SMART Recovery, host meetings for recovering alcoholics. These events are typically free and open to anyone who wants to attend. Participating in support groups can help recovering alcoholics stay on track with their sobriety and connect with others who are on similar journeys.

Elevate Rehab: Rise Above Alcoholism Today

If you’re ready to recover from alcoholism, Elevate Rehab’s alcohol rehab in California can provide you with the support you need. Our alcohol detox and treatment programs treat the whole person—not just their addiction. 

Elevate Rehab programs include one-on-one counseling, fun workout classes, holistic nutrition and fitness education, and an award-winning curriculum. During our programs, we’ll empower you to progress through your treatment plan at your own pace. 

If you’re a loved one of someone suffering from alcoholism, we also offer professional intervention services

Are you ready to elevate your life and rise above alcoholism? Discover how Elevate Rehab can support your path to recovery today.  

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  1. NIH. Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/understanding-alcohol-use-disorder
  2. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 and Online Materials. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/resources/2020-2025-dietary-guidelines-online-materials
  3. NIH. Interrupted Memories: Alcohol-Induced Blackouts. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/interrupted-memories-alcohol-induced-blackouts
  4. NIH. Alcohol’s Effects on the Body. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohols-effects-body
  5. NIH. Depression and Bipolar Disorders in Patients With Alcohol Use Disorders. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6375498/
Scott Friend Msw M.s. Medical Review E1609434230277
Medically reviewed by
Scott Friend, MSW, M.S.

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Is an accredited drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, that believes addiction treatment should not just address “how to stay sober” but needs to transform the life of the addict and empower him or her to create a more meaningful and positive life. We are dedicated to transforming the despair of addiction into a purposeful life of confidence, self-respect and happiness. We want to give recovering addicts the tools to return to the outside world completely substance-free and successful.
elevate addiction services logo
Is an accredited drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, that believes addiction treatment should not just address “how to stay sober” but needs to transform the life of the addict and empower him or her to create a more meaningful and positive life. We are dedicated to transforming the despair of addiction into a purposeful life of confidence, self-respect and happiness. We want to give recovering addicts the tools to return to the outside world completely substance-free and successful.