People who are high-functioning alcoholics (HFAs) are commonly middle-aged, intelligent, well-educated and hardworking, with stable jobs and families. About 30% of HFAs have a genetic or generational history of alcoholism and about 25% experience a major depressive illness at some point in their lives.1

Alcohol Facts and Stats

  • In 2014, there were 139.7 million current alcohol users ages 12 or older in the U.S., with 23% classified as binge drinkers and 6.2% as heavy drinkers.2
  • The vast majority (90%) of people who binge drink are not alcoholics or alcohol dependent.3
  • An estimated 58% of adult men reported drinking alcohol in the last 30 days.3
  • An estimated 46% of adult women reported drinking alcohol in the last 30 days.4
  • About 23% of adult men reported binge drinking five times a month, averaging eight drinks per binge.3
  • About 12% of adult women reported binge drinking three times a month, averaging five drinks per binge.4
  • Of the estimated 17.6 million U.S. adults with alcohol use disorder, about 19% to 25% are classified as highly functioning or functionally dependent.1,5

The Truth About Functioning Alcoholics

Throughout history, there have been many HFAs who were highly accomplished, talented and considered the cream of the crop in their respective fields. Among those who publicly acknowledged their battles with alcohol were Betty Ford, Elizabeth Taylor, Samuel L. Jackson and Stephen King.6 They achieved long-term recovery through professional treatment and abstinence. However, there are also famous people who ultimately lost their lives due to alcohol abuse, such as the artists Jackson Pollack and Vincent van Gogh and authors Ernest Hemingway and Dylan Thomas.

“My makeup wasn’t smeared, I wasn’t disheveled, I behaved politely, and I never finished off a bottle, so how could I be alcoholic?”7

This quote from Betty Ford is typical of many HFAs. They are often fashionable, physically attractive and even elegant in their demeanor. They can successfully hide their alcoholism because they don’t fit the stereotypical image of an alcoholic. They learn how to separate their personal and drinking life and become adept at maintaining this façade, with outwardly successful social lives, intimate relationships and considerable achievements in their professional lives.6

Women are more likely to hide alcoholic tendencies than men. They are often primary family caregivers and therefore feel the need to hide their drinking from family and friends. They will often drink alone, for example, when their children are at school. They may drink clear, odorless liquids like vodka from water or sports drink bottles as a decoy.

Workplace culture can foster high-functioning alcoholism. Heavy drinking was once commonplace among journalists, who “drank” their lunches and frequently enjoyed camaraderie with colleagues at bars after work. Moreover, people in executive positions typically work without supervision, so this behavior can go unnoticed. In many cases, they don’t believe they have a problem since they are successful professionally, and actually think drinking is a reward for hard work.6

While HFAs may not be physically addicted to alcohol and can abstain for days or weeks without suffering withdrawal symptoms, they are psychologically dependent. Blackouts are a common occurrence, resulting in a person not remembering anything the day after a heavy night of drinking. The only sign of abusive behavior may be waking up with a wicked hangover the next morning.6

While the alcoholic, family members and friends can easily deny there is a problem, it isn’t possible to drink heavily over a long period of time and maintain major responsibilities. The balancing act may continue for a while, but the consequences of heavy drinking will ultimately come to light. Possible scenarios include missing important professional or family obligations, chronically arriving late to work or making costly workplace errors. In some cases, a tragic incident such as a drunk-driving accident forces the HFA to enter a treatment program or lose everything near and dear to them.6

Signs and Symptoms

Recognizing the symptoms of high-functioning alcoholism is often challenging. The signs may not be as overt as in people with a full-blown addiction to alcohol or illicit drugs, but often there are telltale clues. Many behaviors are apparent only to the functional alcoholic, although he or she may ignore them. While some of the following signs may be hidden, others may be evident to friends, family and co-workers:1,5,6

  • Drinking to induce relaxation or confidence
  • Excessive drinking during social engagements
  • The need to drink alone
  • Continual periods of intoxication
  • Smelling of alcohol in the workplace
  • Experiencing sudden lapses in memory
  • An inability to concentrate
  • Hiding the evidence of consumption
  • Finishing other peoples’ drinks
  • Missing work or family obligations
  • The inability to stop drinking even when they put their own limit on the number of drinks consumed
  • Obsessing about the next time they will be able to drink

Some individuals are unwilling to admit they have a problem. Others recognize they have a problem and are distressed by it, but believe seeking help is a sign of weakness, associate treatment with a strong societal stigma or think it will be too unpleasant, disruptive or expensive. Furthermore, friends, family members and coworkers are often enablers, not only tolerating the behavior, but covering up for the person, which does not encourage seeking help.

Just because somebody does not meet the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder, that doesn’t mean they don’t need help. There are many health-related risks associated with excessive alcohol intake, some of which are immediate and others that are long term. These include liver damage, cardiovascular disease, an increased risk of throat, esophageal, liver and breast cancer and several other problems.

Achieving sobriety is an intimidating goal, but an attainable one with the proper treatment. Many individuals benefit from outpatient treatment and 12-step support groups, while others may need inpatient treatment. If you or a loved one is abusing alcohol, don’t wait until you suffer long-term physical side effects or cause a tragic accident. Compassionate, professional help is a phone call away. For a confidential assessment, call COPAC today at 888-478-7519.

  1. 5 Lies We’re Told About High-Functioning Alcoholics. Drug Abuse website. Accessed November 18, 2016.
  2. Alcohol. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website. Updated October 30, 2015. Accessed November 18, 2016.
  3. Fact Sheets – Excessive Alcohol Use and Risks to Men’s Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Updated March 7, 2016. Accessed November 18, 2016.
  4. Fact Sheets – Excessive Alcohol Use and Risks to Women’s Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.  Updated March 7, 2016. Accessed November 18, 2016.
  5. Are You a Functional Alcoholic? Everyday Health website. Updated October 28, 2016. Accessed November 18, 2016.
  6. Brody J. High Functioning, but Still Alcoholics. The New York Times. May 4, 2009. Accessed November 18, 2016.
  7. Betty Ford Quotes. Brainy Quote website. Accessed November 18, 2016.

Choose a better life. Choose recovery.