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How to Recognize a High-Functioning Alcoholic

It has been suggested that about half of alcoholics can be described as high-functioning alcoholics. These are people who maintain careers, raise a family, and have plenty of friends – all the while drinking alcoholically. These people are very adept at disguising abusive drinking and because the outer trappings of their lives indicate success, they tend to have strong denial about the problem.

High-functioning alcoholics can go years and even decades without being confronted, although as time goes on, most will incur some consequences: an angry spouse, maybe a failed marriage blamed on “other problems,” a DUI, or some other indication that they should address their drinking behavior. Often, until some major event occurs related to their addiction, they and those around them do not address the behavior.

A good example might be Diane Shuler, a 36-year-old mother who killed herself and eight others driving under the influence of alcohol and marijuana. Among the dead were one of her children and three nieces. Her son survived the crash. Her family reacted with shock and dismay: the woman they knew was not an alcoholic. This denial is common with high-functioning alcoholics, particularly if they are binge drinkers. Many people mistakenly believe alcoholics drink ever day, but among women, binge drinking is more common.

It can be particularly difficult to identify someone as needing treatment for alcohol dependence if that person is a professional holding a high-level career and is not financially impacted by their abusive drinking.

In the book “Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic,” written by Sarah Allen Benton, she quotes Dr. Mark Willengring of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “People can be dependent and not have abuse problems at all. They’re successful students. They’re good parents, good workers. They watch their weight. They go to the gym. Then they go home and have four martinis or two bottles of wine. Are they alcoholics? You bet.”

It’s important to recognize that being an alcoholic does not equate with being a failure in life. Many successful people are alcoholics, and many defy the stereotypical characterization of alcoholics. High-functioning alcoholics, in essence, lead two lives: the public one where they are doctors, lawyers, Wall Street brokers, or entrepreneurs, and the private one where they drink far more than the normal social drinker.

If you suspect someone who works with you or lives with you is a high-functioning alcoholic, you have to add together all the pieces – do they have three drinks to everyone else’s one; do they have physical symptoms of overindulgence (stomach problems, insomnia, shakiness in the morning); do they have binge periods when they get extremely drunk?

A few other things to watch for are:

  • They say they are only going to have one or two drinks, but end up drinking far more
  • Their behavior changes dramatically when they drink (a normally shy person becomes more sociable; an amiable person becomes more aggressive or belligerent)
  • They don’t remember things they did or said (blackouts)
  • They seem to plan their day around getting a drink (three-martini lunch; after-work visit to the bar; grabbing the bottle as soon as they get home)
  • They go through periods of abstinence where they make a point of not drinking, during which they may be anxious or irritable, then usually go back to their usually pattern of drinking soon after
  • They wake up with a hang over (although some people seem remarkably hangover-free even if they drank too much)

The truth is, even if someone is able to disguise their alcoholic drinking, they still put themselves and others at risk when they abuse alcohol. There are stories of surgeons with shaky hands in surgery; mothers who pick up children for a school carpool after a few glasses of wine; pilots who fly a planeload of people while nursing a hangover.

There is no shame in admitting you cannot manage your alcohol intake; the shame comes when it finally catches up with you (and it will) in a way that could be as tragic as the case of Diane Shuler.

If you or someone you care about shows signs of an alcohol problem,call to speak with a Promises Recovery Specialist today.

Posted on November 14, 2009 and modified on April 28, 2019

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