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High-Functioning Alcoholic

In the mornings, there were always 2-3 fewer beers in the fridge than the day before. In your community, a couple of beers a night is considered normal (actually mild) alcohol consumption, which is why you kept telling yourself that his drinking wasn’t a problem.

That small comfort was short-lived, as it came to an abrupt end one quiet afternoon when you stumbled on an out-of-place cooler in the garage.

high functioning alcoholic

A quick peek inside revealed a surprisingly large stash of Miller beers beneath a sheath of fresh ice. You quickly counted the beers and, on a hunch, returned to the cooler each night that week to see if any were disappearing.

Within the week, you would learn that the 2-3 nightly beers you thought your husband was drinking were actually 10-12 beers daily. And that every evening, he waited patiently for you to go to the bathroom or take a phone call so he could rush to the cooler and replace the missing beers in the fridge with ones from the cooler. This made it look as if only a couple of beers were being drunk each day.

Looking back, you wish you could have seen the warning signs. But there simply weren’t any.

High-functioning alcoholics can be very tough to recognize, especially during the early years before the drinking progresses and their health declines. Nearly 20% of alcoholics are “highly functional and well-educated with good incomes,” according to a 2007 report by the National Institute of Health. In the Tampa area, 23% of people over the age of 12 participate in binge drinking.

At Clean Recovery Centers, we understand high-functioning alcohol use disorder (AUD). Whether you need help with a loved one or are seeking treatment for yourself, our professional and compassionate staff can help you get started on the road to recovery.

In this article, we explain what high-functioning alcoholism is so you can better understand and recognize it in yourself or a loved one.

How to Spot a High-Functioning Alcoholic

From most outside appearances, someone secretly managing AUD doesn’t seem to struggle with alcohol use. They show up to work on time and function throughout the day (or shift), often without any obvious signs of the heavy drinking that is a regular part of their lives.

“I have a steady career in finance and a healthy relationship, but I drink heavily every night of the week. Not all alcoholics look like the ones on Intervention. Some of us put a lot of effort into keeping our problems hidden.”  – Reddit user mrinternetismyfather

People hiding an AUD often go to great lengths to conceal their drinking while managing the side effects of alcohol use disorder in silence. For them, abstaining from alcohol during work hours often means pushing through intense hangovers, cravings, and withdrawal symptoms that can only be soothed by heavy or binge drinking at the end of their workday.

Practicing good hygiene, showing up on time for commitments, and carrying out professional duties are all activities that become more challenging as AUD progresses. However, many high-functioning people with AUD are fully committed to secrecy for fear of being embarrassed or losing the things that matter most to them, such as their job or family.

Some people with high-functioning AUD can continue drinking and working for years (or even decades), even as the physical progression continues to chip away at their health. You may recognize them by their heavy or binge drinking during non-work hours or you might notice the shakiness, nausea, and irritability that often accompanies withdrawal. Overall, though, you may not be able to spot someone managing an AUD, especially if you only see them during work hours.

Most Common Careers for High-Functioning Alcoholics

high functioning alcoholic at clean recovery centersHigh-functioning people with AUD come from all walks of life. They may be doctors, lawyers, scientists, homemakers, or any other type of worker. They are often the people you would least suspect of hiding their alcohol use.

While some industries have slightly higher or lower rates of substance use issues, there is no one common career related to high-functioning AUD. And there is no career or industry in which it does not exist.

5 Signs of High-Functioning Alcoholism

High-functioning AUD can be hard to spot, especially if the person hides their drinking from family members or if they live alone.

Signs that someone may be managing an AUD in secret include:

  1. Heavy or binge drinking during non-work hours.
  2. Hiding their drinking habits (drinking in secret or lying about how many drinks they’ve had).
  3. Avoiding social situations where alcohol isn’t present.
  4. Experiencing irritability or withdrawal symptoms when unable to drink for a day or two.
  5. Reacting with anger or defensiveness when asked about their drinking habits.

Symptoms of AUD aren’t always visible, especially in high-functioning AUD. But if you suspect a problem, the signs above may help steer you in the right direction.

“I generally don’t have friends over because it’s embarrassing if they see my recycling, but if I want to have friends over I hide my recycling, then do grilling or whatever…” – Reddit user IAmA

How Do I Know If I Have a Problem With Alcohol?

If you’re wondering whether your alcohol usage is unusual, feel free to take a look at the list below to see if any of the signs or symptoms look familiar.

You may need to reevaluate your relationship with alcohol if:

  1. You often end up drinking more than you meant to.
  2. You find yourself in situations that cause you to swear off drinking.
  3. You promise yourself you will cut back or stop drinking, but then “change your mind” later.
  4. You find it difficult to abstain from alcohol.
  5. You gradually cut back, shorten, or eliminate activities that interfere with your ability to drink.
  6. You continue to drink despite complaints, hints, or pleas from the people in your life.
  7. You need to drink more alcohol to get the same effect you used to get with less.
  8. You notice withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking, such as a racing heart, sweating, nausea, or depression.
  9. You find yourself in risky situations as a result of drinking. For example, you might end up driving while under the influence or experiencing a near-miss car accident.
  10. You have experienced a blackout while drinking, a period of time when you were active and engaged but have no memory of it.

If you’ve experienced any of the symptoms above, you are not alone. It may feel overwhelming to imagine facing life without alcohol, but it becomes much easier when you don’t try to tackle it alone. And let’s face it, trying to hide an AUD or control your alcohol usage on a daily basis can also be overwhelming and extremely hard.

“I was occasionally driving over the legal limit though I was never caught. I was anxious and occasionally depressed. I was worried about my long-term health. My libido was down. I was worried about the impact on my family and kids. Drinking had started to feel like a chore, always worried about having enough or where I would get the next one, starting to remove myself from other social activities.” – Reddit user redditor_the_best

What’s the Best Treatment for High-Functioning Alcoholism?

The best kind of treatment for high-functioning AUD depends on a number of factors, including the stage of AUD or whether the person faces other challenges such as mental health or drug addiction issues.

At Clean Recovery Centers, we provide a wide range of treatment options based on the person’s needs. Whether you simply require new life tools to develop healthier habits or need an alcohol detox recovery, our caring staff can help. If, like many people with AUD, you are also living with a mental health condition or drug use, we are able to diagnose and treat these conditions at any stage of your journey.

From Concern to Conversation: How to Talk to a Loved One About Their Alcohol Use

Talking to a loved one about their AUD, especially if they work to hide it, isn’t as simple as it sounds. In many cases, the person will react with anger and denial. The natural urge to want to help a loved one who is managing alcohol use disorder can backfire and either harm your relationship or spark a volatile reaction.

For this reason, it’s helpful to seek advice before approaching someone about their alcohol use. You might consult with a therapist, reach out to someone at your local  Al-Anon, or talk to an alcohol treatment specialist for advice before having that conversation.

Your loved one is fortunate to have someone who cares enough to approach them about their alcohol use. However, they may not see it that way at the time. Understanding what to expect and how to best approach them can improve the experience for both of you.

At Clean Recovery Centers we provide a unique 3-phased approach to treatment. We help you prepare and take action to address alcohol use disorders so you can enjoy a healthier, happier life. Call us today at (855) 381-6111 to learn more about our programs.


What are the different types of alcoholics?

There is wide disagreement over how to categorize different types of alcoholics, but at Clean Recovery Center, we focus on the four stages of alcoholism, which include 1) Pre-alcoholic stage 2) Early-stage alcoholism 3) Middle alcohol stage 4) End-stage alcoholism.

What are the signs of a loved one with alcoholism?

There are many different signs of alcoholism, but some of the most common are the need to drink more over time, avoiding situations where alcohol is not served, having arguments or troubles at home due to drinking, and experiencing withdrawal symptoms after a day or two of abstinence.

What does the term high-functioning alcoholic mean?

“High-functioning alcoholic” is a term that refers to someone who can hold down a job and keep up with their responsibilities despite their struggles with alcohol use.

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