Many people that meet the criteria for alcoholism can function so effectively that they stay under the radar for years.

High functioning alcoholics can be anyone; a parent, teacher, employer, efficient co-worker, grandparents or even your teenage son or daughter.  Although there may be one or two incidents such as occasional unexplained absences or hangover, most are unrecognizable as alcoholics.

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines high-functioning alcoholics as individuals that continue to manage the responsibilities of their home and professional lives to such a degree that they escape the turmoil that typically force people with alcohol problems into treatment. NIAAA studies indicate of the four million Americans with an alcohol use disorder at least 19.5% fit into the subtype of “functional alcoholics” or people living this type of double life.  

These functional alcoholics often recognize that they have a problem and set limits to avoid the ‘train wreck” experience that is typically associated with alcoholism.  According to Dr. Mark Willenbring, former director of the NIAAA’s division of treatment and recovery research, just because these individuals are able to maintain the façade of a normal life, does not negate the risks that a drinking problem present for the alcoholic and others.  Although many of these individuals set drinking limits for themselves, they usually exceed them because of the nature of this condition.  And so, herein lies the danger of functional alcoholism.  

The problem according to Sara Allen Benton, author of “Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic” is that while these individuals may be succeeding professionally or academically, they are still not averse to engaging in the typical and potentially dangerous behaviors characteristic of alcoholism such as drinking and driving, having risky sexual encounters and blacking out.  Benton also suggested that the high-functioning alcoholic will eventually face grave consequences the longer they keep drinking.

Like most people with an alcohol use disorder, high-functioning alcoholics will continue to hide their drinking problem for as long as they can get away with it.  The following symptoms of a high functioning Alcoholic may help family members and close friends to recognize this problem so that they can take steps to help their loved one get the appropriate assistance for this problem.  

Symptoms of High-Functioning Alcoholics:

  • Typically surround themselves with people who also like to drink.
  • Always seem excited or interested in attending social events where they will have an opportunity to drink with others.
  • May be obsessively concerned about always having alcohol on hand at home.
  • They may seem preoccupied with the taste of alcohol, when they can have their next drink and how much they can drink without showing signs of inebriation.
  • At social events, the High-Functioning Alcoholic will be able to consume several drinks without showing any signs of drunkenness.  Remember that they have mastered the art of concealment and may still appear to be functioning normally even after exceeding safe drinking limits.
  • Most are unable to leave an unfinished drink.
  • They compartmentalize their life by separating their recreational drinking from the life they share with family and their professional associates.
  • If they are confronted about drinking too much at a social event by a concerned loved one, they typically will be prepared with excuses and rewards.
  • Drinking before going out to camouflage just how much alcohol is actually being consumed.

Secrecy is a big part of the high-functioning alcoholic’s life.  To avoid being found out, they may only appear to be taking an occasional drink at home after work although they may have had several alcoholic beverages before heading home.  Many also take elaborate steps to arrange time to be alone to indulge their addiction to alcohol.  

Family members who recognize the signs of alcoholism in a high-functioning individual will need to safely confront the problem and overcome the denial and resistance to being called out. Be prepared to show tangible evidence of alcohol-related problems. Documented proof may be the only thing that will convince the high-functioning alcoholic that they have a problem with alcohol that may need addressing.


If you or a loved one needs help with abuse and/or treatment, please call the WhiteSands Treatment at (877) 855-3470. Our addiction specialists can assess your recovery needs and help you get the addiction treatment that provides the best chance for your long-term recovery.

About the Author

is a proud alumni member of WhiteSands Treatment. After living a life of chaos, destruction and constant let downs, Mark was able to make a complete turnaround that sparked a new way of life. He is serious about his recovery along with helping others. At WhiteSands Treatment, we offer support to you in your homes or when you are out living in your daily lives.