man at work drinking - high-functioning alcoholic concept
Published On: November 26, 2023Categories: Alcohol AddictionComments Off on What is a “Functioning Alcoholic”?

Just about everyone has heard the term high-functioning alcoholic before–but what does it actually mean? Is it an apt description or just a form of denial? How do you know when someone needs help for a drinking problem? This North Jersey Recovery Center article will answer these questions and more. 

How Can You Tell If Someone Has Alcoholism?

Watching someone you love caught up in the throes of addiction can be very painful and leave you feeling worried and helpless. But how can you tell if someone has alcoholism? In many cases there are signs of alcoholism you can look for. Some signs are behavioral, others are physical. Be observant and look for changes in routine behavior. 

But, like people addicted to other substances, people addicted to alcohol are often very, very good at concealing their drinking, or at least making it appear as if the problem is much less serious than it is. It has been said the disease of alcoholism is “cunning, baffling, and powerful”. We couldn’t agree more. Alcoholism has a way of subtly reordering a person’s priorities until alcohol becomes the most important thing in their lives

Signs and behaviors that can indicate alcoholism:

  • Drinking secretly and alone
  • Unusual secrecy, time that can’t be accounted for.
  • Minimizing or denying drinking and making excuses for drinking. 
  • Drinking at inappropriate times, like in the morning or at work or school.
  • Turning to alcohol for relief from stress or to deal with sadness or anger.
  • Continuing to drink, even after experiencing negative health consequences
  • Irritability when alcohol is unavailable, refusing to go to a place without alcohol.
  • Continuing to drink, even after experiencing negative social or legal consequences. High tolerance for alcohol, needing to drink more than most people to feel the effects.

What Is A High-Functioning Alcoholic?

In the intro we mentioned the term functioning alcoholic, sometimes also called a “high-functioning alcoholic”. What is meant by this term? Someone who drinks alcoholically and is physically addicted to alcohol, but manages to hold onto their job, pay their bills, and stay out of legal trouble is generally what people mean by a functioning alcoholic.

Many people with alcoholism are able to hold onto some semblance of order in their lives. Despite drinking daily, and sometimes (or even often) to excess, they still wake up on time and get themselves to work. They make sure the kids get dinner, do their homework and brush their teeth before bed. For them alcohol is both a priority and a problem — but so far they have managed to retain just enough control to keep the gears turning. 

This illusion of control has convinced a great many that they don’t really have a drinking problem. It has enabled them to convince their loved ones, friends and co-workers too, in many cases. After all, if someone is really alcoholic, they would have DUIs and constantly be stumbling around and slurring their speech, right? People with real alcoholism appear disheveled and out of sorts all the time and stink of whiskey and cigarettes, right?


A high-functioning alcoholic, or better a high-functioning person with alcoholism, is someone who can drink regularly, and often heavily – but still keep up appearances and otherwise live responsibly. They may be successful in most, if not all other areas of their lives. But, when it comes to alcohol, it is their master. 

“High-functioning” alcoholism can be especially challenging because:

  • It can be much harder to detect than the “sloppier” variety of alcoholism.
  • It’s generally easier to deny than alcoholism which has led to serious consequences.
  • A person who has avoided many consequences so far often continues to drink. 
  • “High functioners” are often in positions of authority or power, which limit accountability. 
  • People in this category are often quite stubborn about accepting help or treatment.

Why We Should Avoid Using The Words Alcoholic or Addict

Not so long ago it was pretty common to see someone with a drinking problem referred to as an alcoholic and a person addicted to drugs as an addict. Lots of people still do. However, in clinical circles and the mental health treatment world, there is a concerted push to change the way we talk about addiction. One of the key drivers behind this change is a desire to eliminate shame and stigma from the equation of alcoholism or addiction.

When you call someone an alcoholic, it turns their disease into their whole identity. None of us wants to be reduced to just one quality we have, especially if it’s a negative one. The truth is, that words are much more powerful than we often give them credit for. Being called an alcoholic can lead a person to believe that’s all they are and all they will ever be. Even if they aren’t aware of it on the surface, subconsciously it has a direct effect on their identity and self-esteem. 

When we say “a person with alcoholism” instead, we separate the person from their disease. That person is not their problem. Alcoholism is just a problem they have. Everyone has problems. We don’t all necessarily label ourselves according to our problems — indeed we should not do that. So, make a note of this. If you use these terms, try to change the way you speak about alcoholism and addiction — it matters. 

Denial: It’s Not Just A River in Egypt

Forgive the moldy old joke—alcoholism is no laughing matter and the truth is that there are millions of people addicted to alcohol, who still manage to function. There are even some people with alcoholism who have very successful careers, in fact. So, the reality is that alcoholism does not always derail your life right away. Many people suffering from addiction are very good at keeping up appearances. 

We’ve all heard the phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. That goes both ways. Just because someone looks like they’ve got it all together does not mean they aren’t suffering from inner turmoil. These “high-functioning alcoholic” folks are often in denial. Even when they aren’t necessarily in denial, their ability to “hold it together” can make it a lot easier for the people around them to remain in denial. That can be a tempting proposition. 

No one wants to believe the worst about someone they care about. Facing the truth about your own alcoholism or someone else’s can be an incredibly daunting challenge. But it’s an absolute must if you expect that person to find recovery from alcoholism. Sometimes it’s as simple as a frank conversation over a cup of coffee at a Denny’s at 3 in the morning. For others, it may be a long, drawn-out battle that finally culminates in a professional intervention to get the person into treatment for alcoholism in New Jersey. 

First-Class Treatment for Alcoholism in New Jersey

No one should have to go through life beholden to alcohol. The good news is, they don’t. If you or someone you love is living with alcoholism, North Jersey Recovery Center wants to help. We offer an exceptional, dual-diagnosis alcohol treatment program for adults 18 or older right here in New Jersey. 

Our programs are designed to fit into a busy schedule, where necessary with day and evening IOP therapy available. Everything you or the person you love needs to recover from alcoholism is right here. But it’s up to you to make the first move. 

Pick up the phone and let’s give you a reason for hope today. Reach us at (877) 790-5873