Functioning Alcoholic: What Does this Mean?

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A functioning alcoholic is a nonclinical term used to describe someone who is dependent on alcohol yet still able to maintain a relatively effective daily life. Despite their alcohol dependency, functioning alcoholics can continue performing tasks like going to work and taking care of their family members.

The terms functioning alcoholic and high-functioning alcoholic do not constitute a medical diagnosis. Rather, those fitting this description may be considered as having alcohol use disorder, although their symptoms might not include a significant breakdown in their professional, social, and family lives, which are common indicators of alcoholism. That said, even if someone has experienced fewer external consequences due to their drinking habits, they can still benefit from professional assistance in addressing their compulsive alcohol use.

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Today, you will learn:

  • What is a functional alcoholic?
  • What’s the difference between a functioning alcoholic and a non-functioning alcoholic?
  • What are the most common functioning alcoholic signs?
  • Is functioning alcoholism treatable?

Traits of a Functioning Alcoholic

What is a functioning alcoholic, then? High-functioning alcoholism is a type of alcohol use disorder in which an individual is able to maintain their daily responsibilities despite their excessive consumption of alcohol. This can make it challenging to pinpoint the condition as they may not exhibit the same outward signs of alcoholism as someone who is unable to function as well in their daily life.

Beyond this basic functioning alcoholic definition, there are some common traits and behaviors that may be associated with functional alcoholism. These include:

  • Maintaining a facade: Functioning alcoholics may try to hide their alcohol intake from others, either by drinking in secret or by justifying their drinking as something that is not problematic.
  • Normalizing excessive drinking: Functioning alcoholics may see heavy drinking as normal or even necessary. They may justify their drinking as a means of coping with stress, anxiety, or other difficult emotions.
  • Impaired memory and blackouts: Frequent heavy drinking can lead to memory problems, including blackouts. This can make it difficult for functioning alcoholics to remember important events or conversations.
  • Dependence on alcohol: Functioning alcoholics may experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop drinking. They may also feel restless or irritable without alcohol.
  • Prioritizing alcohol over social interactions: Functioning alcoholics may find it difficult to socialize without alcohol and may avoid situations where alcohol is not available.
  • Defensive or flippant attitude: When confronted about their drinking, someone with functional alcoholism may become defensive or flippant. They may deny that they have a problem or make jokes about their drinking.
  • Impaired judgment and behavior: Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to impaired judgment and behavior. Typical behaviors of alcoholics include aggression, impulsivity, or making poor decisions when they are drinking.
  • Discreet alcohol storage: Functioning alcoholics may hide alcohol in various places to keep it from others.
  • Denial of a problem: Functioning alcoholics often outright deny that they have a drinking problem, even when they exhibit clear diagnostic criteria of alcohol use disorder. They may compare themselves to others who have more severe problems and think that their drinking is not as bad.

If you or a loved one exhibits any of these traits, seek professional help promptly. A therapist or counselor can help you or your loved one to understand the nature of the problem and develop a treatment plan. Treatment for functional alcoholism can include individual therapy, group therapy, and medication. 

an image of a high-functioning alcoholic

How Do You Know if Someone is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

High-functioning alcoholics are able to maintain their daily responsibilities despite their excessive drinking. This can make it tough to identify someone with this condition, as they may not exhibit the same outward signs of alcoholism as someone who is not able to function as well in their daily life.

However, there are some common signs of a functioning alcoholic. These include:

  • They drink heavily and often, but they are able to hide it from others. They may drink in secret, or they may justify their drinking as something that is not a problem.
  • They have a strong sense of denial about their drinking. They may refuse to acknowledge that they have a problem, or they may minimize the severity of their drinking.
  • They have experienced negative consequences from their drinking, but they continue to drink anyway. These consequences may include health problems, financial problems, or relationship problems.
  • They have tried to quit drinking in the past, but they have been unsuccessful. They may have experienced withdrawal symptoms or cravings that made it difficult to stop drinking.
  • They prioritize alcohol over other aspects of their life. They may make decisions based on their drinking, and they may neglect their responsibilities to their work, family, or friends.

If you are concerned that someone you know may be a high-functioning alcoholic, it is important to talk to them about your concerns. You can also offer to help them find resources for treatment. While you cannot force someone to get help, you can certainly offer your support and encouragement.

Here are some additional resources that they may find helpful:

Functioning Alcoholic Quiz


  • Answer the following questions honestly.
  • Give yourself 1 point for each yes answer.
  • Your score will give you an indication of whether you may be a high-functioning alcoholic.


  1. Do you drink more than you intended to?
  2. Do you have blackouts or memory loss after drinking?
  3. Do you feel the need to drink alcohol in order to function?
  4. Do you have withdrawal symptoms when you don’t drink?
  5. Do you try to hide your drinking from others?
  6. Do you make excuses for your drinking?
  7. Do you have problems at work or school due to your drinking?
  8. Do you have relationship problems due to your drinking?


  • 0 to 2 points: You are not likely a high-functioning alcoholic.
  • 3 to 5 points: You may be a high-functioning alcoholic.
  • 6 to 8 points: You are likely a high-functioning alcoholic.

If you scored 3 points or more, speak with a doctor or therapist about your drinking. They can help you assess your risk for alcoholism and develop a treatment plan.

Treatment for Functioning Alcoholics

When addressing high-functioning alcoholism, individuals in this category may require specialized treatment tailored to their specific needs. While they might be able to maintain their daily responsibilities, functioning alcoholics still face the risks and negative impacts associated with alcohol use disorder. Here are some approaches commonly utilized in the treatment of functioning alcoholics:

  • Select an opportune moment and open a dialogue about alcoholism and treatment: Find a suitable time to have a conversation with your loved one when they are sober and in a comfortable setting. Since functioning alcoholics may not exhibit obvious signs of addiction, they might initially be resistant to acknowledging their problem. It could require multiple conversations before they are ready to discuss treatment, so maintain open lines of communication.
  • Professional assessment: The next step is to consult with a healthcare professional or addiction specialist who can evaluate the severity of the alcohol use disorder and create an individualized and evidence-based treatment plan. They can determine the most suitable level of care, which may range from outpatient therapy to inpatient rehabilitation, depending on the individual’s specific circumstances.
  • Therapy and counseling: Psychotherapies like CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy), can help functioning alcoholics develop healthier coping mechanisms and address the underlying factors contributing to their alcohol use. Therapy sessions may focus on managing cravings, improving decision-making skills, and exploring triggers or stressors that lead to excessive drinking.
  • Support groups: Engaging with peer support groups like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) or SMART Recovery can provide a sense of community and understanding. Sharing experiences with others who have faced similar challenges can offer valuable support, encouragement, and accountability throughout the recovery process.
  • Medication: In certain cases, medication may be prescribed to assist with the treatment of alcohol use disorder. FDA-approved medications like naltrexone, acamprosate, or disulfiram may be utilized to help reduce cravings, prevent relapse, or create negative physical reactions to alcohol consumption.
  • Lifestyle changes: Adopting a healthier lifestyle can be an integral part of recovery. This can include incorporating regular exercise, practicing stress management techniques (such as meditation or yoga), improving sleep habits, and maintaining a balanced diet. These changes can contribute to overall well-being and support long-term recovery.
  • Family involvement: Involving family members in the treatment process can provide a supportive environment and help repair relationships that may have been strained due to alcohol abuse. Family therapy or education programs can aid in addressing underlying family dynamics and fostering a supportive network.
  • Aftercare planning: Once initial treatment is complete, developing a comprehensive aftercare plan is beneficial to maintain sobriety and prevent relapse. This may involve ongoing therapy, continued participation in support groups, and establishing strategies for managing triggers or high-risk situations.

 Remember, every individual’s journey to recovery is unique, and treatment approaches may vary. Seek professional guidance and support to develop a personalized treatment plan that addresses the specific needs of functioning alcoholics. With the right support and commitment to change, recovery is possible, allowing individuals to regain control of their lives and experience improved overall well-being.

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Get Treatment for Alcohol Addiction at California Detox 

If you have become addicted to alcohol, kickstart your long-term recovery at California Detox. Our supervised medical detox program allows you to withdraw from alcohol as comfortably as possible, while at the same time minimizing the risk of complications. After a week or so, you will be ready to move directly into an inpatient treatment program at our affordable luxury beachside rehab facility in Laguna Beach, CA.

 All treatment programs at California Detox provide personalized addiction treatment that combines science-backed interventions and holistic treatments that include:

Conquer your addiction to alcohol, even if you are a high-functioning alcoholic and resistant to the idea of engaging with treatment. Call admissions right now at 949.694.8305 for immediate assistance.


The key signs of an alcoholic include a strong craving or compulsion to drink, an inability to control or limit alcohol consumption, withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, neglect of responsibilities or relationships due to alcohol, and a continued pattern of drinking despite negative consequences.
Being a functioning alcoholic typically involves maintaining a relatively normal life, including holding down a job and fulfilling daily responsibilities, while still struggling with alcohol dependency. Functioning alcoholics often appear outwardly functional, but internally they may experience anxiety, guilt, and an increasing reliance on alcohol to cope with daily life.


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