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What is a Highly Functioning Alcoholic?

When I started thinking that I might have a problem with alcohol, abstinence was not a consideration.  Instead, I wanted to learn how to curb my drinking and control my drinking so that I could be a highly functional alcoholic.  After all, at this time I had a college degree, a job, owned growing side-business, owned a home, had many great friends, a terrific social life … I appeared to be a functioning alcoholic.  In fact, I had some friends who weren’t alcoholics question whether I was an alcoholic.

I aspired to be a high-earning, high functioning alcoholic who could succeed in life material-wise and have a great family while drinking.  I was a functioning alcoholic at the time I quit drinking, but after learning more about alcoholism and getting a clearer understanding of my drinking patterns, I realized that if I continued drinking, I could not sustain functional alcoholism.

Many alcoholics want to make their drinking work in their lives.  They want to be able to hold onto a job and climb the career ladder, have a solid marriage or relationship, kids, a home, vacations (ladened with booze) and all the accouterments of a successful life.  However, this seldom happens except for the few highly functioning alcoholics … and even for them it’s a difficult balancing act that can topple at any time.

In fact, most alcoholics appear to be functioning at some level.  They hold jobs, have careers, have families … all outward appearances do not reveal the ugly behind-the-scenes alcoholism.

Definition:  What is a high functioning alcoholic?

A functioning alcoholic is the most common type of alcoholic in our society.  They have jobs, relationships, friendships, attain degrees, pay taxes, drive nice cars, take vacations, eat out at restaurants, get married, have kids, go to church, volunteer … all the things we don’t attribute to alcoholism.

However, beneath the facade of success and the apparent ability to function well in society lies the ugly addiction to alcohol.

Some alcoholics plan and control their drinking more than others.  Some are very calculating and don’t drink all that often, but when they do, it’s a bender.  Other functioning alcoholics drink regularly, such as on weekends, in an attempt to preserve the life they’ve built.

And then there are some functioning alkies who can hold it all together drinking every day, perhaps more on weekends and vacations.

Functioning alcoholic quiz

You don’t need to take a “functioning alcoholic quiz or test” per se; instead, a regular alcoholism test can help you (or someone you know) determine whether you/they have a drinking problem.  The “functioning” is merely a type of alcoholic who appears to function in society.

There are many alcoholic quizzes and tests to help determine if you’re an alcoholic.  The following are links to some of the better quizzes:

The key to these alcoholism self-assessment tests is answering truthfully, accepting the results and being honest.

The first time I took such a quiz (in college), I scoffed at the result.  When the quiz said “if you answered yes 3 of the 20 questions, you might have a drinking problem” my response was ” who on earth wouldn’t answer yes for at least 3 of the question?”  That was my initial denial, but in time as I continued blacking out, the realization that I had a drinking problem crept up on me chiseling away my denial.

High functioning alcoholic symptoms

  • Craves alcohol
  • Plans drinking occasions/events
  • Looks forward to drinking
  • Always finishes drinks (and possibly other people’s drinks)
  • Consumes more than 3 alcoholic beverages whenever possible
  • Thinks about drinking
  • Has shame and remorse about/after drinking (this was a big one for me)


  • Personality changes when intoxicated (louder, angry, happy, grandiose, sullen, depressed, violent, confident)
  • Has blackouts and memory lapses when drinking
  • Never or seldom has one or two drinks (often the functioning alcoholic will choose to not drink when unable to drink to excess)
  • Socializes with heavy drinkers


Sources:  My drinking background and Wikipedia “High functioning alcoholic“.

Is “functional alcoholic” an oxymoron?

Can there really be functional alcoholism?  The answer depends on how you define “functional”.  If functional is restricted to financial success, a nice home, family, community involvement, friends … then yes, functional alcoholism exists.

If, however, functioning includes a deeper inquiry such as sense of wellbeing, comfortable in one’s skin, serenity, healthy esteem … then in my opinion functioning alcoholism doesn’t exist.

Understanding the high functioning alcoholic

There really isn’t much to understand other than the fact a high functioning alcoholic is able to function in society to some degree while drinking to excess.  Excessive drinking may be daily, weekly, monthly or on carefully planned occasions.

Life as a functioning alcoholic is tricky.  After all, part of her or him wants to drink more than they can and do.  On the other hand, they desire to have a happy and fulfilling life enjoying life’s stages as non-alcoholics do.

It’s a constant tug-of-war.  Family, financial and respectability demands sobriety.  The addiction demands more booze.  The sad part is nothing is ever satisfactory.  Unlimited drinking never satiates the alcoholic.  A seemingly happy job and home life is not enough because it interferes with the insatiable thirst for alcohol.

Inevitably, alcohol and the “functioning” part of life clash.  Something must give.  Often a job is lost, partners leave, kids are scared and sad and/or the functioning is not so functioning anymore.

If drinking is curbed in an effort to remain functioning without help, the alcoholic white knuckles through life, often becoming a miserable person, resenting family, job, other commitments and all the things he or she curbed drinking to protect.

In many cases the status quo continues into late age and even to death.  The marriage remains in tact, kids grow up, a career is fulfilled, but the alcoholic is unhappy, the partner is unhappy and kids come to the realization that mom and/or dad is a drunk.

There is no single path the functioning alcoholic and relationships take.  Each follow their own path.  What is constant, though, is that the only solution is for the addicted person must seek treatment for addiction.  It can be A.A., a treatment program, religion, a course … some form of intervention that results in an epiphany that does 2 things:

  1. Releases the alcoholic from cravings; and
  2. Enables the alcoholic to live reasonably happy without drinking.

Should highly functioning alcoholics quit drinking?

In my recovery I do not point fingers at anyone and say they need to quit drinking.  Instead, I share my experience and how I managed to quit drinking when asked.

I can say that anyone who craves alcohol as I did and suffered personality changes when inebriated as I did, may want to seriously consider quitting drinking.  Trying to control drinking didn’t work for me.  I tried everything … timing drinks, limiting drinking days, drinking only beer … you name it I tried it.  It never worked.  Worse, when not drinking I thought obsessively about when I could drink.

These days I don’t think about alcohol.  I attend events where alcohol is served.  My wife has the occasional glass of wine.  I’m fortunate that the grip of addiction left me.  My path included A.A., but A.A. is only a means to being released from addiction.  There are many treatment options that can treat addiction.  The key is that the alcoholic, functioning or otherwise, experience a release from addiction, accept addiction and learn to live happy without succumbing to addiction.

Living with a functional alcoholic

I’ve never lived with a functional alcoholic.  I was the alcoholic.  Looking back at my behavior (I was single at the time I sobered up), I can’t imagine putting someone through my drinking.  All I cared about was drinking.

All I can say about this is to avoid enabling the alcoholic (see below) and set out to help them get treatment.

Leave if it’s violent; if not violent, do your best to attempt to help them.  If they don’t seek help after doing your best, you must decide whether you should leave.  These days, as the stigma of divorce is lessening, especially as a result of abusive alcoholic relationships, leaving is not as difficult as it was before.

How to help a functional alcoholic stop drinking

The difficulty with trying to help a functional alcoholic is that because they are functioning, he or she is likely in denial.  After all, their view is they have a job, perhaps have outstanding financial success, provide for their family, volunteer, join boards, have a car, pay taxes, etc.

The functioning alcoholic’s response when confronted about their drinking is often “don’t I provide for my family?  Don’t I do well in my job?  I treat my kids well.  I go to the kids’ school programs.  We take vacations.  I’m an elder in the church …”  There’s always an excuse, a reason and a justification … at least in the alcoholic’s mind.

What they don’t appreciate is how alcoholism affects the people in their lives.  Partners and spouses feel it the most acutely.

There are many ways to help a functioning alcoholic.  Consider the following:

1.  12 Stepping

Another approach is for a family member and/or employer to ask recovering alcoholics to talk to them.  In A.A. this is referred to as 12 stepping.  This too can be very effective because it’s not confrontational.  It’s one (or a few) alcoholics talking to another alcoholic.

It’s not hard to locate a recovering alcoholic willing to talk to a practicing alcoholic.  It’s a service we’re happy to offer in recovery.  If you don’t know of recovering person, talk to a local minister, treatment center or call an A.A. hotline so that you can gain an introduction to someone.

Note, you should not be asked to pay a fee for this service.  It should be free unless you hire a professional to assist, such as organizing an intervention.

2.  Communicate the problem

The lone confrontation by a spouse, parent, employer and/or sibling can work and often does as well.  Some functioning alcoholics are clueless as to how their drinking is affecting everyone, but when told may come to understand fairly quickly.

It’s important to avoid accusing and instead communicate how the drinking is affecting you, the kids, friends, etc.  Use examples of incidents to support and justify your position.

Although this approach can spark anger, result in yelling and get ugly, it’s probably the most common first step many families take to help an alcoholic.  After all, many people close to the addicted person believes that if only they knew how their drinking affected me/us, they’d quit.

3.  Leave alcoholism literature where the alcoholic is bound to find it

This is a passive approach that may or may not work.  It’s a gentle method, but can result in an ugly confrontation … so be sure you’re prepared for a confrontation.

4.  Intervention

Interventions are common and can be very effective.  Often interventions are arranged after several attempts by the spouse/partner alone (to no avail).

There are intervention professionals who plan and facilitate the intervention.  It’s a really good idea to hire a professional if you go the intervention route.

Should you include an employer?

This is tricky.  If the employer has never talked to you about the drinking, you should assume they don’t know about the drinking.  In this case it’s best not to get the employer involved because they may not be understanding and may look for an excuse to fire him or her.

However, if the employer comes to you and is aware of the drinking problem, having the employer involved can be helpful as long as they are understanding and are prepared to help.  They may help pay for the intervention and may well have spearheaded interventions with other employees in the past.

Moreover, employer ultimatums may have a lot teeth and be the impetus the alcoholic needs to get treatment.  On the downside, once an employer is involved and the alcoholic is slow to seek treatment or suffers relapses, their job may be at risk.  The last thing a family needs is an unemployed alcoholic.

Note that not employers are understanding about alcoholism.  Many will then find an excuse to fire an alcoholic.

What about getting a minister involved?

If the alcoholism isn’t widely known (i.e. they’re a successful closet drinker), this can end well or badly (each method of getting help has potential downsides … but it’s an ugly situation to begin with).  The alcoholic may resent that you aired dirty laundry outside of the home.  However, the minister may be persuasive and many clergy members deal with addiction and therefore can be a great help and resource.

This is not an easy decision.  If the alcoholic has high regard for the minister and church life is important, getting the minister involved can be very effective in resulting in treatment.

Unfortunately, I can’t say whether this is a good or bad step to take.  It should be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Before talking to an employer and getting them involved in an intervention, talk to an intervention professional to assess the situation.

5.  Attend marriage counselling

If a relationship is on rocky footing, a spouse could suggest counselling with no mention of alcohol in the hopes that through therapy and probing from the therapist that alcohol will come up for discussion.

The trick here is to get the drinker to agree to counselling.  From that point it’s up to the therapist to broach the subject of drinking and see where it goes.

This is a gentle and safe environment where the issue can be broached, communicated and discussed under the guidance of a professional.

6.  The Ultimatum

It’s really unfortunate if it comes to having to give an ultimatum.  Usually employers get here fast; however, family members may exhaust all the above options before resorting to an ultimatum.

The ultimatum is usually “we’re leaving unless you get help/stop drinking”.  In many cases, when other attempts to help are unsuccessful, the ultimatum is justified.

7.  Leaving the alcoholic

I don’t believe that family members should stay with an active alcoholic who refuses to get help.  Living with an alcoholic is not pleasant and can put you/kids at risk.  I’m not advocating simply packing up one’s bags without trying to help, but at some point sticking around only results in ongoing misery.

That said, if the situation is or was violent, leaving is imperative.  Whether reconciliation occurs later depends on the alcoholic; it’s a case-by-case decision.  Often reconciliation should only be considered after sufficient and proven recovery in the case of violence.  I strongly suggest seeking professional help in these situations.

What not to do when helping a functional alcoholic

1.  Avoid enabling them

Even highly functioning alcoholics screw up … missing work, getting arrested for drunk driving, behave badly at a party … all the usual escapades of an alkie.

It does not help to enable the alcoholic.  Let them solve the problems on their own.  Don’t make excuses, don’t call on behalf of them, don’t lie for them, etc.

Instead, problems like these are fodder for you to encourage him or her to get help.  Offer your assistance for getting real help, but avoid helping them get out of jams.

2.  Don’t blame yourself if they don’t get help

Their drinking problem is not your fault.  Their refusal to get help, regardless of your efforts, is not your fault.  All you can do is communicate your perspective and offer to help them get treatment and support them if they do.  That’s it.

The fact is some people get treatment and some don’t.  The worse part is that just because they get treatment doesn’t mean they won’t stay sober.  The relapse rates are high.  In many cases several attempts and treatment programs are needed.  This is extremely frustrating for family, employers and the alcoholic.

It took me one year of attending AA to finally put together more than one year of sobriety.  After several years of sobriety, I drank again for 2 years.  Since then, though, I’ve been sober for almost 10 years.

What about the functional alcoholic with no family?

Unless an employer gets involved, the alcoholic with no family who is functioning will likely have to come to their own realization that they are addicted.  Often it’s family (partners/spouses usually) who confront the alcoholic because they suffer the most (along with the kids, but young kids don’t understand until they’re older).  Sometimes parents/siblings may intervene as well.

Disclaimer:  I’m not a doctor, minister, psychologist, intervention specialist or addictions specialist.  I’m a recovering alcoholic sharing my opinions and my experience about being a former functioning alcoholic who is in recovery.  Whenever dealing with an alcoholic or seeking treatment yourself, please consult the necessary professionals and assistance.  Each case is unique and requires specific guidance.