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What is a High Functioning Alcoholic?

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What Is a High-Functioning Alcoholic? High-Functioning Alcoholism Explained

We’ve all seen portrayals of high-functioning alcoholics in the media, whether we’re aware of it or not. Most TV shows and movies set in the 1950s or 1960s show us drinking alcohol used to be accepted in many more situations than it is today. In those decades, we saw the concept of a “three-martini lunch” as common and even acceptable.

Popular media often shows high-powered executives, bankers, and investment advisers talking business over a seemingly never-ending supply of whiskey. Many of these portrayals imply or state outright that business deals weren’t official until they happened over a drink. Or that it was impossible to trust a man you couldn’t share a drink with.

The TV show “Mad Men” may come to mind when you think of this type of person. The main character, Don Draper, never lets a business meeting or agreement pass without sharing a tumbler of liquor from his office bar.

Anyone who has watched the later seasons of this show knows that while Mr. Draper’s success in the advertising industry remains strong, his personal life eventually begins to fall into shambles due to the consequences of his alcohol consumption.

At some point during the mid-20th century, casually drinking alcohol became a popular symbol of class and sophistication. Maybe this was because we seldom saw smooth operators such as Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra without a drink in their hand.

Like many concepts that are portrayed in the media, the negative realities of casual drinking are rarely shown. Everybody wants to see the party, but nobody wants to see the hangover.

It’s also important to understand that even though the dangers of drinking alcohol are more widely understood, and casual drinking isn’t as acceptable as it once was, people engaging in high-functioning alcohol consumption still exist, and the consequences of drinking are very real.

Habitually Drinking Alcohol and How It Affects the Brain

It’s important to understand the chemical effects of habitual drinking on the brain in order to understand the hazards of drinking at any level. Alcohol is what is known as a depressant, and in the beginning, it has a calming and relaxing effect on the consumer. These desired effects of drinking are actually the result of the drug interfering with the way the brain naturally communicates.

Heavy drinking can even interfere with the part of the brain responsible for breathing, leading to dangerously slow and shallow breaths. This risk is increased when other substances, such as prescription painkillers, are consumed with alcohol. This is known as polysubstance use and can be incredibly dangerous and even deadly.

Alcohol also affects the pleasure centers of the brain, telling them to create a neurotransmitter (signal carrier) called dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical messenger that’s responsible for many feelings of happiness, contentment, pleasure, and even memory. The more habitual the drinking becomes, the more the brain gets used to having this new source of dopamine.

When the drinking is suddenly stopped, the brain’s natural systems keep functioning abnormally. This leads to a lack of dopamine and other effects that cause negative issues related to alcohol withdrawal.

The Spectrum of Alcohol Consumption and Alcoholic Habits

The term “high-functioning alcoholic” is not a formal medical term but rather a practical term used to describe someone who is mentally or physically dependent on alcohol but can still function as a productive member of society. Terms such as “currently functioning” may be more accurate because as drinking progresses, it’s unlikely a person will remain functional forever.

On the opposite end of the high-functioning stereotype, many people who picture someone suffering from alcohol use disorder (AUD, the medical term for what many call alcoholism) may picture a person who shows no interest in personal hygiene, can’t hold down a job, and has been abandoned by friends and family. The truth is, like any condition that involves complex human emotions and behaviors, AUD exists on a spectrum of severity.

Someone who is living with a high-functioning alcohol habit may appear on the outside to be mentally and physically healthy. They may spend a lot of time working out or training for marathons. Their habitual drinking rarely, if ever, causes them to miss work or ditch responsibilities. They are typically able to successfully juggle important aspects of life, including their jobs, relationships, and home life.

Despite their outward appearance, they’re most likely struggling with intrusive alcohol cravings, have made unsuccessful attempts to quit drinking, and other negative effects on their physical and mental well-being.

Signs of a High-Functioning Alcoholic: What Qualifies as AUD?

Alcohol use disorders can be very difficult to spot as an outsider looking in. Because alcohol is widely available, legal, and even culturally acceptable in many situations, it can be even more difficult to identify a person who is suffering from a high-functioning form of AUD.

That said, there are certain behaviors that suggest a person may be suffering from an AUD. These behaviors frequently overlap with the habits shown by someone who is suffering from a high-functioning form of the disorder.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) states that anyone who meets 2 of the 11 following criteria within a 12-month period may be diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder. Here are some questions to consider to accurately assess whether you or a loved one may be suffering from a problem with alcohol.

In the past year, have you (or they):

  • Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer, than you intended?
  • More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
  • Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over the aftereffects?
  • Experienced a craving — a strong need or urge — to drink?
  • More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex)?
  • Found that drinking, or being sick from drinking, often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
  • Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
  • Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?
  • Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?
  • Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you wanted? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
  • Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating? Or sensed things that were not actually there?

While a person suffering from a high-functioning form of AUD may show some of these symptoms, it’s possible they don’t show any symptoms to the outside world.

The Differences Between Alcohol Use Disorder and High-Functioning Alcoholism

There are some factors that separate people with high-functioning AUD from people with typical AUD.

A person with high-functioning AUD will often consume the same amount of alcohol as someone with a debilitating AUD, but they may not show the same signs of intoxication. This is because, over time, they have developed a physical tolerance to the intoxicating effects of alcohol. This mean they must consume more alcohol to feel the effects of the drug. Because of this tolerance, they have to drink in increasingly larger amounts to feel the “buzz” they desire.

Some additional behavioral traits that may indicate someone is suffering from high-functioning alcohol use disorder may include:

  • Becoming defensive or avoiding any criticism regarding their drinking habits.
  • Memory loss or “blacking out” frequently as a result of drinking.
  • Being deceptive or secretive about the amount of alcohol they consume. This can include behaviors such as consuming alcohol before an event where alcohol won’t be available, hiding alcohol around the house, and drinking when they’re alone.
  • Continuing drinking habits despite negative effects on physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
  • Denial of an issue with alcohol because they’ve experienced no severe consequences due to their alcohol use.
  • Not fitting the typical image of a person with AUD, such as maintaining physical fitness and a well-groomed appearance.
  • Drinking a large number of alcoholic beverages without showing signs of being drunk.
  • Drinking at work or during lunch break.
  • Drinking to cope with stressful or difficult situations, or as a reward for a job well done.
  • Experiencing a strong urge to drink in certain situations where alcohol is unavailable.
  • Taking care of responsibilities at home, work, or with family or children in spite of drinking habits.
  • Hiding their drinking from family members, coworkers, and friends.
  • Justifying their drinking as acceptable if drinking expensive wine and liquor or at upscale events.
  • Lying to themselves or others about the amount or strength of the drinks they consume.
  • Comparing the consequences of their drinking to those of others who’ve experienced worse in an effort to justify their habits as being “not so bad.”
  • Gaining a reputation of doing a great job at work or home despite excessive alcohol use.

If these habits sound familiar to you or you recognize them in someone you love, it may be time to seek advice and treatment from compassionate addiction specialists.

Serenity Lane’s alcohol treatment program features evidence-based methods that are personalized to meet your specific needs in treatment.

Treatment for Alcohol Addiction Starts with Detox

Here at Serenity Lane, we provide a cutting-edge, medically supported withdrawal program, also known as alcohol detoxification, at our inpatient treatment facility in Coburg, Oregon. The first step in your recovery from alcohol use disorder is detox.

Our team of medical professionals uses a standardized protocol that’s designed to be the most effective way to help someone achieve long-term recovery from dependence on alcohol. They are prepared and qualified to handle all aspects of detox, including withdrawal symptoms and mental health issues that may occur.

In order to be sure safety is the top priority of medical detox, Serenity Lane focuses on the benefits of having qualified, compassionate professionals who can handle the withdrawal process with ease. The discomfort and pain that can be associated with alcohol and drug withdrawal can make it crucial that those going through detox get medical care that addresses both their emotional and medical needs.

In addition to reducing the physical risks of quitting alcohol on your own, this focus on treating the whole person is why a medical detox program is so important.

At Serenity Lane, our processes are developed with the goal of giving you the best chance of turning alcohol addiction into lasting recovery.

Rehab at Serenity Lane Is Here to Help You Quit Drinking and Get Started Toward Success In Recovery

When choosing a treatment center for alcohol use disorder, it’s important to choose one that understands addiction and the best ways to help promote strong, lasting change. Under the care of our compassionate team of healthcare professionals, we will guide you through the first steps of living a life free of alcohol dependence. Serenity Lane makes your physical and mental health our No. 1 priority.

We’re the oldest nonprofit treatment program in the state of Oregon, and we have treatment centers all around the state so you won’t have to go far to get the help you need.
You’re stronger than you may think, and we’re here to help.

Call us today at (800) 543-9905 for a no-cost consultation with one of our mental health professionals.

Serenity Lane


What profession has the most alcoholics?

While there is no conclusive answer, studies have shown that lawyers, hospitality workers, miners, construction workers, and even medical professionals have a higher-than-average rate of alcohol use.

Is there anything wrong with being an alcoholic?

Alcohol use at any level can have dangerous health and life consequences. Even if someone doesn’t show any outward signs of their alcohol dependence, it is causing damage to their internal organs. Alcohol use disorder can lead to conditions such as liver damage, heart disease, and even some types of cancer.

What is the life expectancy of an alcoholic?

The National Institutes of Health has reported the average life expectancy of people hospitalized with alcohol use disorder is 47-53 years for men and 50-58 years for women. On average, people with AUD die 24-28 years earlier than people in the general population.

How many drinks a night makes you an alcoholic?

If someone has developed an emotional, physical, or mental reliance on the effects of alcohol, they may qualify as having an alcohol use disorder. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines heavy drinking as follows: For men, consuming more than 4 drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks per week. For women, consuming more than 3 drinks on any day or more than 7 drinks per week.

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