Why It’s Difficult to Identify High-Functioning Alcoholics

Alcoholism is an all-too-common form of addiction that affects millions of people in America alone. There are multiple forms of alcoholism that make it especially difficult to understand or identify someone’s problem. To learn what a high-functioning alcoholic is, how to identify one, and why it’s so difficult to do so, read on. 

What Is High-Functioning Alcoholism

First things first, what exactly is high-functioning alcoholism? Well, the general definition of a person who is a high-functioning alcoholic is that they can still function “regularly.” 

That’s to say that they are not stumbling around or being reckless as typically defined in alcoholics. Instead, this person is able to participate in their addiction while still carrying out their obligations and daily tasks. 

However, just because someone can still function, the excessive consumption of alcohol paired with other symptoms does still indicate substance abuse. Unfortunately, alcohol abuse as a whole is a problem that is on the rise, with millions being affected, from children to adults. 

Why Is It So Difficult to Identify This Type of Alcoholism?

In a nutshell, it’s difficult to identify high-functioning alcoholism because it can hide in plain sight, unlike other consumption patterns. Whereas you or a loved one may be able to recognize the sign of alcoholism in a traditional sense, the high-functioning aspect can make it difficult to do. 

Over time, the continued high-functioning use of alcohol may result in more damage to the body, further life complications with work or loved ones, and more. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration site potential health complications as “stroke, liver cirrhosis, alcoholic hepatitis, cancer, and other serious health conditions.”

Additionally, the high-functioning alcoholic may feel emboldened to drink more than they should, especially in situations where they shouldn’t. This can be particularly dangerous for people in occupations that can put others or themselves at risk without the utmost focus and precision. 

All it takes is one drink above that perceived tolerance threshold or one unexpected external factor to completely derail everything. This is partially what makes high-functioning alcoholism so difficult to understand, let alone spot. 

The person at hand may not recognize their own problem if they’re still maintaining the quality of life, while those around them cannot fathom that there is a problem if that quality of life is still being maintained. 

How to Spot Signs of a High-Functioning Alcoholic

Despite how difficult it is to spot the signs of high-functioning alcoholism, it is possible. Rather than looking exclusively for changes in the behavior or routine of a person, look at other characteristics for a well-rounded glance into the problem. 

1. Observe Overall Consumption

Determining if someone has an alcohol disorder requires documenting the overall consumption of alcohol for that person. Measure consumption levels against the national standards for safe or over-consumption in adults. 

Generally, it is said that men should consume no more than four drinks a day and three drinks a day for women. Furthermore, weekly consumption should not exceed 14 for men or seven for women. Anything above this amount can indicate an alcohol abuse problem without studying behavior. 

2. High Alcohol Tolerance 

The more a person drinks or does anything generally, the higher their body’s tolerance becomes. It happens in severe drug use, in everyday things like needing more coffee to feel the effect, and yes, even alcoholism. 

If you or someone you know are requiring more and more alcohol to feel the effects, it can be a sign that you’ve built your tolerance to high, if only by daily, consistent use. This is especially dangerous in high-functioning alcoholics as they can consume more and more alcohol, appearing or feeling “okay.” 

3. Hiding Their Consumption

It’s not uncommon for people who are struggling with their alcohol consumption to try and hide the amount they’re consuming. Rather than outright drinking with family and friends, they may instead resort to adding alcohol throughout the day in undetectable ways. 

Slipping it into coffee at work, excusing themselves to the bathroom often, exhibiting signs of inebriation with no apparent consumption, and so on. They may “pregame” or show up to an agreed function already appearing intoxicated and otherwise hide how much they’re drinking from those around them. 


High-functioning alcoholism is a dangerous combination. Despite seemingly functioning at a normal level, alcohol abuse is not normal in any sense. It’s important to treat your addiction early on to minimize the chance of severe harm to yourself or others and to begin a path toward normalcy. Treatment is available, and you are not alone.

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