Often people think of an alcoholic as an individual whose life is falling apart. The fact is many people who have alcohol use disorders are keeping their lives together pretty well, even living highly successful lives. If you’re one of these people, you may think there is no need to get help for your alcohol use. However, just because you don’t fit the mold of what you consider a typical alcoholic doesn’t mean you don’t have a serious problem that can be dangerous and even deadly. Take a closer look at your relationship with alcohol and understand the signs of being a high-functioning alcoholic.
What Does High Functioning Alcoholic Mean?
Many drinking behaviors of a high functioning alcoholic are consistent with a substance use disorder, but they are able to successfully participate in everyday life unlike some people with alcohol addictions. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism categorizes drinking behaviors into 5 subtypes. High-functioning alcoholics fall into the “functional” subtype, also known as a functional alcoholic. Almost 20% of people with alcohol use disorders fall into this subtype. Common characteristics of a functional alcoholic include:
- Aged 40-60
- Family history of alcoholism
- Smokers (50%)
- Have struggled with major depression (25%)
- Middle-to-high income
- Drinking alcohol every other day
- Drinks heavily, frequently consuming five or more drinks in one day
- Well educated
- Holding a steady job
- Having families and steady relationships
- Drinking to cope with stress
Signs You’re a High Functioning Alcoholic
Functional alcoholics typically don’t consider their heavy drinking a problem. If they start having concerns or their friends and family bring up their drinking, they tend to justify it by pointing to their success in life. They may point to the fact that they have a successful career or are maintaining social and family obligations. If this sounds like you, and you’re questioning whether you have a problem with alcohol abuse, see if any of these situations describe you:
1. Lying About How Much You Drink
Loved ones or coworkers may have raised their eyebrows at your drinking habits enough that you begin to hide how much you’re drinking. When asked how many drinks you’ve had, you’ll lower the number, or you may drink a few alcoholic beverages around people but consume much more in private.
2. Needing More Alcohol to Get Drunk
It used to just take a few drinks to get that buzz you’re looking for, but now you need four or five drinks to get the desired effect. When this happens, it means that you’ve developed an alcohol tolerance, and it’s a red light that your substance abuse is problematic.
3. Having Some “Hair of the Dog”
You find yourself having an eye opener in the morning when you’ve overdone it the night before. The intention is to lessen the effects of your hangover by adding some alcohol into the mix to help your body regulate. Drinking so much that you need a morning drink or drinking at unusual times just to get through your day is a sign of alcohol addiction.
4. Experiencing Memory Lapses After Drinking
You may have memory issues if you’re drinking a lot. For example, people reference recent conversations with you, but you can’t remember them because you were drinking. These memory lapses can be severe enough that they’re considered blackouts. Research shows that the severity of blackouts varies by your individual make-up and that these alcohol-induced memory lapses can jumpstart long-term neurobiological abnormalities and psychiatric symptoms.
5. Getting Defensive About Your Drinking
If you find yourself defending your drinking a lot, it’s time to take a closer look at your substance use. Maybe friends or family say you need to cut back or your drinking may have even given your coworkers or boss cause for concern. Even though you may be able to function better than others on large amounts of alcohol, the long-term psychological and physical effects can be damaging and deadly.
6. Engaging in Risky Behaviors While Drinking
People who are high-functioning alcoholics can be overconfident about their ability to do tasks while under the influence of alcohol. You may operate machinery or drive after drinking, putting your life and the lives of others in danger. It’s important to know that though you’ve developed a tolerance to alcohol, your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) remains unchanged by how much you drink. Even though you may not feel as drunk, your judgement is still clouded, and you will still suffer ramifications like getting a DUI if you’re pulled over while driving drunk.
7. Not Being Able to Curb or Quit Drinking
If you’ve tried to cut back on your drinking or stop altogether without success, it’s time to seek help. Alcoholism is a disease of the brain. The reason why you can’t quit is because alcohol abuse has changed your brain and it now associates alcohol with something it needs for survival like food or water. Getting medical and psychological help for alcohol dependence is necessary.
Does a High Functioning Alcoholic Need Treatment?
A main indicator of addiction is continuing to use substances despite negative consequences in your life. Sometimes functioning alcoholics have a hard time seeing that their drinking is problematic. Though people with alcohol use problems are still colloquially referred to as “alcoholics,” the clinical term is an alcohol use disorder. In order to meet the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder you only need to meet two of the below criteria over the past year:
- You’ve tried to curb or quit drinking alcohol without success more than once.
- You need to drink more amounts of alcohol to get the same desired effects (alcohol tolerance).
- You’ve continued drinking though it’s impacted your relationships.
- You’ve been unable to fulfill responsibilities or obligations because you’ve been ill from drinking.
- You’ve drank more alcohol than you’ve intended or over a longer period of time than you wanted.
- You’ve continued to drink even though it’s impacted your physical or psychological health.
- You’ve spent increasing amounts of time drinking or recovering from alcohol use.
- You’ve had ruminating thoughts about using alcohol.
- You’ve experienced alcohol withdrawal symptoms when you’ve decreased alcohol intake.
- You’ve decreased or given up responsibilities or activities because of alcohol use.
- You’ve gotten into more than one unsafe situation while drinking or after drinking.
The severity of an alcohol use disorder (AUD) is determined by the number of criteria you meet. A mild AUD is 2-3 symptoms; a moderate AUD is 4-5 symptoms; and a severe AUD is at least six symptoms.
People with alcohol use disorders benefit from professional treatment programs because it addresses the underlying reasons behind substance abuse and addiction. Many people with substance use disorders have co-occurring mental illnesses like depression and anxiety disorders. This is known as a dual diagnosis. Trauma is also a common contributor to alcohol and drug abuse. You may be abusing substances as a way to self-medicate the symptoms of these mental health conditions.
Without tackling underlying issues and learning new life skills, it’s extremely difficult not to relapse. In alcohol treatment, you’ll work with behavioral health and medical professionals who will help you address these challenges. You’ll begin healing from the mental and physical effects of addiction and learn a healthier way of life in sobriety.
Get Help for High Functioning Alcoholism
If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse, Footprints to Recovery can help. Our drug and alcohol addiction treatment is evidence-based and tailored to your individual needs. We’ll help you begin working through trauma and other challenges that perpetuate substance abuse and mental health issues.
Our addiction treatment centers offer:
- Medical detox
- Inpatient rehab
- Partial hospitalization program (PHP)
- Intensive outpatient programs (IOP)
- Outpatient treatment
- Sober-living residences
We use proven treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) as well as yoga, art therapy, and other experiential approaches. If you or a loved one is struggling, give us a call to learn more about our programs and how we can help.