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What Is High-Functioning Alcoholism?

What is High-Functioning Alcoholism?

A “high-functioning alcoholic” is a term that describes someone living with an alcohol use disorder who manages to maintain an appearance of control and self-discipline. However, such individuals still must deal with the effects of their heavy drinking, including physical and mental health problems that arise as the result of long-term alcohol abuse. In other words, just because you might be thriving at work, school, or other obligations, your heavy drinking might indicate a problem.

When people think about the term “alcoholic,“ we often visualize what is defined as a ‘non-functioning alcoholic,'” said Kelly Brey, Ph.D., Executive Director of Northpoint Colorado. “We often fail to consider those that still meet criteria for alcoholism but are able to go to work, church, coach Little League. Simply because the disease has not yet negatively impacted their public-facing persona does not negate the need for treatment.” 

High-Functioning Alcoholics and Denial

For the most part, high-functioning alcoholics don’t consider their drinking a problem. If anyone happens to observe that they drink to excess or with great frequency, they can justify their behavior by pointing to their success in life—a successful career, keeping up with social and family obligations, and the like. This is one of the most common ways in which alcoholics remain in denial.

Because indicators for alcohol use disorder tend to appear gradually over time, they can often be tough to identify and connect to drinking. For this reason, denial can provide strong resistance to the idea of the addict ever needing help for their problem.

High-functioning alcoholics can usually argue that “everything is under control” quite convincingly. Unfortunately, because they are so good at covering their tracks and present a mask of control, they are far less likely to seek treatment.

The Signs and Symptoms of High-Functioning Alcoholism

As much as someone might believe they have their drinking under control, there exist a handful of tell-tale signs common among them. Look for the following signs when considering whether you or a friend or loved one might be developing an alcohol use disorder:

Needing More Alcohol to Feel a Buzz

While it used to just take one or two drinks to get that buzz you’re after, now you need four, five, or more drinks to hit that high. When this occurs, it usually means you have developed a physical tolerance for alcohol. A high alcohol tolerance is a warning sign that your drinking has become problematic.

Drinking at Unusual or Inappropriate Times

Taking a drink in the morning as part of a “hair of the dog” campaign to soften the headache, nausea, or other physical effects of overdoing the night before could indicate a problem with drinking. By the same measure, taking a drink before work meetings or worship services or otherwise just to make it through the day is a strong sign of alcohol addiction.

Experiencing Memory Lapses After Drinking

Not to be mistaken for “blackouts,” experiencing minor memory lapses while drinking, such as remembering a conversation or meeting a particular person, could mark the beginning of a neurological abnormality caused or perpetuated by long-term alcohol abuse. The length or severity of such lapses can vary by individual, but they could indicate the need for professional help.

Lying About, Hiding, or Getting Defensive About Your Drinking

When asked how many drinks they’ve had, the high-functioning alcoholic might respond in one of three ways:

  1. They lower the number of drinks they’ve really had.
  2. They keep it just one or two around people and then consume more when alone.
  3. They respond aggressively, hoping to intimidate the questioner to avoid answering the question.

If you find yourself defending your drinking habits to others, it may be time to examine your relationship with alcohol.

Engaging in Risky Behaviors While Drinking

High-functioning alcoholics tend to be overconfident in their ability to handle tasks while under the influence. They might drive or operate heavy machinery while drinking, make wild bets, or attempt risky physical stunts. Even though the person might not feel drunk, their judgement is still clouded, and the consequences just as dire.

The Dangers of High-Functioning Alcoholism

In truth, the term “high-functioning alcoholic,” is an oxymoron. No matter how much one believes they have a handle on their excessive drinking, the consequences can be serious. Aside from the increased risk of legal and financial trouble, underperformance at work, and problems with personal relationships, a host of short- and long-term health problems can also arise from alcohol abuse. These include: 

  • Vitamin deficiencies. Alcohol blocks the absorption of certain vitamins in the body, leading to deficiencies and a weakened immune system.
  • Liver damage. Because alcohol is processed by the liver, the overworked liver can suffer permanent damage from long-term alcohol abuse.
  • Heart complications. Long-term alcohol abuse can lead to high blood pressure and an increased risk of stroke and heart attack.
  • Musculoskeletal health risks. Alcohol weakens the bones, increasing the risk of fractures and broken bones. High levels of uric acid and gout are more common in people living with alcohol use disorder.
  • Increased risk of specific cancers. Heavy drinkers tend to run a higher risk of developing certain types of cancer, including liver, breast, and mouth cancer.
  • Memory and cognitive impairment. According to a 2023 study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, sustained heavy alcohol use runs a higher risk for developing dementia than sustained moderate alcohol use.

To avoid these dangers, many people seek professional help at an addiction treatment facility like Northpoint Colorado. Our licensed professionals provide individualized care tailored to the needs and goals of each client. Through evidence-based treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and group support, clients can win back their lives and well-being.

How We Treat Alcoholism

At Northpoint Colorado, our experienced and compassionate staff can treat alcohol use disorder as well as any co-occurring mental health disorders. We use a three-step system to help people recover from their addictive behaviors. Our residential inpatient treatment program provides the highest level of support, beginning with alcohol detox services. 

After a successful detox, clients move through three weeks of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to understand their addiction “triggers” and develop new behavior patterns designed to promote calmness and prevent relapse. After this stage, clients are compelled to enter a Northpoint outpatient recovery program for extended support while keeping up with their responsibilities at work and home. 

Find Help for Alcohol Use Disorder with the Help of Northpoint Colorado

If you or someone you love is living with an alcohol use disorder, don’t try to beat it all on your own. At Northpoint Colorado, we can provide you with individualized, comprehensive recovery support for a gradual return to sobriety and wellness. Call Northpoint Colorado today at 970.762.2353 for a free assessment or reach out through our online contact form.