For people who enjoy having an occasional drink, there probably isn’t much to worry about where alcohol consumption is concerned. But not everyone has just a couple drinks every now and then.

Some people drink more heavily and frequently. They may be able to take care of their families, hold a steady job, pay bills on time, and look like upstanding citizens, but that doesn’t mean they don’t face a problem.

Essentially, those people are considered to be functioning alcoholics. On the outside, people who don’t know them well might assume they don’t drink, or drink heavily. Those who are closer to them, however, can tell another story. But the problem is they might excuse the functioning alcoholics behavior, look the other way or just not know where to turn to for help.

What puts someone in that category, and how can they address the issue? Here’s what you need to know about functional alcoholism.

What is a Functioning Alcoholic?

When people think of an alcoholic, they generally think of a person who obviously drinks too much, and whose life might seem to be falling apart.

They may have lost their job, or their spouse has left them. Perhaps they had to give up custody of their kids, have financial problems, were hospitalized or left homeless because of it.

Those things can and do happen to some alcoholics, but there’s another type of person who drinks obsessively—the functioning alcoholic.

Functioning alcoholics—also called functional or high-functioning alcoholics—appear normal and in control of their lives. They excel in their careers, meet their responsibilities and obligations, are successful in many facets of their lives. But they drink excessively.

When you look carefully at their behaviors, it’s easy to see that they’re drinking too much, and too often.

Common Signs of a Functioning Alcoholic

Regardless of how in control a functioning alcoholic might seem, it’s only a matter of time before they could face significant issues with their alcoholism.

Common signs of a functioning alcoholic include:

  1. Drinking alcohol to relax, focus or feel confidant
  2. Drinking alone, in the morning, at work or while driving
  3. Having high tolerance to large amounts of alcohol
  4. Is forgetful of things they did or said while drunk
  5. Getting drunk when they didn’t intend to
  6. Hiding their drinking or supply
  7. Getting hostile or dismissive when confronted about their drinking
  8. Rewarding themselves by drinking

Over time, these kinds of signs will become more and more obvious. As a result, responsibilities and obligations may begin to slip, and instability will replace their once stable appearance and behavior.

How Dangerous is Functional Alcoholism?

Whether or not a person functions well, if they’re drinking too much it’s going to take a toll on their physical and mental wellbeing.

Our bodies are not designed for heavy consumption of alcohol, since alcohol is technically a poison. Done occasionally, drinking alcohol generally doesn’t cause lasting harm. But anyone who’s a functioning alcoholic is drinking heavily and frequently on a consistent basis.

In many cases, this level of alcohol consumption will go on for years on end. Eventually, though, it will catch up with the drinker in some way.

Liver and heart problems are common in people who abuse alcohol, as are cancers. Accidents are also commonplace due to the impaired judgment and loss of fine motor skills that accompany heavy drinking.

There’s no guarantee that everyone will react the same way to excessive drinking. But there are some specific issues that will generally become bigger and more problematic the longer the behavior goes on. This can lead to a desire to hide how much alcohol is actually being consumed, or making jokes about drinking or being an alcoholic.

By making light of the situation, a lot of functioning alcoholics try to turn things around by getting people laughing. This is so they don’t worry about what could be a serious problem.

In time, functional alcoholism catches up with nearly everyone who lives that lifestyle. Major responsibilities can’t be handled any longer, or a DUI or domestic squabble alerts family, friends, and neighbors that something is very wrong in the alcoholic’s life.

When to Seek Help and Treatment

Getting treatment for alcoholism is very important. But it can be difficult to convince a person to get treated for an issue they don’t think they have.

Sometimes, it can take an accident or medical scare to convince someone that they need help. Naturally, it’s much better for a person to recognize the need for help early on, well before long-term or uncorrectable damage has been done.

If you have a friend or family member who’s a functioning alcoholic, it’s important to get them help sooner than later. They need to acknowledge their problems and focus on ways to break from their addiction. This is the only way they can go on to live a better life with a clean and sober future.

Getting the right level of support can make a big difference. When a person who struggles with alcoholism is willing to reach out for support, it’s generally because they’ve come to realize that being functional in life doesn’t mean they aren’t an alcoholic. The two things aren’t mutually exclusive, and a person can be a good provider, worker, friend, etc., and still have problems with alcohol. Only treatment can help to improve their health and quality of life.


  1. Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes
  2. Excessive Alcohol Use and Risks to Men’s Health
  3. Alcoholism in the Workplace: A Handbook for Supervisors

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