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How to Recognize a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

We all think about an alcoholic whose life is falling apart because of their addiction. Although it’s challenging to pinpoint accuracy, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), consider 32% of alcoholics are functional or highly-functional alcoholics. But, how do you recognize a high-functioning alcoholic if they don’t fit the same criteria we have of alcoholics? 

What is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

Alcoholism affects people differently. Some people can function well in their daily lives while struggling with alcohol use disorder. They’re informally referred to as “high-functioning alcoholics.” Although they’re varying extents of this subtype of alcoholism, these are individuals that can maintain relationships, physical health, and other responsibilities like school or work. 

Unfortunately, there’s little research on those struggling with this type of disease. Because most high-functioning alcoholics don’t seek treatment, functional alcoholics may seem perfectly “normal” to others and usually appear to have a higher tolerance for alcohol.

Unlike drugs, alcohol is a widely accepted substance in society. Practices like heavy drinking and binge drinking, as well as blackout episodes, often seem normal. Instead of being seen as alcoholics or addicts, they are seen as “party people” or “fun people.”

In Denial?

Denial is pervasive in alcoholics, and it can be more pronounced among high-functioning alcoholics. Because they’re not facing any relationship, health, or job issues, nor any substance-related criminal entanglements, they find it easier to deny they have a problem with alcohol. 

But, denial is a tremendous barrier to anyone struggling with alcohol abuse. People who are in denial often lie about their alcohol use, underestimate their drinking habits, and fail to admit the real impact it plays in their lives. 

On occasions, when confronted with an unavoidable reality like a DUI or liver disease, someone might recognize their drinking problem. But for others, despite being faced with these realities, they’ll still embrace denial. Regardless, admitting to being powerless over alcohol is one of the first steps in Alcoholics Anonymous to start recovery. 

Could It Be High Tolerance?

Because everyone’s body and alcohol tolerance is different, some people argue that high-functioning alcoholics merely have a high tolerance for alcohol. However, tolerance develops when the brain adapts to alcohol’s disruptive actions on your mental health and physical functioning. 

Someone with low tolerance can become intoxicated after a few drinks, whereas someone with high tolerance needs more drinks to experience the same feeling. Tolerance can be affected by factors like:

  • The amount and speed at which someone consumes alcohol
  • Genetics
  • Gender
  • Body size and composition
  • Ethnicity 

Tolerance is a risk factor in developing alcohol addiction because people need to increase their drink to experience the same alcohol effects continuously. When someone creates a high tolerance for alcohol, they might need the substance to function normally at work, school, or daily life. 

How to Recognize a High-Functioning Alcoholic

It can be challenging to recognize a high-functioning alcoholic, mainly because everything else in their lives seems to be perfect. However, you can start by looking at their drinking behaviors. For women, heavy drinking means having more than three drinks a day or seven drinks a week. For men, the number is four drinks per day or 14 drinks a week. 

Other signs that point to alcohol use disorder (AUD) include:

  • Drinking more alcohol than intended initially without noticing
  • Being unable to cut down alcohol intake
  • Cravings or intense urges to drink alcohol
  • Joking about your problems with alcohol or alcoholism
  • Denying drinking, hide alcohol, or getting angry when confronted about drinking
  • Needing alcohol to feel confident, relax, or function at your best
  • Using alcohol in situations that it might be hazardous to do so

Do High-Functioning Alcoholics Experience Withdrawal?

Even if someone checks all the warning signs boxes for alcoholism, it doesn’t mean they have an alcohol problem. For someone to fully struggle with alcoholism, they must experience withdrawal symptoms whenever they stop drinking. Even non-alcoholics can experience alcohol withdrawal if they drink heavily on one occasion.

Even high-functioning alcoholics experience withdrawal symptoms, mostly if they have built up a tolerance. Symptoms of withdrawal can start as soon as eight hours after their last drink; these include:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Headaches
  • Confusion
  • Sweating
  • Increased heart rate
  • Tremors
  • Seizures

While at first, these symptoms might appear like a bag hangover, they can become quite serious. Remember, alcohol affects your entire body. Most alcoholics also struggle with nutrient deficiencies, dehydration, liver and kidney problems, and other health side effects resulting from drinking. Because the body is used to alcohol to function as it does when you eliminate this substance, it’s common to experience adverse symptoms. 

Functional alcoholics might appear to have everything under control. However, alcohol lowers inhibitions, which places them at risk of putting themselves or others in danger while drinking and driving, engaging in risky sexual encounters, or blacking out. 

Heavy drinking can also lead to liver disease, some forms of cancer, brain damage, permanent memory loss, and high blood pressure. Additionally, even while being high-functioning, alcohol abuse increased the risk of domestic violence, child abuse, neglect, and fetal alcohol syndrome.

How to Know If You Should Seek Help

For functioning-alcoholics, seeking help can be challenging. Most of the time, they don’t seek treatment until their alcoholic addiction has caused health problems. Often, friends and family members are the ones that approach the alcoholic and recommend them to get treatment. Most likely, family members stage an intervention as the first step toward trying to help them.

If you believe your drinking patterns might be tipping towards an alcohol abuse problem, consider these signs that you should seek help:

  • Changes in attitude
  • Loss of focus 
  • Cognitive decline
  • Shakiness or withdrawal symptoms between drinks
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Other physical health problems due to high alcohol consumption

These signs can help you recognize a high-functioning alcoholic. If you notice any of these signs, it might be time to seek treatment. Consult with a medical professional that understands the dangers of addiction, particularly alcohol addiction.

Please, don’t try to quit alcohol on your own. When heavy drinking attempts to stop drinking cold-turkey, they’re likely to experience life-threatening withdrawal symptoms that can cause seizures, hallucinations, and more. Ideally, you would check into a detox treatment facility to start your road to recovery. 

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High-Functioning Alcoholic Recovery

If you or someone you know is a highly-functioning alcoholic, please don’t hesitate to find treatment. You might believe you have everything under control because alcohol hasn’t affected you negatively — yet. However, alcohol dependence eventually catches up with you, and you could face legal, personal, and work-related issues in the future. 

At Lighthouse Recovery Institute, we offer a custom-based approach to alcohol addiction treatment. Our therapies and treatment programs are targeted to address your unique needs. Our treatment center has everything you need to win the battle against substance abuse, from support groups to discuss problem drinking to behavioral health therapies. By personalizing your treatment, we can provide you with a greater chance of recovery and set you up for long-term sobriety.

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