High functioning alcoholics: the walking wounded

Imagine you are on a train standing between two strangers. To the left of you, you have a person whose physical appearance is dishevelled, they slur their words and stagger when they walk, and you can smell a whiff of vodka from their clothes. To the right of you, you have a person who is well groomed, speaks clearly and walks in a straight line. The two strangers are entirely different, yet both have one thing in common; they are craving their next alcoholic drink.

Alcoholism, like any other mental health condition, doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter our age, culture, level of education, nationality, or gender; it can target anyone in a vulnerable state of mind. On this page, we will look closely at high-functioning alcoholism – in other words, those whose drinking problems often go unnoticed by those around them and, in some cases, go unnoticed by themselves.

What constitutes a high-functioning alcoholic?

A high functioning alcoholic is a person with an addiction to alcohol, but manages to go about their daily routine, therefore their drinking problem goes unseen. It may be surprising to know that your friend, who has a good and stable job, pays their bills, and is friendly and social, is secretly battling alcoholism. This is what is commonly referred to as a high-functioning alcoholic, and most alcoholics are not able to sustain this way of living for very long.

Getting inside the mind of a high-functioning alcoholic

We know that alcoholism, in any form, stems from trauma; there is always an underlying reason for addiction. However, to understand what drives people to high-functioning alcoholism, we must show compassion and put ourselves in their shoes. We spoke to one of our former clients, James, who opened up about how and why he became addicted to drinking and what sparked him to seek recovery. By looking at James’s story, it may indicate whether you or someone you love may also be suffering from high-functioning alcoholism.

Signs of high-functioning alcoholism

They have problems in their personal life

“(Alcoholism) develops when alcohol is used as a coping mechanism for a deeper problem. For example, when I was 31, my wife was diagnosed with MS. When you are diagnosed with that, it’s simply a waiting game. The pressure this caused me is what started me to drink more– although I wasn’t aware it was an alcohol addiction at the time.”


Life can sometimes feel stressful and painful situations can arise. For high-functioning alcoholics, drinking may offer temporary relief. James, for example, had a sick loved one. Other people with alcoholism may find themselves in financial difficulty, or maybe they’re experiencing relationship problems. It can be difficult to express or handle our feelings, so people may use alcohol to ‘numb the pain’. Furthermore, suppose you have responsibilities such as a job or children to take care of. In that case, you may use alcohol as a clutch to give you a perceived sense of strength to get through hard times, e.g., if someone in pain can find the strength to get through a week of work or find the emotional power to entertain their children on the weekend, looking forward to drinking can be their driving force.

They may have a high-pressured job

“I was struggling with some other major responsibilities in my life. The business was being restructured, people were applying for jobs, and customers needed to be kept happy. Perhaps if it had only been one thing to deal with, then I may have been able to cope, but the pressure of everything together made me crack. I went from heavy drinking to full-blown alcoholism for about three years.”


A job that puts you under a lot of pressure can be the catalyst for alcohol abuse. Some common examples can be, but are not limited to, are:

  • Police officers
  • Health care workers
  • Lawyers
  • Executives
  • Managerial roles
  • Business owners
  • Alternating day/night shift workers
  • People who work in hospitality services

Officers are often faced with life-threatening situations daily, and sometimes they may witness more disturbing aspects of humanity. Likewise, health care workers may see some heart-breaking moments in their profession, such as sudden death and deterioration from disease. Lawyers and executives are responsible for important outcomes; therefore, people in pressured occupations may turn to alcohol to cope with their emotions.

They constantly justify their drinking habits

“I didn’t realise the alcohol was controlling me, rather than me controlling it, and I told myself I was a heavy drinker.”


High-functioning alcoholics may be aware that they’re drinking an excess of alcohol, and this awareness may cause them deep-rooted anxiety. As a result, people with addiction often make excuses about their problems until they seek help. You may hear high-functioning alcoholics say things like:

  • “I work so hard. I am entitled to have fun.”
  • “I had a successful day at work today. I’m going to have a drink.”
  • “Everyone after work is drinking, so it’s social.”
  • “I don’t drink every day, so I’m not an alcoholic.”
  • “I had a horrible day at work today. I need a drink.”
  • I’m not dependent on alcohol. I just like the taste.”
  • “My job is so stressful. I need it.”
  • “My boss gives me a hard time. I need a drink.”
  • “My partner and I are having problems. I drink to make life easier.”
  • “I finish all my tasks and take care of my family. I am not an alcoholic.”
  • “I can hold my drink.”
  • “I don’t get hangovers, so it is okay.” (usually, the absence of a hangover indicates that a person has built a high tolerance to alcohol due to excessive and frequent drinking).
  • “I pay the bills, take my kids to school, and get to work on time. Alcoholics can’t do those things.”

They can’t just have one

I had one, and then I felt okay for a little while. But soon enough, one drink became two, which turned into all-day drinking, and that became typical.”


If you suspect your friend or loved one is addicted to drinking, you may have a drink with them. Initially, they intend that they will just have one or possibly two, and they may sincerely wish to believe this and tell others in your company to reaffirm this belief. But one will always turn into more as they will inevitably find an excuse to continue drinking, whether it be another round, chatting to a new person, or an offer on beverages such as ‘happy hour’. Whatever the reason, they are likely to find excuses to continue drinking.

When is the right time to seek help for high-functioning alcoholism?

“I tried to control the alcohol misuse by myself, but I kept thinking about my next drink. I now realise that this is a mental disorder, and you cannot succeed without professional help.”


Sadly, many high-functioning alcoholics don’t realise they have a problem until a long time has passed. But that doesn’t mean it’s too late for them to recover and begin a fresh start. So, if you are reading this, know that it is never too late to change, and right now, you are deserving of a healthier way of life – physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Recovery treatment for high-functioning alcoholics

“There are two things. First, you’ve got to accept that you’ve hit bottom. And you have to accept that step one [of the 12 steps at rehab] is valid. Second, rehab is about changing your mindset through behavioural therapies, so if you are not at the point of wanting to change, you are not ready for rehab.”


Rehabilitation is the best course to take if you want to overcome alcohol dependency. Rehab clinics often invite clients to stay for a period of time where they will receive a safe medical detox, thorough therapy and extensive counselling, plus a multitude of holistic treatments. All these combined help to change the way people view alcohol, address their underlying emotions, and instil a flame of hope in them; they can look forward to a good quality of life- without drinking.

Do you know someone having an experience similar to James?

If you have a loved one who is a functional alcoholic, the best way you can help them is to make them see the damage their alcohol use is causing. Once they realise that they are on the verge of losing their family or throwing away a successful career, it may be the impetus they need to seek help.”


Like James, high-functioning alcoholics may not act as you would expect, as they can continue working and running a family home without their alcohol abuse affecting their outward performance. In addition, many people wouldn’t associate themselves with having a drinking problem. However, this type of denial can creep up on those affected for years and, in the process, can severely damage a person’s relationships as well as their mental and physical health.

Call us now for help

Recovery treatment for high-functioning alcoholics

James’ experience is unfortunately all too common, and there are many functional alcoholics across the UK who often don’t realise the extent of their drinking until it’s too late. We also know numerous reasons cause high-functioning alcoholism; in James’s case, it was the pressure and heartbreak of caring for his sick wife. However, many reasons can drive people to a drinking problem, and we believe no one should suffer in silence. Addiction treatment can make all the difference in overcoming an addiction to alcohol, even for those people with a high functional tolerance who may not feel like they need it. With fantastic treatment facilities, effective recovery programmes, and ongoing support groups after you leave, you can get in contact today. So, like James, you can take the first crucial step on the road to recovery.