What Is A High-Functioning Alcoholic?


People generally think of an alcoholic as someone who routinely gets drunk and out of control and whose life is in shambles. But that’s not always the case. Many people with alcohol use disorder lead successful lives and don’t appear drunk or disorderly. An individual who fit this description is often called a high-functioning alcoholic. Here are 11 signs and symptoms of high-functioning alcoholism.


Many people with alcohol use disorder lead successful lives and don’t appear drunk or disorderly. An individual who fit this description is often called a high-functioning alcoholic. Click To Tweet


High-functioning alcoholism is a subtype of alcohol use disorder. One study by the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA) found that nearly 20% of all alcoholics fall into this category. These individuals tend to be middle-aged, well-educated and have steady jobs and stable families.

A high-functioning alcoholic may have a high-paying job, a beautiful home, a high credit score, a loving family, and a wide circle of friends. They may appear to be a high achiever, or they may even be in a position of power.

Take Columbus Short, for instance. A successful actor who appeared in the TV series Scandal, Short talked about his experiences with alcohol when he visited Amen Clinics to have his brain scanned as part of an episode of Scan My Brain.

“I don’t drink to the point of being wasted,” the actor says to Dr. Jay Faber in the episode. “I never get wasted. I drink enough to keep me functional. I’m a high-functioning alcoholic.”

In the episode, Short reveals that at one point he was drinking approximately 4 shots before 10 am, another 4 during the day, and yet another 4 from 7-9 pm. “That’s way too many,” he acknowledges.

From the outside, it might look as if people like Short have an ideal life. But they don’t. Underneath that successful exterior, they may be struggling with alcohol abuse.

According to Dr. Faber, when our brains aren’t healthy they can fool us into thinking that we aren’t drinking too much. “Our brains are interesting creatures,” Dr. Faber says. When blood flow and activity levels in the brain aren’t optimal, “they can create less clarity about that stuff.”


According to the NIAAA study, which surveyed 1,484 people who met the criteria for alcohol use disorder, the following risk factors are associated with high-functioning alcoholism:

  • Family history of alcoholism: Approximately 1 in 3 high-functioning alcoholics have relatives who have struggled with some form of alcohol use disorder, based on the NIAAA statistics. If you have alcoholic parents or other family members who abuse alcohol, be aware that you may be at increased risk.
  • Having depression: Based on the statistics in the NIAAA survey, about 1 in 4 people with high-functioning alcoholism have had this common mood disorder at some point during their lives. This makes it more important for anyone with major depressive disorder to seek treatment for the condition.
  • Being a smoker: Nearly half of all high-functioning alcoholics were also smokers, according to the NIAAA findings. If you’re a smoker, it’s critical to quit.


What are the signs and symptoms of high-functioning alcoholism? Here are 11 red flags that you or a loved one might have a drinking problem.

1. They deny having a drinking problem.

High-functioning alcoholics are often in denial. They believe that since their life isn’t falling apart, they don’t have a drinking problem.

2. They hide their alcohol intake from others.

A high-functioning alcoholic is likely to lie about how much they drink. They also tend to drink alone and may have one or more drinks before going out to a restaurant or bar. They may also sneak a few sips from a hidden bottle in their desk at work or in their car. They may also put alcohol in what looks like a water bottle.

3. They get defensive when confronted about alcohol intake.

If friends, coworkers, or loved ones make a comment about how much a person is drinking and they lash out or make excuses, it’s a sign they may have an alcohol addiction.

4. They make excuses for their drinking.

“I’m celebrating!” “It’s Friday!” “I had a bad day.” “It’s game day!” People with this type of alcohol use disorder always seem to have a reason to explain why they’re drinking.

5. They skip meals and drink instead.

People with high-functioning alcoholism may use mealtimes as an excuse to drink. They may take only a few bites of their food or skip it entirely while they consume several drinks.

6. They make light their alcohol use.

One of the common signs of alcoholism is joking about their own drinking habits. They may say things like, “It’s happy hour somewhere,” “It’s always wine o’clock,” or “What’s a weekend without cocktails?”

7. They can’t stop after one drink.

Alcoholics often start the day with the intention that they’re only going to have one drink, but then they end up having 2, 3, or more drinks. The inability to say no to alcohol is one of the signs of alcohol abuse.

8. They frequently cancel or reschedule appointments.

People with alcohol problems tend to flake out on social engagements or may make excuses for missing work meetings.

9. The experience memory lapses.

Drinking too much can cause problems with recall. These people may forget meeting someone or will space out on a conversation they had while drinking. Research shows that these alcohol-induced blackouts may trigger changes in the brain and can lead to mental health symptoms.

10. They attempt to quit drinking but fail.

These individuals often proclaim that they could quit any time they want to, but they can’t. Their efforts to stop drinking are short-lived, and they go back to their old ways.

11. They feel ashamed about their alcohol use.

Although they may appear successful on the exterior, people struggling with high-functioning alcoholism often experience shame and guilt about their drinking. They fear that others will discover how much they’re really drinking, which can cause added stress and lead to anxiety and depression. These all contribute to increased drinking as a way to self-medicate to soothe those feelings.


With the right treatment, it’s possible to heal from excessive alcohol use. For people who are high functioning, it starts by recognizing the signs and admitting that you have a problem.

In addition, it’s especially important to address any underlying mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or emotional trauma. Healing from these issues can help you in your journey to overcome your dependence on alcohol.

Substance use disorders, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. Am a Veteran suffering w/ PTSD & am on meds & went thru a vet rehab & am on house arrest for 2 back to back DUI

    Comment by Frank Stanghellini — November 3, 2023 @ 9:22 AM

  2. Greetings! Very useful advice in this particular article! Its the little changes that produce the largest changes. Thanks a lot for sharing!

    Comment by נערות ליווי במרכז — November 15, 2023 @ 12:56 PM

  3. My pɑrtner and I stumbled over here coming from a different web page and thought I mɑy as well check things out.
    I like what I see so now i'm following you. Look forward to looking
    at your web page for a second time.

    Comment by civilizes — November 18, 2023 @ 8:47 AM

  4. I read this piece of writing completely on the topic of the difference of most
    up-to-date and preceding technologies, it's awesome article.

    Comment by اوکی مدیا — November 21, 2023 @ 6:26 AM

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

Contact Us