What Are the Signs of a Functioning Alcoholic?

There are many stereotypes and stigmas of those that struggle with alcohol use disorders or alcoholism. These often include the picture of a person that is drunk all the time, can’t keep a job, is in financial trouble, has health problems, and doesn’t know what a healthy relationship is. These stigmas mostly stem from popular media, as this is how alcoholic characters are often portrayed. However, while an individual struggling with alcoholism will meet some of these stereotypes, a group of people does not fit into any. They are what is known as “functioning alcoholics.” These individuals can be challenging to recognize because they do not exhibit the common stereotypes or symptoms of those that struggle with alcoholism. Knowing how to spot a functioning alcoholic, whether in yourself or a loved one, can help the person get the help they need. 

What is a Functioning Alcoholic?

A functioning alcoholic can be described as a middle-aged person who seems to have their life together but often goes on drinking binges. Many friends and family may not even know the person has a drinking problem either because they have never seen it or because they think they are stable due to fulfilling all of their everyday responsibilities. These individuals most likely have a long-lasting marriage or long term relationship, a successful career, a good circle of friends, and fulfilled daily obligations. For these reasons, it can be challenging to spot a functioning alcoholic. However, being successful in life does not keep one from experiencing the mental and physical health consequences of long-term alcoholism. 

Signs to Spot a Functioning Alcoholic

While alcohol abuse and alcoholism can look different for everyone, there are signs that you can look out for if you suspect someone you love is a high-functioning alcoholic. Remember that even if their drinking problem does not look severe on the surface, they could be battling inner demons that can have significant consequences in their life. Here are signs to look for if you suspect someone is a functioning alcoholic:

Day Drinking

It is not uncommon for those that drink alcohol excessively to have cravings throughout the day due to withdrawal symptoms. To prevent these urges, some individuals will drink alcohol during the day. This can include drinking as soon as they wake up to get their day started, sneaking alcohol at work, or running off during breaks to down a drink or two. It should be noted that just because someone engages in these behaviors, one time does not mean they are an alcoholic. However, certain signs can tell you that day drinking has become a problem, such as:

  • Day drinking constantly
  • Signs of withdrawal
  • Attempting to hide their day drinking
  • Covering the impact of drinking on their life
  • Using jokes as a way to cope with how much they drink

Drinking as a Coping Mechanism

When people feel stressed, sad, anxious, angry, or any other distressing emotions, they will often turn to familiar coping strategies. If someone you know is going through a tough time and notice them drinking more, they could be using alcohol as a coping mechanism. This can lead to excessive drinking, which, in turn, can lead to alcoholism. Even if alcohol is used to cope with these emotions initially, it can worsen their feelings over time, causing them to drink more to get the desired effects.

Living in Denial

Individuals that struggle with alcohol or have an alcohol use disorder may not admit that they have a problem. Some don’t realize they have a drinking problem in the first place. However, many of these individuals will live in a state of denial to allow themselves to keep drinking. They will make excuses, explicitly pointing to the fact that they can still maintain their responsibilities, so it is okay for them to drink as much as they do since it isn’t causing any “significant” problems. However, they cannot live like this forever. Eventually, their drinking will lead to more significant physical and mental health problems. They will have to realize that they do not have control over their drinking anymore and have to admit they have a problem when staring them in the face. Thus, functional alcoholism is not sustainable.

Talking to a Functional Alcoholic

If you know someone that is a high functioning alcoholic and want to talk to them about their drinking, it is best to do so when they are not under the influence of alcohol and not hungover. Set aside time to discuss with the person how their drinking has negatively affected them as well as those around them. Ensure you are not pointing fingers or actively blaming the person, which can cause them to get defensive. Instead, emphasize your concerns and feelings for the person and tell them that you just want them to heal. If all goes well, they may realize that they do need help and agree to seek treatment.


Many people that struggle with alcoholism do not fit the stereotype, as shown in numerous television shows and movies. For this reason, it can be more challenging to spot these individuals. This is especially true if the person is a high functioning alcoholic, as they commonly can still fulfill all of their responsibilities while excessively drinking. However, there are signs of high functioning alcoholics that you can look out for to tell if a person needs help. These often include drinking during the day, drinking to cope with stress, and living in denial about one’s drinking. If you see these signs in someone you know, contact Northstar Transitions today. At Northstar, we can give your loved ones the help they need to get back on their feet and free themselves from the binds of addiction. Call us today to learn more about our treatment programs and how to find the path to healing at (303) 558-6400.


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