When I was an alcoholic, one of the ways I could trick people was with my success in boxing.
As long as I kept winning fights, people either looked the other way, made excuses for me, or wisely distanced themselves. While I’m grateful for everyone who didn’t give up on me, that doesn’t change what I was:
A highly functioning alcoholic whose alcohol abuse nearly cost him everything.
In this article, I mention the obvious and subtle signs someone will show if they are secretly an alcoholic, high-functioning or otherwise. If you found this article inquiring about your own condition, you may discover things are worse than you thought.
Whether it’s for yourself or a loved one, I’ve included some resources at the end to help you. You can also download a free chapter of my book “Sober Letters To My Drunken Self,” which I wrote to help people who need help but weren’t interested in going to alcohol rehab.
Get a free chapter of Sober Letter’s To My Drunken Self
High-functioning alcoholic versus typical alcoholic
If you ask the average person to describe the life of someone with a drinking problem, they usually imagine someone who can’t hold a job, has a DUI or few, and can’t step foot in a bar without losing their mind and getting blackout drunk.
While most of those things are true for high-functioning alcoholics, there is a notable exception: they almost always have a job or a significant professional position.
If you looked at how things go in their daily life, you’d never know they have a drinking problem. But if you peak just beneath the surface, you’ll not only see a heavy drinker that easily fits the bill of an alcoholic, but their drinking habits are often way worse and far more dangerous than anyone could ever imagine.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism categorizes drinking behaviors into five subtypes. High-functioning alcoholics, as the name suggests, fall into the “functional” subtype. 1 in 5 people with alcohol use disorders (AUD) is this drinker.
Functional types tend to have a mid-to-high level income, a steady job, are well-educated, and have families and steady relationships. These are not the traits you think about when you typically imagine an alcoholic.
When your life isn’t falling apart, no one thinks of your drinking as a problem. But I know from experience that it is very much a problem.
Alcoholism is a complex health issue that doesn’t look the same in everyone. In my book “Sober Letters to My Drunken Self,” I said that “there are people who have a drinking problem and people who have problems when they drink.”
The idea is that while every alcoholic is the same, every alcoholic is also different.
My Tedx Talk about the role that identity plays in addiction
Some are in and out of jail, others are high-powered businessmen or professional athletes, and then there are those struggling with alcohol dependence in secret. Not all alcoholics look like the stereotype of an addict.
Just because you don’t walk like a duck doesn’t mean you don’t quack when you open your mouth. This is why it’s important to understand the signs of a high-functioning alcoholic. High-functioning alcoholism is like any other problem. You have to recognize it before you can do something about it.
If you or someone you know is exhibiting any of these signs. symptoms, or red flags, act fast. It might save your life or the life of someone that you love.
1) Denial and Defensiveness
Whenever someone suggested that I might drink too much, I either ignored them or convinced myself that we weren’t meant to get along. That’s the most obvious form of denial, but I could also fool myself. That form of denial is the most dangerous.
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
I drank by myself, I binge drank, I drove drunk, and my personal life was a mess. But I convinced myself that everything was all good because I hadn’t been arrested, I held down a job, and I was still going to practice every day and winning boxing matches.
When everything is going well, it’s easy to hide behind things.
Denial is the most common sign of a high-functioning alcoholic.
Not only do they become defensive, but there is always an excuse to explain their drinking or behavior. I actually used to say that it was other people’s fault for not being able to get along with me while I was drunk because if we didn’t get along drunk, we probably wouldn’t get along sober either. That’s the level of denial I had as a high-functioning alcoholic.
It’s easy to blame all of your bad behavior on drinking. It’s even easier when you’re an alcoholic, and it’s second nature when you’re high-functioning. The worst part is that everyone will just excuse your behavior because you were drinking, but if you’re like most high-functioning alcoholics, you’ll still feel guilty.
2) Increased Tolerance
The ability to drink a large amount of alcohol and still function with little to no signs of intoxication is a big sign of a heavy drinker. This appearance of sobriety is one of the reasons that high-functioning alcoholics can go so long before someone catches on.
Even when they binge drink, they rarely get visibly drunk. However, they still suffer from negative health effects of alcohol: liver, heart, and brain damage.
I used to take pride in how much I could drink compared to everyone else.
Because of how people imagine an alcoholic behaving, it’s hard to imagine someone who drinks but doesn’t get out of control, but my experience has shown me that these are the people who suffer the most from alcoholism.
If staying in control after heavy drinking seems counterintuitive as a sign of high-functioning alcoholism, consider this: how much does a person have to regularly consume to learn how to control themselves after drinking an amount of alcohol that puts many people in the hospital?
Alcoholics develop a higher tolerance for alcohol over time and need to drink more to achieve the same effects. While some people have a genetically higher tolerance for alcohol, you most likely don’t know any of those people.
If someone can drink so much that they should but obviously drunk but they still seem fine, you can be certain that they drink heavily, frequently, and often by themselves.
Withdrawal symptoms and cravings
When you reach a point where you feel like you HAVE to drink, you’re definitely an alcoholic.
And when I say this, I don’t mean that the boys are going out to party and you want to go too. That’s normal craving for social belonging.
I don’t even mean when you just want a cold beer after a long day. Especially if you’re a large man. One or two beers aren’t going to do much.
I mean the people who get the urge to have hard liquor on multiple nights of the week because otherwise, they start showing alcohol withdrawal symptoms. If you don’t feel normal unless you’re a little intoxicated, you’re a high-level alcoholic.
You might even just be a regular alcoholic, but this behavior is easily disguised as normal.
Sober behavior is different
A high-functioning alcoholic tends to act differently when drinking than when they’re not. For example, many get overly argumentative or aggressive after a few drinks.
Or their mood will suddenly change completely, beyond becoming a little more talkative and social.
It’s hard to recognize these changes if a person’s mood changes slightly, but a slight change isn’t what we’re looking for here. If a generally peaceful person suddenly starts throwing things and starting fights, they need help. This is especially true if the person is in denial about the behavior or becomes defensive.
Alcohol and other substance abuse can be expensive, but not for obvious reasons.
Honestly, most alcohol is cheap. Even when I was working at T-Mobile for $9.28/hr, I could manage to find money to drink. The problem is that I couldn’t find the money for much else. I could barely afford rent and my car payments, but I always had the money for drinking.
My top priority was drinking.
That meant I’d call off work to drink, and the little bit of money that I did have, I’d use it for drinking. Now, this might seem to fly in the face of the conditions set forth to be a high-functioning alcoholic, but I was still excelling at my craft, boxing.
In many ways, I was fortunate here because I was so broke that I did even have credit cards. Plenty of addicts have gotten into serious trouble by financing their habit with money they didn’t have. And fortunately, I was also surrounded by people who wouldn’t loan me money for alcohol, though I’d never ask because that would leave me open to being attacked as an alcoholic.
Unsuccessful Quitting Attempts
The average person gets sober after two attempts, but the median is five. This means that what they say is true: part of being in recovery is going through a relapse.
This is a common trope, but there is some truth behind it.
I honestly can’t count the number of times I tried to quit drinking alcohol before I finally went to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). If you or someone you know has tried to quit, then they at least know that their drinking is out of control.
Even if they’re publically in denial, their behavior speaks louder than anything they could say.
Alcoholism is a neurological disorder. You can’t stop drinking because alcohol addiction has transformed your brain, making you dependent on alcohol even if you know it’s bad for you.
There are numerous treatment options and support groups.
People typically think AA is the only option, but several inpatient and outpatient treatment programs existto help you get sober and stay that way.
What should you do if you’re a high-functioning alcoholic or know one?
Ultimately, the biggest sign of a substance use disorder is that you continue to use that substance despite suffering negative consequences.
The only reason high-functioning addicts and alcoholics get away with it for so long before anyone says anything is because their life manages to continue with the same type of normalcy as they did before.
No matter what, you can’t make someone quit if they don’t want to.
If they don’t want to, they won’t. If they do but don’t want to check into a treatment facility, I highly recommend this free chapter of “Sober Letters To My Drunken Self”.
The rest is up to you.