Life With High-Functioning Alcoholics: Here’s What You Need to Know

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Published: 11/29/2021 | Author:

Over a decade ago, I moved in with an ex-boyfriend. We had been dating for a couple of years at that point, so I thought we knew almost everything about each other. But living together exposed a secret side of him – a dark side that, if I’m being perfectly honest, scared me.

In a matter of weeks, I learned my boyfriend was a drinker. Not just a social drinker, mind you, but a “need-at-least-five-cocktails-a-day-to-function” drinker. From the moment he got home from work until he brushed his teeth before bed, he had a drink in his hand. More than once, I walked in the kitchen to find him downing a vodka and orange juice before leaving for work.

It was only later – much later, in fact – that I learned his particular addiction fell under a classification known as high-functioning alcoholic (HFA).

A Nightmare Living Situation

Every night, my then-boyfriend would pour drink after drink and sip out of his Tervis Tumbler while watching TV or doing some work.

Shockingly, he never even showed a “buzz” or acted any different than when he was sober.

But nonetheless, the level of alcohol he consumed on a daily basis floored me. After all, he was a successful real estate developer, owned a house, and had a wide network of friends. Plus, he was responsible and punctual – never late to an event and never failed to meet an obligation.

Needless to say, the relationship didn’t last long. He refused to acknowledge that he had a problem and, no matter how much I begged, he wouldn’t seek help. So, I packed my bags and didn’t look back (which was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made).

Why didn’t I notice beforehand that he was a full-blown alcoholic? Turns out the answer is simple: it’s because he was a high-functioning alcoholic.

What is a “High-Functioning Alcoholic?”

High-functioning alcoholics, like my ex-boyfriend, are people who are dependent on alcohol, but can still function as productive members of society. They are fully able to carry out the daily responsibilities of life, such as maintaining a career or keeping up a well-groomed appearance, without showing the hallmark signs that are typically associated with alcoholism.

These individuals often project themselves as both physically and mentally healthy, but internally, they struggle with constant cravings, and they’re plagued with obsessive thoughts about their next drink. These functioning alcoholics often consume as much alcohol as someone with a classic alcohol use disorder, yet never show any signs that they’re actually intoxicated.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), high-functioning alcoholics are typically “middle-aged, well-educated, with stable jobs and families.” The same study estimated that nearly 20 percent of people who clinically meet the criteria for alcoholism are highly functional and high-achieving individuals.

Life With Someone Who’s HFA

High-functioning alcoholism can be more dangerous than the stereotypical rock-bottom version of alcoholism. That’s because these individuals are less likely to be confronted about their drinking. They usually do a good job hiding the severity of their abuse from friends and loved ones.

Additionally, many high-functioning alcoholics have yet to encounter significant negative consequences tied to their drinking. Because they are able to hold down a steady job, pay their bills on time, and stay out of trouble with the law, they can easily justify their own drinking and convince themselves there isn’t a problem.

The deep-seated sense of denial keeps them trapped in addiction’s vicious cycle. It also makes them less likely to seek treatment.

Treatment for High-Function Alcoholism 

Identifying and treating alcohol use disorder early can be key in preventing the issue from escalating further.

Addiction is a progressive disease, meaning that over time, an individual develops a tolerance to the substance, resulting in him or her needing more of it in order to produce the same desired effects.

High-functioning alcoholics are no different, as they must drink increasingly larger amounts to get that same “buzz.” The high tolerance means they drink at dangerous levels, and drinking at this level long-term can lead to a host of health problems – cirrhosis of the liver, cancer, and heart disease. It also increases the risk for HFA’s to put themselves or others in dangerous situations, like drinking and driving, blacking out, or engaging in risky sexual behavior.

Simply put, high-functioning alcoholics are alcoholics, no matter how well they conceal their level of drinking from others. As with other alcohol use disorders, treatment is needed – the earlier, the better.

If you or a loved one believe alcohol may be a problem, don’t wait to reach out to a health professional for support and guidance. Call 800-483-2193(Who Answers?) today to speak with a specialist who can talk with you about treatment options.

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