When someone you care about is an alcoholic, it can be hard to know what to do to help them. You may want to voice your concerns or deny them alcohol within your home. However, there is also the concern of potential negative reactions to your boundaries, or being labeled a hypocrite if you consume alcohol yourself.

The situation becomes further nuanced when dealing with a high-functioning alcoholic, someone who maintains stability outwardly despite struggling with alcoholism. Often, they may not recognize their addiction. Nevertheless, their behaviors can still detrimentally impact their lives and relationships, warranting support and intervention.

What are High-Functioning Alcoholics?

high-functioning alcoholicA high-functioning alcoholic is defined as a person who denies that their drinking is a problem or an addiction, and in fact, may not be suffering adverse effects on their lifestyle due to their drinking. They’re most likely middle-aged, have a stable job, and have a family.

The people who suffer from high-functioning alcoholism may work in an industry that normalizes frequent alcohol-based outings or may be a part of social circles where frequent drinking is the norm. It’s common for high-functioning alcoholics to hide their drinking habits from the people around them. This is especially true as their addiction becomes more severe.

Why is Dealing with a High-Functioning Alcoholic so Challenging?

High-functioning alcoholics can be difficult to spot. A study noted that 19.5% of all surveyed alcoholics could be classified as functional alcoholics. They had stable jobs and family relationships but were definitively suffering from alcoholism due to their frequency of drinking.

In Los Angeles County from 2018 to 2020, 55% of all adults over 26 years old used alcohol. In the same time period, about 24% of all adults in the same age range participated in binge drinking (defined as over four drinks for women and over five drinks for men in a single drinking occasion). This means about nearly one in ten of Los Angeles drinkers over the age of 26 years old may be functional alcoholics.

It’s important to note that while a high-functioning alcoholic may still be able to maintain a job and relationships, their alcoholism still affects everyone around them. The risk of emotional codependency can be very high when the person suffering from alcoholism is a functional alcoholic. The people who live with them may be cleaning up their messes, buying them alcohol, or even drinking with them regularly. This can make it more difficult to identify a functional alcoholic and/or to convince them that they need to seek help.

Warning Signs of High-Functioning Alcoholism

Not all alcoholics are loud, reckless, or violent when they drink. But their illness is still causing harm to them and the people around them. Their habits are different from casual drinkers in very distinct ways:

  • Drinking alone
  • Joking about having drinking problems
  • Drinking in the morning
  • Anger when confronted about their drinking
  • Missing work or school suddenly, without a given reason
  • Drinking to feel confident
  • DUI (driving under the influence) arrests
  • Drinking to the point of blackout
  • Physical signs of alcohol withdrawal, such as uncontrollable shaking of hands

Stages of Functional Alcoholism

A person who consumes alcohol a few times a week is not necessarily a high-functioning alcoholic. There is a pattern of escalation that leads to clear addiction. Eventually, the damage begins to show in the person’s life and relationships, but this is not the beginning of the addiction itself.

Having one or two drinks at a party may put someone in a more relaxed headspace. But if it feels necessary to have a drink to get into a positive mood, it’s time to reconsider your drinking habits. The same is true if having a drink is the only way you can de-stress after work or a visit from your parents.

Like with every addictive substance, repeated use eventually leads to an increased tolerance. A high-functioning alcoholic may notice that it takes more cocktails or glasses of wine to feel a buzz (or feel numb). Pretty soon, the glasses of wine consumed every evening may turn into bottles. This can lead to increased secrecy about how much they’re drinking.

As the functional alcoholic’s addiction progresses, there’s a higher chance that their behavior will become more visible to the people around them. They may start to hide their drinking from the people around them, downplay how much they’re drinking, or avoid events where alcohol will not be present. They also may start to see consequences, such as overspending or DUIs.

This is the stage where alcoholism becomes much more recognizable to the average person. The person’s mental and physical health starts to become affected, especially if they’re not eating or exercising healthfully. The functional alcoholics may start to recognize that they have a problem, especially if they start suffering liver damage or gastrointestinal problems.

Loved ones or family members of functional alcoholics may choose to speak up or hold an intervention once their drinking starts to interfere with their physical health. However, circumstances are different for every person. If someone you know is seeking help with alcoholism, don’t feel the need to wait until their drinking starts to have adverse effects on their health.

How to Avoid Codependency When Living With an Alcoholic

Codependency is defined as a dysfunctional relationship wherein one person is overly helpful or aiding to the addicted person, therefore stifling the addicted person’s ability to heal and independently take care of themselves. This can often lead to the addicted person becoming totally dependent on the “carer,” usually emotionally but also sometimes financially.

If you feel yourself developing a codependent relationship with someone in your life, it’s important for both your sakes to break the pattern. This is especially true if that person is suffering from addiction. Here are a few steps to initiate that process:

If your friend, partner, or roommate is suffering from alcoholism, they are literally fighting a disease. They will crave alcohol as any other addicted person would crave their substance. If their addiction is strong enough, they will prioritize it over their personal relationships. By setting boundaries, such as refusing to purchase alcohol for them or not drinking past your personal limit, you’re protecting your own well-being despite their actions or decisions.

If your roommate suffering from alcoholism misses their share of the rent, it doesn’t help them if you pay it to save them the wrath of the landlord. It’s not being a good friend to tell their family that they’re “tired” when they’ve already started drinking early in the morning. They need to know the real consequences of their actions. By covering up the consequences of their alcoholism, you’re depriving them of valuable information that could motivate them to get help.

Yes, your loved one is going through a hard time. Yes, they’re suffering from the chronic disease of addiction. But that doesn’t mean you should prioritize them over yourself. It isn’t “noble” to put yourself or your responsibilities below those of someone else, but is in fact inviting self-destruction. If you want to be a helpful resource to them in their recovery, you need to be stable and secure in yourself.

It may feel like the right thing to help an alcoholic solve their addiction. But healing is a path that has to be chosen. Trying to help or “nudge” someone else often leads to low self-esteem, because you’re basing your self-worth on whether or not someone else makes a healthy decision. Support your loved one’s journey, but don’t do the work for them.

When you’re codependent with someone, it’s tempting to put your emotions on the back burner so you can be available to help whenever they need it. But doing this doesn’t make your emotions go away. Eventually, they’ll boil over and potentially cause damage to the relationship. If someone truly cares about you, they won’t ask you to hold back your feelings for their benefit.

Westwind Recovery® Can Assist With Alcohol Abuse Recovery

alcohol abuse recovery in Los Angeles

If you feel yourself or a loved one slipping into a pattern of addiction, there is hope. Westwind Recovery® provides luxury outpatient treatment, so you can work to achieve sobriety and select the path that works for you.  A detox program helps provide safe and consistent monitoring so substances can leave the body with minimal side effects. Treatment plans are customized to fit individual needs.

Contact us today to begin your recovery journey. It’s never too late to start living a better life.