An image of a someone pouring a glass of whiskey, depicting the question: am I a functioning alcoholic?Alcoholic is an informal descriptor for those diagnosed with alcohol use disorder, a chronic and relapsing brain condition.

High Functioning Alcoholics

The latest data from SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) illuminates a growing problem with alcoholism in the United States. Each year, SAMHSA publishes data collated from NSDUH (National Survey on Drug Use and Health). Per NSDUH 2019, 14.5 million U.S. adults met the criteria for alcohol use disorder. Data from NSDUH 2020 shows that this number has almost doubled, with 28 million U.S. adults diagnosed with alcohol use disorder in 2020.

Many alcoholics struggle demonstrably with daily functioning, especially late-stage alcoholics. Alcohol becomes a central component of life and its absence triggers intensely uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.

Not everyone diagnosed with alcohol use disorder manifest such obvious signs of addiction. A functional alcoholic, also known as a functioning alcoholic or a high-functioning alcoholic, falls outside the stereotype of a chronic drinker with impaired overall functioning.

What Is a Functional Alcoholic?

drinking alcohol with lortabA functioning alcoholic may satisfy the criteria for alcohol use disorder, but their life will appear outwardly balanced and normal.

Many high-functioning alcoholics perform strongly in their personal and professional lives, even if they are also drinking excessive quantities of alcohol.

The concept of a functional alcoholic is non-clinical and there is minimal research into functional addiction. Since functional alcoholics seem to be far from reaching rock bottom, they seldom reach out for professional treatment.

Many functional alcoholics have a high tolerance for alcohol. As such, they may not appear intoxicated, and they may seem immune to the effects of hangover.

Signs of a Functioning Alcoholic

If you feel that a friend or family member might be a functioning alcoholic, look out for the following red flags. In isolation, the below factors do not necessarily indicate functional alcoholism. If you notice a combination of these issues, though, you should start a dialogue with your loved one about alcohol addiction and treatment.


  1. Showing a high tolerance for alcohol
  2. In denial of having a drinking problem
  3. Keeping stashes of alcohol around the house
  4. Becoming angry when confronted about alcohol abuse
  5. Using alcohol as a coping mechanism
  6. Placing limits on drinking when socializing
  7. Drinking alcohol at any opportunity
  8. Apparent immunity to hangovers
  9. Exhibiting isolating behaviors
  10. Compartmentalizing life
  11. Failing to remember events of the previous day
  12. Extreme mood swings
  13. Beer goggles


1) Showing a high tolerance for alcohol

Many functional alcoholics who drink regularly find that tolerance to alcohol builds. As this occurs, they require more alcohol to achieve the same effects.

If you notice that a loved one appears to be consuming large quantities of alcohol without appearing intoxicated, this could indicate physical tolerance and the early development of physical dependence and subsequent addiction.


2) In denial of having a drinking problem

Denial is a common by-product of alcoholism. During the early phase of functional alcoholism, the person may genuinely believe that they do not have a drinking problem. If they later recognize problematic patterns of alcohol consumption, it can be easier for them to deny the existence of a problem than to address the issue head-on.

If you confront your loved one and they pointedly deny being affected by problematic alcohol consumption, this could point to an addiction already developing.

3) Keeping stashes of alcohol around the house

Although functional alcoholics often project the appearance of normality, this is grounded on the confidence of maintaining a constant supply of alcohol.

If you stumble across stashes of alcohol in the house, this is one of the most striking signs of functional alcoholism.


4) Becoming angry when confronted about alcohol abuse

Maybe your loved one does not deny that they have a drinking problem, but they may become angry if confronted about their alcohol abuse.

If you feel unable to discuss your loved one’s drinking habits with them without the risk of an angry or aggressive outburst, they may be unwilling to admit to functional alcoholism.


5) Using alcohol as a coping mechanism

Anyone who uses alcohol as a coping mechanism is already abusing the substance.

Many people self-medicate the symptoms of mental health conditions with alcohol. Many others use alcohol as a method of relaxing or unwinding.

In the case of many functional alcoholics, self-medicating the stress of a challenging career is one of the reasons for their excessive drinking.


All forms of self-medication are ineffective, offering nothing but fleeting relief of symptoms and failing to address the underlying cause.


6) Placing limits on drinking when socializing

If your loved one imposes arbitrary limits on the amount of alcohol they consume while socializing, they might be attempting to convince themselves they can control their consumption.


7) Drinking alcohol at any opportunity

Most functioning alcoholics seize any opportunity to drink alcohol.

If you feel that a loved one is drinking at inappropriate times – even when drinking moderately – this might be a cause for concern.


8) Apparent immunity to hangovers

A functional alcoholic often appears immune to hangovers, even after episodes of heavy drinking.

Instead of feeling sick after drinking alcohol, many chronic alcoholics feel sick if they do not drink alcohol the morning after. Although a functioning alcoholic functions in general, they do not function well if alcohol is removed from the equation.


9) Exhibiting isolating behaviors

If your loved one gives the impression of being in full control socially but also spends extended periods alone, they may be drinking alcohol surreptitiously.


10) Compartmentalizing life

Many functional alcoholics compartmentalize their lives in order to conceal their alcohol intake.

If your loved one never has more than a beer or two when socializing but then returns home to drink distilled spirits, this is a surefire indicator of functional alcoholism.


11) Failing to remember events of the previous day

If a loved ones frequently experiences memory loss after drinking, this could suggest they have been blacking out.

Functional alcoholics prone to blacking out tend not to feel guilty about their actions as they cannot remember doing anything wrong. This makes it less likely that they will seek professional treatment for alcohol use disorder.

12) Extreme mood swings

If you have a loved one who exbibits pronounced mood swings, this could suggest the presence of functional alcoholism.

To reiterate, noticing the signs above in isolation is not a guarantee that you have a functional alcoholic in your life. When many of these behaviors are evident, though, it is worth initiating an ongoing dialogue with your loved one about alcoholism and addiction treatment.

What Are the Early Warning Signs of Alcoholism (Alcohol Use Disorder)?

Alcohol use disorder – the clinical descriptor for alcoholism – is a chronic, relapsing, and incurable brain disorder. Although there is no cure for alcoholism, the condition responds positively to a personalized array of MAT (medication-assisted treatment), psychotherapy like cognitive behavioral therapy, and counseling.

Maybe you are concerned that functional alcoholism might have transitioned into alcohol use disorder. If so, consider the following diagnostic criteria from DSM-5-TR (fifth and most recent edition of APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders):


  1. Inability to moderate or discontinue use of alcohol.
  2. Consuming more alcohol than planned or drinking for longer than intended.
  3. Lots of time spent drinking alcohol and recovering from its effects.
  4. Cravings for alcohol.
  5. Tolerance to alcohol.
  6. Withdrawal symptoms in the absence of alcohol.
  7. Neglecting personal or professional responsibilities.
  8. Alcohol use in dangerous situations.
  9. Giving up social and recreational activities.
  10. Drinking despite alcohol causing or inflaming a health condition, whether physical or mental.
  11. Continued alcohol abuse despite ongoing social and interpersonal problems triggered by your alcohol intake.


Alcohol use disorder is diagnosed according to the number of criteria present as mild (2 to 3 criteria), moderate (4 to 5 criteria), or severe (6 criteria or more).

Functional Alcoholic Checklist

  • Do you believe that you can control your alcohol intake?
  • Do you try to conceal your alcohol consumption from friends and family members?
  • Do you often associate alcohol with relaxing or unwinding?
  • In your opinion, could you stop drinking alcohol completely?
  • Have you ever blacked out after drinking alcohol?
  • When drinking, do you set limits for yourself and then exceed those limits?
  • Does consuming alcohol improve your confidence?
  • Have you been arrested for a DUI?
  • Do you frequently drink alcohol alone?
  • Do you drink alcohol in the early mornings?
  • Do you believe that you are not yourself unless you drink alcohol?
  • Do you joke about being an alcoholic to deflect attention from your drinking patterns?
  • Do you become angry if someone confronts you about your drinking habits?
  • Do you consume alcohol when taking care of your kids?
  • Have you had unsafe sex after drinking alcohol?
  • Do you frequently miss work after drinking too much alcohol the previous night?
  • Are you concerned about not having continuous access to alcohol?
  • Do you justify your drinking patterns by claiming that you have a good job?
  • Do you often experience intense cravings for alcohol?
  • Is it difficult for you to imagine having fun when sober?


Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder at Gratitude Lodge

If you feel the time is right to address your abusive patterns of drinking, we offer both inpatient and outpatient rehab for alcoholism at Gratitude Lodge.

You can find our luxury rehab centers in San Diego, Newport Beach, and Long Beach. All our treatment facilities are inclusive and pet-friendly, offering you a distraction-free environment for recovery in Orange County.

Most people withdrawing from alcohol benefit from a supervised medical detox. At our licensed medical detoxification center, your treatment team can administer medications to ease the intensity of alcohol withdrawal and to reduce cravings. After a week or so, you will be physical stabilized and ready to address the psychological aspect of functional alcoholism.

 For those with severe alcohol use disorders, our 30-day inpatient program offers support and structure in a residential setting. For those with more moderate alcohol use disorders, our IOP (intensive outpatient program) offers a more flexible and cost-effective route to recovery.

MAT can be effective throughout treatment for alcoholism, promoting abstinence and reducing the intensity of cravings. You can also access the following therapies at Gratitude Lodge:

  • Individual counseling
  • Group therapy
  • Psychotherapies (CBT and DBT)
  • Family therapy
  • Holistic therapy
  • Daily meetings
  • 12-step immersion program

When you are ready to move from functional alcoholism to sustained sobriety, build the firmest foundation at Gratitude Lodge. Call 800-994-2184 for medical detox and professional addiction treatment.

Functioning Alcoholic FAQs

A functional alcoholic is someone who can maintain their job, relationships, and daily responsibilities despite having a significant alcohol dependency. They may appear to function normally on the surface, but their drinking habits can have serious negative effects on their health and well-being over time.

Being qualified as an alcoholic typically involves meeting certain criteria, such as displaying a pattern of compulsive drinking, experiencing a loss of control over alcohol consumption, and continuing to drink despite negative consequences on one’s physical health, mental well-being, or social life. It’s important to note that professional diagnosis and assessment are essential to determine if someone meets the criteria for alcoholism.

“High-functioning alcoholics” or “functioning alcoholics” are informal words used to describe people who rely on alcohol but can still manage to handle their daily life reasonably well. They can continue doing things like going to work and taking care of their family members, even though they have a dependence on alcohol.