What is a Functioning Alcoholic? - Rehab Guide

What is a Functioning Alcoholic?

What is a Functioning Alcoholic?

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What Does Functioning Alcoholic Mean?

A functioning alcoholic is addicted to alcohol and is unable to stop drinking but manages to continue their usual patterns without apparent issues.

Understanding what a functioning alcoholic is can be as challenging as identifying this type of reaction to addiction. The truth is, not every alcoholic is dishevelled and visibly struggling. A functioning alcoholic may tick all of the following boxes:

  • Appear well-groomed and dressed
  • Hold down a good job
  • Manage finances well
  • A full and manageable social life

But they are still alcoholics and suffering, albeit less obviously. As time goes on, if you know the person well, you may begin to see cracks in their façade. It is very difficult to keep your lifestyle and relationships intact when you are always thinking about and consuming alcohol.

Signs of a Functioning Alcoholic

One of the most obvious signs of alcoholism is letting work, relationships and finances slide due to your drinking. In the absence of this, it can be hard to spot undiagnosed AUD (Alcohol Use Disorder) as the other signs are more hidden. For example, the inability to stop drinking when you want to is something that happens internally and might just appear as enjoying a drink to those outside.

An intelligent person who is used to drinking as part of their life might find it easy to hide the extent of their problem.

  • Storing alcohol in unusual secret places
  • Drinking at irregular times, such as in the morning
  • Shaking or showing other withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking
  • Lying about alcohol and secret drinking

Denial and Functioning Alcoholics

It is hard to deny your addiction if you have lost your job or home and are physically struggling. It is much easier to pretend everything is fine if the essentials aren’t falling apart.

High-functioning and functioning alcoholics are the most likely group to show serious signs of denial. Denial is a serious mental health issue which can lead to severe self-harm, destructive behaviour and neglect.

If someone is drinking heavily every day but says things along the lines of ‘I get up and go to work, no problem’ or ‘It’s just to help me relax’ they may be in denial about their drinking. One of the most common phrases from functioning alcoholics in denial is ‘I can stop drinking; I just don’t want to’.

Denial is probably one of the most frustrating symptoms of alcoholism. It is important to view it as a symptom and not simply frustrating behaviour. The person’s brain is, in fact, protecting itself from the pain and often humiliation of admitting they have lost control of their drinking.

Secret Drinking and Functioning Alcoholism

One of the reasons Covid brought functioning alcoholism to the forefront is that people were suddenly stuck inside with others who started to notice how much they were drinking. Whereas it might have previously been possible to sneak in a few drinks after your family left home or drop in a bar on the way home, this avenue was closed.

Many functioning alcoholics drink in secret, hiding alcohol in unexpected places and sneaking out from work to a bar. This is a sign of normalizing hidden drinking and suggests they know the amount and timing of their drinking behaviour is socially unacceptable.

Helping a Functioning Alcoholic

Although they might not seem as much at risk as someone who is homeless or has hit rock bottom with their alcoholism, functioning alcoholics are one of the hardest groups to help, they also suffer from a high relapse rate due to denial and being less easily persuaded of the severity of their problem.

Knowing what to do depends on the person in question and how you feel about their addiction. It can help to discuss how to approach them with an expert in interventions. Our team can help by phone or send a representative from a local rehab to assist in the intervention.

There are several ways to help you get through to a functioning alcoholic while not alienating them at this challenging time.

Monitoring Drinking and Behaviour

One of the most common things functioning alcoholics say after recovery is they didn’t realise how obvious their problem was. No matter how hard you try and how well you think you are ‘passing’, some things are bound to start falling through the cracks.

Alcoholism is such an overwhelming and destructive influence it is often very obvious to those around you what is going on.

If you feel someone you care about may be a functioning alcoholic, you can help call them out by monitoring their alcohol intake. If they are engaging in secret drinking, binging and having problems due to alcohol, you can note these down to discuss with them.

intervention therapist


Interventions are designed for those in denial of their alcoholism. They offer an opportunity for friends and loved ones to express their concerns and experiences. Not only this, but you can outline ways in which the person’s life would be better by stopping drinking. Rehab Guide’s intervention team can help you with your intervention and speak to the person as well. Rehab centres that are local can send someone to help intervene and convince your loved one to go to rehab for their alcoholism.

Letters from family

It takes time for some things to sink in, and it can be hard to express emotional topics verbally. If this is an issue for you or a functional alcoholic you are worried about, a letter can be a great way to put something concrete down.

Dealing with Denial

Denial is a many-layered issue for functional alcoholics. It is tough to deal with when you are trying to help someone. Often, functional alcoholics surround themselves with enabling personality types.

This makes helping a challenge, especially if you are nervous about confrontation or easily persuaded that the person has everything under control.

Avoiding blame and focusing on wanting to improve their lives because you care. Don’t be put off by excuses or statements like ‘I’m fine, I go to work every day’ or ‘it’s not a problem, I just like to drink’. While avoiding making it their fault, don’t let them convince you to give up. Stay steady, and don’t budge.

In rehab, the counsellors are specially trained in dealing with denial and can help you cope with this during family therapy. Speaking to others who have experienced the same thing can help to achieve a sense of acceptance and reduce shame, which helps enormously with denial.

Avoid Enabling

Many functioning alcoholics are only functioning because someone else is firefighting behind the scenes. Usually, a spouse or family member, but friends and colleagues can be in this role too.

It may be out of fear that a loved one will lose their job or get into legal trouble or just embarrassment that a spouse or parent is an alcoholic. Either way, it is tough to let this go and be honest, but you must.

Enabling isn’t actually helping anyone. The enabler is run into the ground trying to mop up after the addicted person, and the alcoholic can avoid the inevitable for longer, which is riskier to their health and reduces their chances of recovery.

Consequences of Functioning Alcoholism

Hidden Consequences

‘It came on slowly. Looking back, I can’t see how I thought I was managing. I was showing up late for work more and more. I could do that since I was the boss. The problem was, as good as the manager was, without my instructions and order details, the team wasn’t getting started until the afternoon. We lost days of work. At the time, I blamed everyone but myself. The staff were lazy, not getting the work done. The manager was too soft.

I missed my kid’s birthday, but it was my wife’s fault for not reminding me. Never mind that I had been out on a bender for two days with clients. Looking back, I can see that I lost my business and cost us our family home from my drinking. At the time and for a long while after, I refused to see it. Denial is a powerful thing.’

The full extent of the consequences of functioning alcoholism may never be known. Promotions you missed out on, opportunities you missed, and relationships that didn’t thrive are hard things to quantify, even if you want to.

Functioning to non-functioning Alcoholism

Functioning alcoholics can maintain their lives while abusing alcohol for months, even years. But it is a downward spiral. However slow and subtle, cracks eventually begin to show. Enablers grow tired and leave, a bad reputation forms and, worst of all, your addiction grows.

These two things feed into each other. The more you drink, the more you need each time. The worse your life becomes, the more you need to drink to keep you going.

Even the most careful and intelligent person can only sustain the appearance of coping for so long. Functioning alcoholics can turn into non-functioning alcoholics slowly over time or be triggered into a decline by challenging life situations such as losing a job or relationship.

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Rehab for Functioning Alcoholics

Going into rehab is a big step, and most functioning alcoholics try to stop on their own first. They may also attempt a home detox to manage their symptoms. While this can work, the level of denial involved in functioning alcoholism can linger, and this group is vulnerable to relapse.

Rehab can also take functioning alcoholics out of their environment, away from work and social obligations, which may be contributing to or encouraging alcoholism. Privacy is also important to people who have managed to keep their problem drinking hidden and may have a lot riding on keeping it that way.

Addressing the deeper reasons for alcoholism is key to a successful recovery. Alcohol counselling in rehab is intensive, and you are surrounded by other people, many of whom are in the same position as you. You can also understand from others what will happen to you in the future if you stop being able to function.

Admission to Rehab

For functioning alcoholics, admission to rehab can be more planned than for those who have deteriorated past this point. This means that you can take leave from work and make arrangements for any home or family obligations before you go into rehab.

You can have more input into your initial detox and rehab location. Our team can discuss the best options for you or a loved one. Picking the right rehab is important, especially for functioning alcoholics and their families. A strong support network stimulating and person-centred program is essential.

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