10 Signs of Functional Alcoholism You Shouldn’t Overlook

whiskey in glass alcohol abuse

We often associate alcoholism with lives being in shambles and staggering drunkenness typically comes to mind, but this isn’t always the case. Functional alcoholism is when someone can drink and maintain their job, responsibilities, and lifestyle. One of the biggest dangers of functional alcoholism is the illusion of having a stable life, while excessively drinking alcohol. There can still be serious health and personal consequences, even for functional alcoholics.

What is Functional Alcoholism

Alcoholism is marked by a physical and/or psychological dependence on alcohol that may affect each person differently. While some who experience alcohol addiction may spiral into complete dysfunction, others are able to maintain some semblance of normalcy in their day-to-day lives to conceal their alcohol abuse problem. This is functional alcoholism. Though it may seem to be the lesser of two evils, functional alcoholism can be even more dangerous than its more obvious counterparts. 

Signs of functional alcoholism may be easy to explain away or ignore, allowing this substance use disorder to further impact physical or mental health. The longer it persists, the more convinced you may be that there isn’t a problem at all. We become convinced that alcohol is beneficial and necessary for getting through the day or coping with challenging situations. In fact, alcohol often impairs the ability to make rational decisions, process emotions, and live life to the fullest. 

Many people believe that alcoholics are people who always get drunk and lose control over themselves while drinking. This isn’t always the case. Functional alcoholics may still perform well at work, attend social gatherings, and maintain relationships while simultaneously misusing alcohol.

Research from the US Department of Health and Human Service suggests a staggering one in eight Americans currently meets the diagnostic criteria for alcoholism.  Twice as many die from alcohol-related causes than opioid overdoses. 30 percent of adults in the United States have at some point met the diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse disorder. To understand how prevalent the issue is, start by looking at statistics like these:

• The average American drinks around 14 drinks for men and 7 drinks for women a week.

• More than 50 percent of Americans reported binge drinking in the past month. 

• Nearly 25 percent of deaths caused by car crashes involve alcohol consumption.

Functional alcoholism is a form of alcohol abuse that is difficult to recognize. Even though alcohol abuse disorders are often characterized by clear dysfunction and instability, functioning alcoholics are better able to conceal their addiction symptoms. People living with alcoholism who fall into this latter category are often viewed as not having a problem or still being in control; because they maintain employment and continue tending to other responsibilities, so we often overlook the warning signs. 

We shouldn’t. Functioning alcoholism is just as dangerous as any other type of alcohol abuse disorder. it may even be worse because the alcohol abuse often goes unaddressed, and alcohol abuse itself, though overlooked in this situation, nevertheless has life-threatening consequences.

How to Tell if You Might Have a Problem

It’s not always easy to see the signs of alcoholism, but there are some red flags. These include drinking more than you planned, not being able to remember things that happened while you were drinking, having problems at work or school, feeling guilty about how much you drink, and unwillingness to talk about your drinking problem.

If you’re concerned about yourself or someone else, help is available.

Discovery Point Retreat is available 24/7 to answer any questions you may have about treatment for yourself or a loved one. The alcohol rehab center is located in Dallas, TX, and offers a wide array of therapy types perfectly tailored to fit your needs. Discovery Point Retreat is a home away from home for many experiencing alcohol addiction and can help clients establish a speedy but lasting recovery. These functional alcoholism groups can provide support and guidance to sustainably navigate everyday life without the use of alcohol. 

High Functioning Alcoholism

As discussed above, functional alcoholism is when some experiencing an alcohol abuse disorder nevertheless functions in their professional and personal lives. They’re able to hold down a job and maintain relationships with family and friends but may still exhibit some concerning signs of an underlying problem.

Functional alcoholism can often go unnoticed because we don’t associate their behavior with a substance use problem. Many of the signs of functional alcoholism are viewed as not a big deal or even socially acceptable in some cases. Even if someone does notice the problem, it isn’t always easy to confront someone you love about it.

If you suspect a loved one may have a problem, here are some signs you should be aware of:

  • They drink more than they used to
  • They use alcohol to cope with stress, sadness, or other emotions
  • They drink despite being unhappy
  • They drink even when they know they will regret it later
  • They’ll start drinking as soon as they come home from work or school
  • They need more time for themselves
  • They only seem to come around if there’s alcohol involved
  • They get defensive when asked about their drinking habits
  • Their life revolves around alcohol

If your loved one has been exhibiting any of these signs, it’s important that you talk to them about it. If you suspect a friend or colleague has a problem with alcohol, you can also encourage them to get help and offer your support.

10 Signs and Symptoms of Functional Alcoholism

Even if you don’t think you have a problem, there are many signs you should look out for. If you see any of these signs in yourself or loved ones, it may be time to get help.

1: Getting an Early Start

People who are functioning alcoholics may not drink all day every day, but beginning the day with alcohol may be a warning sign of deeper-lying issues. Weekend mimosas first thing in the morning or spiking your coffee to make it through the workday could signify physical or mental dependence, especially when habitual. 

2: Working Hungover

Going into work hungover is often viewed as a sign of a good time the night before. But regularly toughing it through the day while nursing a migraine, fighting back nausea, or struggling with vertigo should be a wake-up call. Alcohol abuse can also lead to missing workdays, excessive sick days, and other employment issues. 

3: Secretive Drinking

Having to drink in secret to avoid judgment or raising concerns is a red flag. If you have to downplay your drinking habits in order to not arouse suspicion, it’s time to re-evaluate your relationship with alcohol.

4: “Pre-Gaming”

This common tradition among the partying crowd is a harmful habit that could indicate alcohol abuse. While many view it as a means of avoiding inflated bar prices or ensuring a good time, pre-drinking before going out to drink could be an indicator of an elevated tolerance brought on by excessive alcohol use.

5:Exceeding Set Limits

Going out with a specific boundary set only to exceed your self-imposed limit may be a sign of impulse control issues. The inability to stop drinking or follow a reasonable pace is significant in terms of identifying warning signs of functional alcoholism.

6: “Blackouts” and Memory Issues

Getting drunk to the point of blacking out is dangerous for everyone involved. It leaves one vulnerable to malicious intent and raises the risk of life-threatening situations. Missing hours or days’ worth of memories due to alcohol abuse is a sign it may be time to seek help.

7: Drinking Instead of Eating

Making choices to purchase alcohol over food or lacking an appetite in favor of drinking is not only damaging to one’s health, but it could also be implicative of functional alcoholism. Pay attention.

8: Defensiveness of Drinking Habits

“I’m just a social drinker!” 

“Come on, I don’t drink that much!” 

“I’m an adult, I can drink however much I want! I’m not hurting anybody!”

Often, the people closest to us notice changes within us long before we do. Deflection and defensiveness when they express concern for one’s alcohol consumption can be telling of the true depth of alcohol abuse.

9: Joking About Alcoholism

They say behind every joke is a bit of truth, which may ring true for jokes about alcoholism or being an alcoholic. Joking about excessive drinking may be an attempt to receive validation or convince yourself or others that the problem isn’t as bad as it seems.

10: Binge Drinking

Of all the invisible symptoms of functional alcoholism, binge drinking is perhaps the most ambiguous. While binge drinking alone is not necessarily a sign of alcoholism, a pattern of doing so may be. Binge drinking is defined by the CDC as “a pattern of drinking which brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above.” This typically translates to five drinks or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women but may vary.

Alcohol and Work

Stress from work is a primary contributor to problem drinking. It’s a well-known fact that alcohol alleviates stress, temporarily mitigating stressors while helping people compartmentalize. Functional alcoholism can manifest itself when somebody has a job that involves a lot of responsibility, tasks with pressing deadlines, or a professional culture where drinking pervades the workplace atmosphere. Functional alcoholism exists in every profession.

Professionals in mentally demanding careers are especially susceptible to developing an alcohol use disorder. For example, studies have shown that attorneys who have practiced law for more than twenty years are more likely to have suffered from alcohol abuse disorder than those who left the profession within two years. 

partial view of man in black suit holding glass of whiskey

Why is that? 

The pressure of these responsibilities can lead someone to drink more than he or she would have initially planned. Where hard-working professionals may not feel like they have time to take care of themselves or find time for personal relationships, they may turn to alcohol for comfort.

 Further, the alcohol abuse within the functional category aggravates the same paradox of denial that almost every alcoholic faces.  Further, functional alcoholism is often hard to recognize; while a typically moderate drinker may still drink too much when they’re stressed from work or other responsibilities, the over-drinking is often less noticeable than when it’s happening within the scope of functional alcoholism. So long as a professional feels like they can effectively manage their job while drinking, the drinker presumes that there is no problem with their drinking habits at all. Thus, rather than seeking help when alcohol abuse and addiction arises, many wait until the consequences have become unbearable. Even then, the very same substance that is clouding his or her judgment in every decision is also dictating the self-assessment of whether the alcohol is problematic, or even whether he or she should stop drinking at all, even in the face of deteriorating familial relationships and careers. This effect, of course, is amplified when the absence of alcohol is itself a potential stressor. 

Functioning alcoholism is the hardest form of alcoholism for a drinker to address because either the impact—on himself or herself, familial relationships, friendships, or careers—seems negligible, or the drinker is entirely oblivious, or willfully oblivious, to the consequences, unwilling to recognize that his or her personal and professional life would be better served without the consumption of alcohol. However, when a functioning alcoholic is able to grasp the notion that when a career is not progressing as fast as it should, or when counterparts are making strides when or where the drinker should be, but they are unable to if the lowest common denominator is the drinking, even the functioning alcoholic can succeed in recovering from alcohol abuse disorder because—when a clear mind exists—goals and career aspirations are worth foregoing alcohol.

If you think you might be suffering from functional alcoholism, make sure you speak with Discovery Point Retreat about how you can get help!

Alcohol and Friends

In a functional alcoholic relationship, one party will often start drinking more and the other person will feel less inclined to drink. An example of this would be when someone’s girlfriend starts drinking more and their boyfriend doesn’t get why she’s always drinking. They get frustrated with the situation and they themselves stop drinking.

The thing with functional alcoholism is that both parties in the relationship are hooked on it, just not in the same way. This lack of understanding can lead to a lot of fights and arguments in the relationship.

If both parties are struggling with functional alcoholism it is recommended to attend treatment either together or at the same time. To learn more about our couple programs call Discovery Point Retreat to find out if this is recommended for the situation. 

While no single item on this list is absolutely demonstrative of functional alcoholism, patterns of addictive behaviors should not be overlooked. Alcoholism in any form is too often ignored unless it has harmful or tragic consequences. By opening the conversation about alcohol use disorders and recognizing potential trouble in our own habits, we can help to reduce the harm of alcohol on our families and communities.

Call to receive more information or do a quick assessment to see if you or a loved one is struggling with functional alcoholism at 855-306-8054.


Benjamin, G. A., Darling, E.J., & Sales, B. (1990). The Prevalence of Depression, Alcohol Abuse, and Cocaine Abuse Among United States Lawyers. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 13(3), 233–246. https://doi.org/10.1016/0160-2527(90)90019-y

Currall, N. S. (1999). The Cirrhosis of the Legal Profession—Alcoholism as an Ethical Violation or Disease Within the Profession. Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics, 12(4), 739–750.

Grant BF, Goldstein RB, Saha TD, et al. Epidemiology of DSM-5 Alcohol Use Disorder: Results From the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions III. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015;72(8):757–766. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.0584

Ingraham, C. (2021, November 24). One in eight American adults is an alcoholic, study says. The Washington Post. Retrieved December 29, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/08/11/study-one-in-eight-american-adults-are-alcoholics/ 

Office of the Surgeon General (US); National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (US); Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US). The Surgeon General’s Call to Action To Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking. Rockville (MD): Office of the Surgeon General (US); 2007. Appendix B: DSM-IV-TR Diagnostic Criteria for Alcohol Abuse and Dependence. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK44358/

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Alcohol Facts and Statistics. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved December 29, 2021, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics 


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