Treatment for the High Functioning Alcoholic

high-functioning alcoholic out drinking

Alcoholism is a chronic and progressive disease, so it only makes sense for there to be different subtypes of alcoholism. According to the National Institutes of Health, the five alcoholism subtypes include:[1]

  • Young Adult Subtype
  • Young Antisocial Subtype
  • Functional Subtype 
  • Intermediate Familial Subtype 
  • Chronic Severe Subtype 

When people think of alcoholism, they typically imagine the chronic severe subtype. However, only 9% of alcoholics in the U.S. meet the criteria for the chronic severe subtype of alcoholism. These individuals display obvious signs of alcoholism, started drinking at an early age, and have progressed into a severe form of alcoholism over the years.

The functional subtype of alcoholism is, however, more common. Functional alcoholism accounts for 19.5% of all American alcoholics.[1] This type of alcoholic–often referred to as the high-functioning alcoholic may not display outward signs of alcoholism and appear to be successful, well-educated, and stable. 

What is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

High-functioning alcoholics tend to be middle-aged individuals with successful careers, high levels of education, and stable home lives. They tend to hide the symptoms of their alcoholism behind their success and financial stability. When compared to other subtypes, functional alcoholics tend to struggle with fewer consequences of alcoholism. 

Typically, functional alcoholics began drinking in their late teens to early twenties. They may have slowly developed a problem with alcoholism rather than experiencing a quick progression. This is what allows them to hide the signs of their alcoholism so well. 

Overall, functional alcoholics appear to have their lives together. However, they typically begin drinking as soon as their responsibilities have been completed. Oftentimes, they use their success as an excuse for their drinking habits. 

While high-functioning alcoholics seem stable and well-put-together, they are silently suffering on the inside. In fact, many of them struggle with major depressive disorder. Because of this, high-functioning alcoholics require professional treatment just as much as any other subtype of alcoholism.

Challenges That Come With Helping a High-Functioning Alcoholic 

Helping a high-functioning alcoholic can be difficult, especially because the signs of alcoholism are difficult to spot in these individuals. However, more challenges arise once their alcoholism has been identified. 

Because these alcoholics are successful in their careers and home lives, they are more likely to be in denial about their alcohol abuse. Additionally, they may feel more pressure to hide their alcoholism out of shame or embarrassment.

Being “Too Busy” for Treatment 

Trying to help a high-functioning alcoholic can be difficult, especially because they have established careers. Oftentimes, functional alcoholics are dedicated to their work, taking pride in their ability to show up and perform despite their troubles with alcoholism. 

When someone tries to convince them to attend treatment, they may use their career as an excuse to avoid getting help. For example, they may say that they don’t have the time to attend treatment due to work, they cannot afford to take time off of work, or attending treatment will result in their termination. 

Thankfully, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a law that prevents employers from firing individuals for attending professional addiction treatment. This law allows individuals up to 12 weeks of leave to attend drug and alcohol rehab.[2]


Another common barrier to helping functional alcoholics is their denial. Their success and ability to appear put together cause them to believe that they do not have a problem with alcohol. Additionally, their lack of experiencing alcohol-related consequences keeps them in denial. 

Family members of high-functioning alcoholics can attempt to address their denial by having honest and respectful conversations with them. How their behavior makes the family feel should be discussed. This could allow them to understand the seriousness of their alcohol abuse as well as their need for professional treatment.

Shame or Embarrassment 

Lastly, feelings of shame and embarrassment are common among functional alcoholics. They are passionate about their careers and like that the people around them view them as successful. However, this causes them to feel ashamed or embarrassed about their alcoholism. 

Functional alcoholics view their alcoholism as a failure. This is one of the reasons they attempt to hide their alcohol abuse. Unfortunately, leaving their alcoholism untreated will only lead to worsened symptoms and adverse health effects over time. 

To help a high-functioning alcoholic, it is important to let them know that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Additionally, there are plenty of discrete addiction treatment programs that can help them remain anonymous. 

Alcohol Treatment for the High-Functioning Alcoholic 

High-functioning alcoholics receive the same evidence-based treatments as other subtypes of alcoholics. Their first step in recovery is attending medical detox for alcoholism. 

Functional alcoholics tend to have extreme tolerances to alcohol. This causes medical detox to be extremely important for their health and safety. Having a high tolerance means the body is dependent on alcohol to function properly, causing severe symptoms of withdrawal when alcohol consumption is ceased.

In other words, high-functioning alcoholics may need extra time in detox programs. Additionally, they are more likely to need detox medications that limit withdrawal symptoms and prevent cravings.

Once they complete alcohol detox, the functional alcoholic can decide to attend inclient or outpatient treatment. While inclient treatment is highly recommended, the functional alcoholic may resist attending a residential program. If this occurs, they can attend an outpatient rehab assuming that their home life is stable and supportive to recovery.

When it comes to treating high-functioning alcoholism, it is extremely important to teach stress management. Dealing with a high-stress career can be a major trigger for alcoholism relapse. Additionally, functional alcoholics may need dual diagnosis treatment for depression. 

Find Treatment for a High-Functioning Alcoholic Today

If you or a loved one suffer from alcoholism but continue to be a success in your career, schooling, or family life, you may be a functional alcoholic. Even if you are successful in other areas of your life, attending professional treatment for your alcoholism is vital. It is important to understand that high-functioning alcoholism can progress into the chronic severe subtype over time. 

Contact Moving Mountains Recovery Center today to get started with one of our alcohol rehab programs in New Jersey.



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