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High functioning alcoholic: warning signs and what to do next

A high functioning alcoholic is someone who may not outwardly appear to have problem with alcohol despite being reliant on it. They tend not to exhibit the signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction that people expect to see. Instead, they try and keep their drinking a secret from everyone.

If you live with a person who is a high functioning alcoholic, it is likely that you have noticed some issues. This blog looks at the signs and symptoms of a high functioning alcohol, and outlines how you can go about addressing it with the person, which can be a difficult thing to do. You can also find out information about the professional treatment for alcoholism that is available here at Priory Group.

Signs and symptoms of a high functioning alcoholic

The signs and symptoms of a high functioning alcoholic can be tricky to see at first as they typically function well, don’t lose their jobs, don’t write off their cars, continue to dress smartly and maintain their daily responsibilities.

But there are certain warning signs that can suggest that someone has an issue with alcohol:

  • Consistently drinking much more than the recommended alcohol levelsDrinkaware advises that a person should not be drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week on a regular basis. It is likely that a high functioning alcoholic will constantly exceed these levels
  • Regularly hanging out with heavy drinkers – the person is more likely to gravitate towards these people as it provides them with an opportunity to drink with less judgement
  • Able to drink a lot of alcohol quickly – due to their increased tolerance, a high functioning alcoholic will drink more than most people. Also, if they drink the same amount as someone who doesn’t have an issue with alcohol, they are less likely to show the effects of intoxication
  • Evidence of drinking alone – as the person won’t want people to know about their alcohol misuse, it is likely that they will drink alone. You may find evidence of this, which can include empty bottles in the bin or in conspicuous places around the house. Because of their need to drink, they may also choose to stay in alone rather than go to events where there will be no alcohol
  • Rationalising their alcohol consumption – the person may use phrases such as “I only drink one or two in the evenings”, “I’m treating myself to some drinks because I’ve had a hard day at work” or “I can’t have a problem, I don’t drink in the day”. These are attempts to justify the amount they are drinking, both to themselves and other people
  • Expressing denial – a person who is a high functioning alcoholic is likely to deny any suggestion that they have a problem with alcohol. They may also joke about their alcohol use, to try and make the suggestion of them having a problem seem silly
  • Withdrawal effects – if they go for a day or two without drinking, you may start to see the person experiencing withdrawal symptoms. To find out more about these, visit our page on alcohol withdrawal which outlines the most common signs and symptoms

Discussing the issue with a high functioning alcoholic

If you are close to someone who is a high functioning alcoholic, talking to them about it is likely something that you’ve been dreading. But, it is a discussion that is well worth having. We have put together some pointers for you to consider so that the conversation can be as effective as possible:

  • Choose somewhere quiet and private – this will help the person to open up and will also minimise distractions
  • Use phrases like “I have noticed…” or “I am worried…” – doing so will stop you from appearing accusatory and critical, which sentences beginning with “you are…” or “you have been…” can seem to be
  • Prepare for resistance – the person may deny that they have a problem, using the fact that they are functioning well as evidence. In these situations, explain that you have noticed their drinking, are worried about their health and are concerned about the effect it will have in the future
  • Don’t be afraid to walk away – if the person becomes angry or defensive, pause the conversation. When they have their guard up, it is unlikely that you will be able to get through to them
  • This may be an ongoing discussion – while the person may agree that they need help the first time you talk to them, it is likely that you’ll have to approach the subject with them again. By continuing to convey your thoughts and feelings in an effective manner, this can help the person to begin seeing that there is an issue that needs to be addressed

We understand that it can be hard to see someone ruining their health and their life because of alcohol. But when it comes to recovery, the person has to want to make that change. It isn’t something that anyone can necessarily push them to do, but you can make them aware of your concerns and your worries, which can help to ‘plant the seed’ and get them to recognise the issues in front of them.  

Seeking professional treatment for alcoholism at Priory Group

If someone you know is a high functioning alcoholic, the Priory Group addiction treatment team can provide them with the rehabilitative care and support that they need.

The team will organise for the person and their loved ones to come into one of our rehabilitation centres, which are located around the UK, for an initial meeting. During this time, a member of the team will talk through the treatment options, answer any questions and provide a tour of the facilities.

The person with an addiction will then be provided with an assessment to determine the most effective treatment for them. This could include detoxification, a residential addiction treatment programme or outpatient treatment, depending on the severity of their condition.

During treatment, family phone calls and visits are available when appropriate, so that a person is able to stay well-connected with their support system outside of the rehabilitation centre. We also run Aftercare programmes, so that a person leaving our treatment programme can continue to visit us and get the support that they need in their early recovery. Our Aftercare programme is available for life for those who attend our addiction treatment programmes at Priory Hospital Roehampton and Manor Clinic.

Blog reviewed by Kathryn Dombrowicz, Addiction Therapy Services Manager at Priory Hospital Roehampton

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