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What is a functioning alcoholic?

Posted by Alex Molyneux
on 22 Jun 2022

The stereotypical alcoholic portrayed in films is a jobless, homeless individual with a lack of morals and few discerning qualities. In truth, alcohol use disorders affect people from all walks of life and it’s not always easy to spot who’s suffering. Anyone who can’t control the urge to drink, consumes a large volume of alcohol daily and can ‘hold their drink’ may have a problem. People who appear to lead normal lives despite abusing alcohol are known as “functional” or “high-functioning” alcoholics. 

At Delamere, we’ve helped people from all ages and backgrounds to overcome alcohol addiction at our wellness retreat in Cheshire. You might not feel like your drinking is unmanageable, but it’s surprisingly easy for alcohol to become more than a recreational pleasure. If you’re asking yourself the question, ‘Am I a functioning alcoholic?’, we hope this article will provide some of the answers and help you get the support you need. 

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Ten signs you may be a functioning alcoholic 

A high functioning alcoholic doesn’t appear to be affected by alcohol in the same way as someone who has an obvious alcohol addiction. They may be physically fit, have a successful career and be able to maintain good relationships with family and friends. If this sounds like you, here are ten questions to help determine if you are a functioning alcoholic. 

1. Do you regularly drink a lot of alcohol?

The NHS advises that men and women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week and, if you drink more than this, it’s best to spread it over a few days (1). Many people exceed this amount and seemingly don’t have a problem. But, if you need a few drinks every day to unwind and hardly ever suffer from hangovers, this indicates that your body has built up a tolerance to alcohol and you may be a functioning alcoholic. 

2. Are you irritable when you don’t drink?

If you feel angry or restless when you haven’t had a drink this could be a sign that you’re suffering withdrawal symptoms. A dependent drinker may experience hand tremors, headaches, sweating, sleep problems, visual disturbances, anxiety and depression if they suddenly cut down or stop drinking (1). These may not seem obvious to you at first, but they are warning signs that you are a high functioning alcoholic. 

3. Does your social life revolve around drinking?

Now that pubs and restaurants are open again, the heavy drinking habits we formed at during the pandemic have spilled over into our social lives. Our own research showed one in four people increased their drinking in 2021 and, earlier this year, the Guardian reported that an estimated 8 million people are drinking wine, beer and spirits at hazardous levels (2). A functioning alcoholic will make alcohol part of every event. Even a child’s birthday party or a work meeting might be seen as a great opportunity to drink. 

4. Do you lie about how much you drink?

People who have a dependence on drink or suffer with alcohol addiction are often secretive and deceptive. While a functioning alcoholic might not hide alcohol to the same extent, they may be economical with the truth about how much they drink or be vague about where they’ve been. A functioning alcoholic also won’t take kindly to being challenged about their drinking and may be angry or dismissive when questioned. 

5. Do you joke about having an alcohol problem?

There’s an old saying: many a true word is spoken in jest. If you find yourself joking about how much you drink or explain your excessive drinking in a flippant way, it could indicate you are a functioning alcoholic. Successful or popular people who regularly drinking high amounts of alcohol often can’t see the damage it’s doing to their health or loved ones. On the flipside, you may also become the butt of people’s jokes for always being the most drunk on nights out. 

6. Has your drinking got you into trouble?

Have you had an accident while drinking, been charged with drink driving or been involved in a fight? If you’re known by family and friends as a bit of a liability when you drink, it might be a sign that you aren’t as in control as you first thought. A functioning alcoholic will often put themselves in danger while drinking, such as taking unnecessary risks, being promiscuous or driving while drunk. If this sounds like you, it’s time to get help. 

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7. Do you need a drink to feel confident?

Alcohol causes the brain to release dopamine which can make us feel more confident, but if it becomes an essential part of being able to handle social situations, you may be suffering with alcohol addiction. Can you only face going to certain events if you’ve had a drink, or do you check there will be alcohol available before you accept an invite? This is the kind of behaviour that points towards being a functioning alcoholic. 

8. Do you get so drunk you forget things?

Heavy drinking has a variety of damaging physical effects, most profoundly on the brain. Alcohol-induced blackouts are defined as “amnesia, or memory loss, for all or part of a drinking episode”. During a blackout, a person can engage in normal behaviour, but their actions aren’t transferred from short to long-term memory. So they may not remember what happened the night before. If this happens to you regularly, you are showing signs of being a functioning alcoholic (3). 

9. Do you constantly justify your drinking?

People drink to destress and unwind but if you’re always explaining away your reasons it could indicate you have a problem. A high functioning alcoholic will find any excuse to have a drink whether celebrating or commiserating. Those who are suffering with alcohol addiction, but don’t yet realise it, will also seek positive affirmation from any sources, such as finding newspaper cuttings that extol the positive health benefits of drinking red wine every day. 

10. Has drinking affected your home or work life?

High functioning alcoholics can usually carry out normal tasks without the usual problems associated with alcohol addiction. In fact, it’s estimated that around 20% of people that present with clinical signs of an alcohol use disorder (AUD) have managed to successfully finish education, keep a good job and be well paid (3). When someone starts to shirk responsibilities or lose friendships due to drinking, this can indicate a problem. 

How can Delamere help a functioning alcoholic? 

If you’ve read anything in this article that resonates with you and makes you identify as a functioning alcoholic, it may be time to seek help. At Delamere, we have a multi-disciplinary team that can use a variety of evidence-based therapies to help you overcome alcohol addiction at our purpose-built facility in Cheshire. 

When you’ve recognised your dangerous dependence on alcohol, we can help you with a clinical alcohol detox which will allow you to safely reduce the amount you drink without any unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. We will then support you using a combination of one-to-one counselling, group therapy and somatic healing techniques to get to the root cause of what is making you drink and develop tools to master your triggers. 

Our alcohol rehab programmes are person-centred and take your individual needs into consideration. We will find what works best for you to address your emotional, physical and psychological needs. When you’re ready to ask for help, we are here to listen without judgement in safe and comfortable environment. After your short stay with us, we want you to return to life feeling refreshed, empowered and capable of moving forward without relying on alcohol. 

If you think you may be addicted to alcohol, call us confidentially to speak to a member of the team today. Contact Delamere


1. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alcohol-misuse/

2. The Guardian

3. Wetherill, R. R., & Fromme, K. (2016). Alcohol-Induced Blackouts: A Review of Recent Clinical Research with Practical Implications and Recommendations for Future Studies. Alcoholism, clinical and experimental research, 40(5), 922–935. https://doi.org/10.1. 

4. Benton, S.A. (2009). Understanding the high-functioning alcoholic: Professional views and personal insights. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. 

About the author: Alex Molyneux

Alex is the Admissions Manager at Delamere. Alex has organised more admissions into treatment than most. Find out more about Alex on our team page.

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