How to Help a High-Functioning Alcoholic

How to Help a High-Functioning Alcoholic

High-functioning alcoholism is as serious as other types of alcoholism, and sometimes even more so. It’s challenging to convince a high-functioning alcoholic to get help because they usually don’t think they have a problem. A classic alcoholic sees the physical and situational impact of alcohol abuse. Their problems are more obvious. There are clear-cut reasons to get them into treatment. High-functioning alcoholism can be tougher when it comes to helping people help themselves. Learn about signs of a high-functioning alcoholic as well as how to help them.

Signs of a High-Functioning Alcoholic

High-functioning alcoholics don’t fit the stereotype of the classic alcoholic. They’re able to hold jobs and maintain family and social obligations. Some high-functioning alcoholics are high achievers and very successful.

Signs of a high-functioning alcoholic include:

  • They’re dishonest about how much they drink.
  • They “pre-game,” drinking alcohol before events that will have alcohol (and sometimes ones that won’t).
  • They’re preoccupied with drinking. They want to know there will be access to alcohol at events and gatherings.
  • They need alcohol to relax, unwind or sleep.
  • They sometimes have “the hair of the dog” in the morning, putting alcohol in their coffee or other beverage.
  • They have a hard time stopping drinking once they start.
  • They have a difficult time keeping alcohol in the house without drinking it.
  • They drink instead of eating.
  • They get defensive when asked about their drinking habits.
  • They have several justifications for why they drink and why they don’t have a problem.
  • They develop a tolerance to alcohol. They need increasing amounts to get the same effects.
  • They sometimes get the shakes, headaches or other alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
  • They drink alone.
  • They continue to drink despite problems at work or other negative consequences.

Helping a High-Functioning Alcoholic

Ultimately, the alcoholic will have to help themselves. You can’t do the work for them. However, there are some ways you can encourage them to get the help they need. Here are some tips for helping a high-functioning alcoholic:

Consult a Medical Professional

Some treatment facilities offer assessments to determine if there’s a problem and to what extent. Ideally, you’re able to convince your loved one to take part in this. You might say something like, “Let’s just see what they have to say. Humor me.” High-functioning alcoholics can be very resistant to any type of addiction treatment, even if it’s just an evaluation. Expect a tough sell.

Have a plan B. If they won’t get an alcohol addiction evaluation, suggest as a compromise they ask their physician about their drinking. Medical professionals should be able to tell them the physical and mental consequences of binge drinking and heavy drinking. They can also perform tests to assess the damage to their health so far. Hearing it from a professional sometimes makes a difference.

Talk When They’re Sober

If there’s anything positive about being a high-functioning alcoholic versus a traditional one, it’s that there are more moments of sobriety. It may seem like a no-brainer to avoid discussing alcohol addiction with your loved one when they’re drunk. However, fights and strong feelings can go hand-in-hand with drinking. Before you know it, you’re running down the laundry list of all the things your loved one is doing wrong and why they need addiction treatment – or else.

Resist that temptation even if things get heated. Productive conversations are hard to have when someone is under the influence. Save any communication about their drinking problem for when they’re sober.

Know Your Facts

High-functioning alcoholics tend to be in denial of the seriousness of their substance abuse. They often hold jobs, many times high-ranking ones. They usually have families, friends and a robust social life. They feel like if they’re able to manage all that, they can’t possibly have an alcohol use disorder. So they overdo it sometimes? They’re still holding everything together. As they say, knowledge is power. Sometimes it helps to take out the emotion from these types of conversations. Take out the “I’s” and “you’s” and focus on the facts.

For instance, people only need to meet two of the below criteria (over the past year) to meet the diagnosis for an alcohol use disorder:

  • Drink more or for longer than they intend
  • Develop a tolerance so they must drink more to feel buzzed or drunk
  • Try to stop or cut down on alcohol use without success
  • Spend a long time drinking or regularly get ill from drinking
  • Have cravings or strong urges to drink
  • Engage in activities that could cause harm to themselves or others while drinking like drunk driving, unsafe sex, machinery use and walking in dangerous areas
  • Drinking or the aftereffects interfere with attending to family, jobs, school or other responsibilities
  • Experience mental or physical alcohol withdrawal symptoms
  • Continue drinking despite negative consequences or adding to health problems
  • Experiencing blackouts
  • Trading drinking for activities that were once important or pleasurable to them

Other facts:

  • Research shows even moderate drinking can have a negative impact on brain processes and memory.
  • Around 50-70% of people with alcohol use disorders will have a mental illness during their lifetime. This is known as a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder. Mental disorders can fuel substance use disorders and vice versa.
  • The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as five or more drinks over two hours for men and four or more drinks for women.
  • The NIAAA considers eight or more drinks a week for women and 15 or more drinks a week for men to be warning signs of heavy drinking

Stage an Intervention

Staging an intervention is appropriate for high-functioning alcoholics too. An intervention could be even more important in these cases since their denial runs so deep. Sometimes people try staging an intervention on their own, but including a professional interventionist is ideal. You might already have a good idea of how an alcohol intervention works. Family and friends gather to tell their loved one how drug abuse or alcohol abuse is impacting them. They express concern and love for them. They encourage them to get help.

An interventionist can guide these conversations. They’ll help you rehearse what you’re going to say and give you tips on the best ways to communicate. An interventionist can also answer your loved one’s questions about alcohol rehab. They can tell them what to expect. This includes why they shouldn’t fear alcohol detox and alcohol withdrawal if it takes place in a treatment center. This prevents many people from seeking the alcohol addiction treatment they need. Under the care of medical professionals, alcohol detox is safe and as comfortable as possible.

Help Yourself

Being close to someone with drug addiction or alcoholism is extremely taxing. Many people find themselves emotionally and physically drained. They put a lot of time into worrying and caretaking. It can take a toll on your mental health.

Remember that you can’t do the work for them. You can encourage them to take a hard look at their alcohol abuse. You can help guide them to alcoholism treatment, but you can’t control them. Don’t neglect your own self-care. Taking care of your physical and mental health makes you stronger for yourself and your loved ones. Don’t put their needs before your own.

Let Them Make Mistakes

Many times people enter drug or alcohol rehab because of a crisis. They were caught drunk driving one too many times. They lost their job. They lost their family. They’re in legal or financial trouble. Often these are blessings in disguise. Alcoholism is a deadly disease. Whatever leads people to the alcohol addiction treatment they need could save their life.

External motivators are sometimes the pathway to internal motivation. Resist the urge to bail your loved one out, make excuses or play the role of fixer. Caring for a high-functioning alcoholic means letting them fall and get back up on their own. This actually sends the message that you believe they have the potential to do better for themselves.


Posted on June 13th, 2019 in Alcoholism


Editorial Staff

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