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How to Spot a High-Functioning Alcoholic

High-functioning alcoholics are often considered a hidden class of addict, but I've met more than a few of them in my life. So has Sarah Allen Benton, a recovering high-functioning alcoholic who just released a book about the disease: Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic.

According to Benton, a so-called HFA is someone who lives a seemingly normal life, often balancing family or romance with a successful career, while also abusing alcohol — and often denying it. In Benton's case:

"Having outside accomplishments led me and others to excuse my drinking and avoid categorizing me as an alcoholic. My success was the mask that disguised the underlying demon and fed my denial."

Do you think you might know a high-functioning alcoholic? Learn the warning signs when you


Many times, the problem comes to light due to an unfortunate incident, like a drunk-driving accident, or the realization that the HFA simply can't control her drinking. But since the alcoholism doesn't fit into our typical understanding of addiction, it can stay hidden for years. Here are some things to look out for.

  • Excessive social drinking. Overindulging on occasional nights out doesn't automatically make you an HFA; it all depends on how much you consume. "Low-risk" drinking, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), for females consists of no more than seven drinks per week and three drinks per sitting.
  • Missed obligations. Shunning work or kid-related obligations could be indicative of a drinking problem.
  • Loss of control. Social drinkers who can't seem to limit their intake after one drink or who act differently than when they're sober could be HFAs.
  • Broken rules. Drinkers who set per-drink limits for themselves but fail to adhere to them could be battling alcoholism.
  • Alcohol obsession. People who seem to obsess about drinking could be HFAs. If one drink sets off a serious craving, that's a bad sign.

For more, check out Benton's blog or the resources page of the NIAAA. Do you know or have you ever known a high-functioning alcoholic? Share your stories in the comments (sign out to comment anonymously!).


Join The Conversation
Drsarah Drsarah 5 years
I work with a colleague... Initially thought he liked to drink beer...then I watched him drink shots with beer. One day we were driving to an out of state meeting and he drank half a bottle of brandy getting there....and drank when we arrived. The next day on the way home he drank the second half of the bottle of brandy. In retrospect, I should have fought his drinking in the car ...he was driving. Over the years, he has gotten worse. Starts projects at work...just to dissolve with no outcomes. And no one asks for accountability. Sad that he is so bright and could be so much more. He may be functioning but it is never "high" functioning. Sad. Frustrating. His wife has all Characteristics of a wife of an alcoholic....complains about his drinking but then brags on Facebook about their drinking with friends....refers to feeling drunk. F***** up.
missyd missyd 8 years
sorry, INO = IMO (in my opinion :P )
missyd missyd 8 years
see, the explanation of HFA that WeTheLiving gave is very much different from Tressugar's, but INO makes wayyyyyyyyyyy more sense. And I have seen these types of alcoholics. The are high functioning because they can constantly be drunk and they can still 'highly function', hence the term. You may not even really see any overly obvious signs of drunkenness. I agree much more with WeTheLiving's explanation.
WeTheLiving WeTheLiving 8 years
Some people are misunderstanding the term High Functioning Alcoholic. Having a glass of wine every day does not make you an alocholic, and getting drunk on the weekend and suffering from hangovers doesn't make you a HFA. An alcoholic is someone who often drinks all day and cannot go a day without a drink (although usually many drinks). They are high functioning, because instead of stumbling around drunk & slurring or not being able to do stuff due to hangovers, their bodies are so used to the alcohol they can function in work and social situations just fine. My dad is definitely a HFA. He's been an alcoholic my whole life (and prolly half of his), but he's always held a high paying job at communications companies (one for almost 20 years) and most people wouldn't even know he drinks. But he used to come home every night, sit in the garage and drink a 12 pack by himself, then sometimes he'd want to go out to buy more beer. My mom always tried to stop him which sometimes got violent. My parents did get divorced and he was sober for like 10 years. He even got remarried (unfortunately to someone he met in AA), but I'm pretty sure he started drinking again a few years ago for awhile because he has a very cruel attitude with me and my sisters when he's drinking, and he wouldn't allow us in his house anymore when we'd always had keys of our own and been welcome (making us think he's hiding alcohol). He's been so much better the past 6 months though, so I hope he's back on the wagon. My sisters and I barely speak with him anymore, just on major holidays. I guess even if you're a HFA, it's got to affect you somehow and we got to our breaking point with him.
missyd missyd 8 years
WHOA scary. After reading this, I think I may qualify as a HFA. I don't drink every day (maybe once a week on Fridays or something), but when I do, I LOVE it at the time and can go overboard. Once I have a few then I tend to be enjoying ti so I get half in the bag. And I *have* blown off commitments in the past cause I was hung over or something. But see, then again, who hasn't at one time or another? Most people I know are guilty of this at one point. I'm 26. So maybe I should not label myself so easily? I cant see me being 35ish and being the same way. Well, now I feel pretty horrible about myself. Great. :(
LaurenG22 LaurenG22 8 years
I see nothing wrong with having wine with dinner every night. Call me a high functioning alcoholic.
julea julea 8 years
I'm pretty sure my grandma is one, but doesn't even know it. She even used to buy non-alcoholic wine for us kids when we were younger, and she always has a glass of wine or a beer several times a day (as far as I know). She's over 80, a cancer survivor, and has 2 new knees, though, so she can do whatever she wants, lol. She still travels all over the world, too. Go gramma! :p
janneth janneth 8 years
You have to be pretty intelligent to carry this off, and a bit of an actor.
kurniakasih kurniakasih 8 years
I think my bro-in-law is one. He drinks quite a bit on a daily basis (a bottle of jack daniels, beer, etc) after work, of course, but he doesn't go out and drive afterward. He claims that drinking those just gives him a buzz and he's so used to it that it doesn't bother him. He's a great employee (never miss a day of work unless it's absolutely necessary) and his boss and co-workers just really like him (doesn't drink before or during work). And during social function, he drinks even more, but seems to not cause fights (although he sometimes will tell embarrassing stories from the past). He's really great with his daughter too when he has her, so it's not like he's wasted when she's around. He can't let a day go by without drinking though, I think my hubby is worried about him, but he's an adult too so it's kind of weird to do some intervention or something like that since their father also is the same way with alcohol.
mondaymoos mondaymoos 8 years
Hm... I guess technically, this could be me. I drink at social functions because I feel awkward around large groups of people and I find it relaxes me a little. Though "missed obligations" isn't really a sign of a high-functioning alcoholic... that's when the "function" part starts to slip.
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