Are you a high-functioning alcoholic?

You like to unwind with a few drinks, but your life and career are on track. So there’s no way you could be an alcoholic… is there?
The Girl On The Train

You burst through the door at the end of a long day, itching to pour some wine even though this morning, you said you wouldn’t. But you’ll only have one glass, you think – you deserve it after the day you’ve had today.

But one glass doesn’t quite cut it and before you know it, you’ve had the whole bottle. Are you doing what thousands of other women around Australia do each night? Yes. Could you be a high-functioning alcoholic? Quite possibly.

What are the signs?

The World Health Organization has six criteria for alcohol dependence. If within the last year you’ve met three or more of these around the same time, you might be alcohol dependent.

  • You experience some loss of control over alcohol. You plan not to drink then you do, or you plan to stop after one or two but keep going.

  • You have increased tolerance so need more alcohol to get the same effect.

  • You have a strong desire or compulsion to drink.

  • Alcohol has become a higher priority than other activities.

  • You continue to drink, despite an awareness of the harm it’s causing you.

  • You experience a degree of withdrawal if you don’t have alcohol – irritability or trouble sleeping are common – or you drink to prevent withdrawal.

What does it mean?

High-functioning alcoholic is a term for someone who is alcohol dependent, yet is still able to achieve personal and professional success. Like depression and anxiety, it can affect anyone, regardless of their line of work, wealth or social status.

Actor Channing Tatum is one of a string of high-profile sufferers, admitting in GQ magazine that he’s a high-functioning alcoholic. Equally, it can affect everyday women and men who are able to perform well at work and home, while drinking in a harmful way.

Is being a high-functioning alcoholic the same as being an alcoholic? It seems it is. Addiction counsellors don’t differentiate between the two: they say that alcohol dependence is a problem that requires treatment, whether the person is high-functioning or not.

High-functioning alcoholics often go undetected because they don’t fit the stereotype of the ‘skid-row’ alcoholic. And because they’re functioning and achieving, they’re not seen by society as having a problem.

That said, Professor Kate Conigrave, an addiction medicine specialist at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, says the number of high-functioning people seeking treatment for alcohol dependence is increasing. “We’re starting to see more people earlier on who are worried that alcohol is taking a hold on their life,” she says.

Channing admitted to being a high-functioning alcoholic in 2014.

Success breeds blindness

Cameron Brown, an Australian psychologist at the drug and alcohol rehab centre, The Cabin Chiang Mai in Thailand, says the fact that people can be successful at work – or getting through life without any major disasters because of their drinking – makes it easy for them to deny their problem.

“A lot of the people who come through The Cabin say that they were able to hide, deny and otherwise justify their drinking for a long period of time,” he says. “Being high-functioning means that the individual may not need to face the consequences of their drinking so they are never exposed to themselves as a socially unacceptable drinker,” says Brown.

He says they often have social or financial resources to keep them out of trouble – for example, money for lawyers to contest drink-driving charges. They’re often part of a culture which encourages alcohol as a reward for hard work so drinking looks justified.

There may be a well-meaning PA who covers for them at work when they call in sick with a hangover, or another mum who’ll pick up their kids from school when they’ve over-indulged.

Risky business

Professor Conigrave says drinking in this way – or drinking any amount greater than the health guidelines recommend – takes a hidden toll on your health. “It may show up in the short term as high blood pressure but often shows up years down the track in things like cancers,” she says.

Numerous studies have shown alcohol consumption increases breast cancer risk in women of all ages. A 2013 study at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center showed that having just three small drinks (100ml of wine each) a day increased the breast cancer risk in post-menopausal women by 50 per cent. There’s also evidence that alcohol raises the risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx, oesophagus, bowel and liver.

High-functioning alcoholics are often unaware of the social problems associated with their drinking. “If you’re not the sort of person who gets drunk and violent you can kid yourself that you don’t have a problem, but alcohol dependence takes a significant toll on relationships,” says Conigrave.

“It’s hard to have a good relationship with someone when they are physically present but mentally not really there, or when you’re competing with alcohol for their attention.”

She says most of us underestimate the dangers of alcohol and are unaware of guidelines for use.


Consult your GP, or visit: – A self-help group that identifies your drinking triggers and teaches skills to help you abstain and achieve a healthy lifestyle. – Features an online drink calculator and ‘drink check’ which shows how your drinking compares with others your age, and reveals if you might have a problem. – Free online text-based counselling for alcohol users, their family and friends.

Related stories