When the term “high-functioning alcoholic” is mentioned, various types of drinkers often begin to question their own drinking and worry if they fall into this category. Part of this confusion is that many individuals are unclear about the differences in characteristics of social drinkers, problem drinkers and alcoholics. There is also a lack of awareness of what the true warning signs of alcoholism are.
Social drinkers are those individuals who drink in low-risk patterns. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), “low-risk” drinking for females consists of no more than 7 drinks per week and no more than 3 drinks per sitting. For males, it consists of no more than 14 drinks per week and no more than 4 drinks per day.
Problem drinkers display clear differences between their drinking habits and those of alcoholics. In fact, according to the NIAAA, 72% of people have a single period of heavy drinking that lasts 3-4 years and peaks at ages 18-24 (typically occurs during the college years) that they phase out of. When problem drinkers are given sufficient reason to cut back on their drinking (ie, have a negative drinking consequence, debilitating hangover, becomes a parent), they are able to self-correct and return to drinking in a low-risk manner. In contrast, alcoholics may be given countless reasons to cut back on their drinking but they are unable to permanently cut back on their drinking. Alcoholics may have occasions where they drank in a low-risk manner, but they inevitably return to their alcoholic drinking patterns. High-functioning alcoholics (HFAs) in particular tend to minimize their drinking by falsely labeling it as a “problem” or as “heavy” drinking because they often do not believe that they fit the stereotype of the typical alcoholic. However, what defines an alcoholic is a person’s relationship to alcohol and not how they appear to the outside world in terms of their personal, professional or academic life.