Denial as a Symptom of Alcoholism

Excuses and Signs of the High-Functioning Alcoholic

Denial as a Symptom of Alcoholism

For many years, when I thought of a person struggling with alcohol addiction a few stereotypical images came to mind.

  • The homeless, disheveled and unshaven man in the alleyway with a brown bag of liquor
  • The former child-star actress who just had her 4th DUI arrest
  • The college frat boy who got kicked school for partying too hard

Often times, we think of alcoholics as people who have suffered great consequences, lost their jobs, lost their homes or vehicles, lost money, or lost the help or support from their family or friends.

While there are plenty of people who are actively addicted to alcohol and facing tremendous losses and consequences, there are also people who meet the criteria for a medical diagnosis of alcohol dependence – who are not experiencing the same repercussions of their drinking.

People who have not yet faced the fallout from alcohol addiction are often described as “functional alcoholics” or “high-functioning alcoholics.”

The High-Functioning Alcoholic.

If you know someone on a casual basis who is a high-functioning alcoholic, you may not even realize that he or she is struggling with addiction, or in  what we call the ‘4 Stages of Alcoholism for the Functional Alcoholic.

’ People with functional alcoholism rarely miss work – and often excel at their jobs and on their career paths.

They get the kids to school on time, they attend obligations, fulfill responsibilities and are often very successful in many areas of life.

From the outside, so-called functioning alcoholics seem to have their lives together. To all but their family members or close friends – they give the outward appearance of living a normal, healthy life.

However, just because they’re functioning at a high level, doesn’t mean the consequences to their drinking won’t catch up with them.

Denial in Alcoholism.

Addiction of any sort often relies heavily on denial. If a person doesn’t believe that his or her substance abuse is a problem, he or she won’t have motivation to get the necessary help to quit.

Denial is a refusal to admit the truth or the reality of the situation – and in addiction, it’s a strong defense mechanism.

Those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol often become masters at using denial in order to protect their addictions.

In alcoholism, denial often appears in various forms:

  • “The REAL problem is other people judging me and wanting me to fail”
  • “My job is stressful and my boss makes me miserable”
  • “My family stresses me out – I just need to let loose and relax”
  • “You can’t trust a person who doesn’t drink!”

In high-functioning alcoholism, denial can be even more dangerous – because the person hasn’t faced the outward negative consequences of alcohol consumption. Denial may look more this:

  • “I go to work everyday – and I just got promoted”
  • “I’m not spending all my money on alcohol”
  • “I get my kids to school everyday and have never missed a soccer game”
  • “I’ve never gotten a DUI”

Denial Doesn’t Offer Protection.

Despite having few negative consequences and stronger lines of denial to hide behind, those who are high-functioning alcoholics are not immune to the effects of alcohol. Denial doesn’t offer protection from fallout. Those who are drinking at an alcoholic level are still doing tremendous damage to their brains and bodies – and putting others in harms way.

Similar to some of the classic signs of addiction and alcoholism, those with high-functioning alcoholism have distinct symptoms:

  • Drinking is a Big Part of Life.They’re highly functioning at work – but as soon as the day is done, he’s ready to grab a 12-pack of beer on the way home, head to the nearest bar, or pour a stiff drink to unwind, as soon as she walks in the door. The first few drinks usually go down quickly. This isn’t just a once-in-awhile occasion – it happens several days per week, if not daily.
  • Not Drinking Makes them Nervous, Irritable, or Uncomfortable.If for some reason he or she has to stay late at work, is caught up at a non-drinking event, or runs alcohol – they don’t handle it well. If he’s forced to abstain from drinking, his body reacts negatively and he becomes anxious, moody, angry or upset.
  • They Can Hold Their Liquor.He can drink as much as anyone – and usually more – but rarely becomes visibly drunk. Perhaps her speech isn’t affected and she doesn’t slur her words, and carries on relevant conversations. He doesn’t stumble or become belligerent. It’s almost as if he or she wasn’t drinking at all.
  • They Drink Instead of Eat.People who struggle with alcohol addiction are ly to replace food with a few drinks. He’ll choose beers over dinner. She’ll drink vodka without balancing her drinks with water and food. He’ll use mealtime as an excuse to start drinking.
  • They Can’t Just Have One – Or Two.If one is good, two is better. If two is good, five, seven, or ten is better. People who struggle with alcohol addiction can’t drink moderately. It’s all or nothing. An alcoholic can’t have “just one drink” – and there will always be an excuse for “one more round.”
  • They Can Wake Up Without a Hangover.Whether it be beer, wine or liquor, when a person drinks alcohol of any type on a regular basis over a long period of time – it can cause their body to become physically dependent on alcohol. Tolerance level is increased over time, making it possible to drink more without the same kind of effects that non-alcoholics experience. Keep in mind, lack of a hangover means one less consequence.
  • They Always have an Explanation.As mentioned above, those in active addiction resort to excuses and denial in order to protect their drinking or drug use. In order to avoid the issues – and reality – high-functioning alcoholics will have a seemingly rational explanation for their drinking patterns and behavior. For example, marital or family problems, stress at work, of social engagements. Some high-functioning alcoholics will laugh off their alcohol consumption and drinking episodes to validate that their drinking is a choice.

Functioning Alcoholism is Still Alcoholism.

Although from the outside, it may appear that a person with high-functioning alcoholism is fine – they are not. Functioning alcoholics are still alcoholics, addicted to alcohol. Often times, they may try to quit on their own, but unpleasant and dangerous withdrawal conditions put them back on the cycle to continue drinking.

Alcoholism is a progressive disease, but it doesn’t have to get worse before it gets better. Even if you or the person you know who is functioning with alcoholism hasn’t yet faced a DUI, isolation, or medical problems – it is never too soon to ask for help and receive the proper treatment.


Alcoholic Denial | How To Help An Alcoholic In Denial

Denial as a Symptom of Alcoholism

Being dishonest or lying about alcohol consumption is pretty common with alcoholism. Lying can manifest into denial behaviors.

Denial in alcoholism can take on different characteristics, such as:

  • blame — placing responsibility for drinking on another person or circumstance. Taking no ownership of the drinking problem.
  • hiding — avoiding telling others that they are drinking or even denying when directly asked.
  • becoming defensive — instead of simply answering a question about their drinking, the person starts to defend their decision to drink.
  • dismissing — refusing to see their drinking as a problem or even being willing to talk about it.
  • lying about quitting — this type of denial occurs when the person falsely states that they will quit or that their drinking is an issue.
  • comparing — when approached about drinking habits, an alcoholic may shrug the statements off by naming a person who drinks more than them, or who acts extreme while drinking.
  • rationalizing — finding a way to minimize their own drinking, or word it in a way that is accepted.

How Does Alcoholic Denial Happen?

When a person starts abusing alcohol, they may feel they have a good reason. Stress, obligations, trauma, abuse, or any other number of negative circumstances can seem an acceptable reason to pick up a bottle or have a drink.

Whether it happens over time or immediately, the person realizes that their drinking has become a bit control. However, they may not want to or be willing to cut back at that point.

Eventually, the need or compulsion to drink is beyond their control. Not wanting to admit their alcoholism to anyone does not mean they don’t see the problem.

Additionally, long-term effects of alcohol result in brain damage and compromise different functions of the brain, including insight and other frontal lobe processes.

Types Of Alcoholic Denial

People may deny their alcoholism for different reasons—it’s not always about hiding it. Here are the different types of alcoholic denial and why people with alcohol addiction may deny their drinking problem.

Denial As A Defense

Alcoholism is a progressive disease, and over time it will get worse. As the person’s drinking continues to worsen over time, the consequences related to alcoholism increase.

Binge or heavy drinking can wreak havoc on a person’s love life, work responsibilities, and in some cases, result in legal problems.

Someone in the throes of an alcohol addiction may refuse to acknowledge the connection between their problems and drinking. Denial can become a sort of defense mechanism for them, allowing them to continue on this destructive path.

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Another form of defense can happen when a person struggling with addiction creates a group of people that allows them to continue to believe that their drinking is not a problem, nor the cause of their hard times.

Sometimes, these groups of friends can reinforce the alcoholic’s denial, and may actually provide their own chorus of denial to support the person with the alcohol addiction.

Secondary Denial

Secondary denial is a form of denial that doesn’t come from the alcoholic, but from the people they surround themselves with. Whether it is a ‘drinking buddy’ or a loved one, these people echo the sentiment of the person struggling with addiction.

This type of denial is a form of enabling. Oftentimes, enablers are family members who are attempting to protect the person with the alcohol problem.

Fortunately, there are support groups available for friends and family members of alcoholics, such as AlaTeen and Al-Anon, that help people understand how damaging enabling is, and how to make corrections to their own behaviors to help everyone involved.

Offering Protection To People With Alcoholic Denial

Loved ones sometimes protect the person who is experiencing an alcohol problem, making excuses for their poor behaviors and failure to manage responsibilities.

This type of enabling can come in many forms, such as:

  • paying bills the person can’t or won’t
  • working on jobs around the house they failed to complete
  • co-workers completing projects that they flaked out on
  • posting bail repeatedly for them to get jail
  • covering attorney or court fees for legal issues

“Saving The Day”

Coming to the rescue of a loved one who struggles with alcohol dependence may seem the right thing to do, but it essentially allows them to never experience the negative consequences of their drinking.

Protecting, rescuing, and secondary denial are all ways that people close to alcoholics enable their addictive behaviors. When a loved one is engaged in alcohol abuse, watching them spiral control can cause inner conflict for friends and family members.

However, enabling is dangerous and in no way helpful. It allows a person with an alcohol use disorder to dismiss all warning signs that their alcohol abuse has become a problem.

Enabling also creates an environment that fosters co-dependency and negatively impacts appropriate support systems.

High-Functioning Alcoholic Denial

Denial often occurs in functional alcoholics. These individuals maintain appearances, hold down jobs, and fulfill most daily responsibilities. In fact, their loved ones may reinforce the denial by not acknowledging the warning signs themselves.

One of the most supportive things a friend, family member, or coworker can do for a high-functioning alcoholic is to acknowledge the alcohol problem and the need for an alcohol treatment program.

​No matter how functional an alcoholic is, the nature of the disease will eventually start to wear them down.

Alcoholism is a progressive disease, and the following are some of the noticeable symptoms of alcohol addiction:

  • sudden development of paranoia, shakiness, or insomnia
  • randomly missing social events that they enjoyed attending
  • missing work often or missing project due dates
  • lack of focus or attitude changes that are uncharacteristic

It is important to recognize that just because you have realized that your loved one may be in need of an alcohol addiction treatment program, that does not mean they will agree.

Approaching them may feel foreign or uncomfortable, which is why some choose to reach out to mental health or addiction specialists for guidance. There are unique professionals that conduct interventions, and those individuals can be extremely helpful in these processes.

Symptoms Of Alcoholism

While high-functioning alcoholics don’t always display the same warning signs of alcoholism, the majority of people struggling with alcohol abuse share many similar symptoms, including:

  • spending significant amounts of time using, finding, or recovering from alcohol use
  • using alcohol in dangerous circumstances
  • continuing to use alcohol despite health risks
  • needing larger amounts of alcohol to have the same effects
  • experiencing withdrawal symptoms without alcohol
  • being unable to maintain relationships due to alcohol

A person that exhibits a number of these symptoms is ly to be struggling with an alcohol use disorder and would benefit from a treatment program.

Alcohol Addiction Treatment Programs

Alcohol addiction treatment centers offer a number of treatment options, and guide an individual through the recovery process. From the early stages of detoxification, or detox, to inpatient treatment, through to aftercare, addiction medicine continues to develop and support individuals in recovery.

Contact our helpline today. We are available to explore addiction treatment options that can help you or your loved one get the assistance needed to start recovery.

Written by the Addiction Resource Editorial Staff

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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