Though they work hard to pretend that they have no issues with alcohol, the negative impacts of heavy drinking often begin to pile up and ultimately become impossible to hide.
Promoting open dialogue about alcohol misuse and reducing the stigma associated with the disorder can help people who privately struggle with alcohol use disorder (AUD) to acknowledge the issue and seek help.
If you suspect someone you love may be a closet alcoholic, approach them with care and understanding. The goal is to help them connect with professional alcohol addiction treatment.
What Is a Closet Alcoholic?
Closet drinking refers to someone keeping their alcohol misuse hidden or concealed from others’ view. For instance, they may drink in private at odd hours and in large quantities, hide alcohol around the house, or claim to be sober when they are intoxicated. These individuals may still maintain a job and keep up with family responsibilities despite their excessive alcohol use.
Maintaining this facade can place a significant emotional and psychological burden on the individual and drive a wedge between them and their loved ones. Meanwhile, their use of alcohol usually increases as their AUD deepens and becomes more overwhelming.
How Does Someone Become a Closet Alcoholic?
Becoming a closet alcoholic often happens gradually over time. While everyone’s journey is unique, there are usually a combination of psychological, social, and environmental factors at work.
In general, however, someone could begin to drink heavily in secret in the following ways:[1-3]
Initial Social Drinking
Drinking often begins as social behavior and a form of relaxation. Someone might drink in social settings, such as at parties or networking events for the purposes of connecting with peers or having fun.
Escaping Stress or Problems
Once it is established that alcohol provides some relief from life stressors, some people will develop a habit of turning to alcohol as a way to temporarily escape emotional pain or stress.
Increased Frequency & Quantity
Over time, drinking socially and for relaxation may become more regular with an increase in consumption in each drinking session, resulting in a tolerance to alcohol that requires more drinks to reach the usual level of relaxation. As friends and family begin to notice increased alcohol use, the person may begin to drink in secret to avoid judgment.
Establishment of Routine
Over time, the individual may develop a regular pattern of secret alcohol use that fits their schedule. They will find ways to drink throughout the day at specific times when no one else is around.
Denial & Rationalization
The person might deny the severity of their drinking habits, rationalize their actions, or refuse to admit they are intoxicated even after several drinks. They may convince themselves that they have control over their alcohol consumption.
Hiding Drinking Habits
As dependence on alcohol deepens, the individual may become protective of their drinking and preoccupied with making sure they always have access to alcohol. They may stash alcohol in hidden places, like their car or bathroom), drink at odd hours before or at work, and disguise the smell of alcohol.
Maintaining Their Public Image
Closet alcoholics often work hard to maintain a facade of normalcy in public in an effort to avoid embarrassment, judgment, or consequences. They may present a sober and responsible image to family, friends, and colleagues while struggling with alcohol abuse in private. As their alcohol use increases, they will likely slip up more and more frequently, eventually becoming unable to hide the effects of their drinking.
Isolation & Emotional Toll
Living a double life can take a significant emotional toll on a closet alcoholic, leading them down an increasingly isolated path. This sense of separation and fear of being caught can often increase the urge to drink in an effort to escape those feelings. If they try to stop drinking on their own unsuccessfully, it can trigger mental health issues, like anxiety or depression, or exacerbate the symptoms of an existing disorder.
Signs of a Closet Alcoholic
Recognizing a closet alcoholic can be challenging. They may go to great lengths to hide their drinking, yet there are often indicators that suggest they are abusing alcohol undercover.
Signs that someone is a closet alcoholic include the following:[1,3]
Drinking in Secret
While some degree of alcohol consumption when alone may not be concerning, such as a glass of wine with dinner, excessive intake when alone is a red flag. The person may hide bottles of alcohol or drink late at night when others are not paying attention.
Frequent Trips to the Bathroom
Making repeated trips to the bathroom during social gatherings or events could indicate discreet alcohol use.
Strong Odor of Alcohol
They may often have a noticeable smell of alcohol on their breath or clothing at times when it would be inappropriate to be drinking.
They may store extra bottles of alcohol in hidden places, such as closets, drawers, or in disguised containers in order to maintain a secret supply.
Drinking Early in the Day
They may start their day with a drink, such as by adding liquor to their coffee, often justifying it to themselves as normal or not a big deal.
Defensiveness or Irritability
They may react defensively or become easily irritated when questioned about their drinking habits, even if asked casually.
Frequent Excuses or Lies
They may make excuses or lie to justify their whereabouts, actions, or reasons for being unavailable when they were actually drinking.
Failing to meet obligations at work, school, or home due to the effects of alcohol consumption will become more frequent occurrences.
Financial difficulties due to excessive spending on alcohol, possibly leading to debt or borrowing money, may occur.
Declining Physical Health
Physical health issues associated with alcohol abuse — such as weight gain, liver problems, or deteriorating appearance — will likely begin to crop up for a closet alcoholic.
Mood Swings or Emotional Instability
Abrupt changes in mood, depression or anxiety, or emotional instability are common in those who are privately abusing alcohol.
Dangers of Being a Closet Alcoholic
Being a closet alcoholic poses various physical and mental dangers due to the impact of alcohol on the mind and body and the inability for loved ones to recognize the problem in a timely manner and intervene.
Physical effects of closet alcoholism include the following:[4,5]
- Liver damage: Fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis are all associated with continued alcohol abuse. While these problems may not be present initially, they are more likely with continued drinking at high levels.
- Heart problems: Alcohol abuse can contribute to high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, cardiomyopathy, and heart disease.
- Digestive issues: High levels of alcohol intake can irritate the digestive tract, leading to various issues, such as gastritis, ulcers, and pancreatitis. Over time, this contributes to a higher risk of gastrointestinal cancers.
- Weakened immunity: The immune system can’t function as well due to the toll of continued alcohol abuse. This makes the person more susceptible to infections and illnesses.
- Neurological problems: Over time, severe alcohol abuse can lead to brain damage and impaired cognitive function. Conditions like Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and alcoholic neuropathy are possible with long-term alcohol misuse.
Mental & Emotional Dangers
Mental and emotional effects associated with closet alcoholism include the following:[4-10]
- Co-occurring disorders: People who have mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, are more likely to abuse alcohol. Likewise, these conditions are more likely to develop or worsen in those who abuse alcohol.
- Isolation and loneliness: Hiding alcohol consumption may result in social withdrawal and feelings of isolation, contributing to deteriorating mental health.
- Strained relationships: Closet alcoholism involves a great deal of secrecy and often deception. As an individual lies to those around them about their drinking, this erodes trust, often furthering isolation.
- Higher risk of trauma: Since alcohol impairs judgment, closet alcoholics may be more likely to be in dangerous situations, increasing the risk of experiencing trauma.
- Suicidal ideation: Alcohol abuse and related issues, such as social isolation, are linked to increased risk of suicidal thoughts and actions. This risk is worsened if co-occurring mental health issues are present.
- The high-functioning alcoholic. Holmes, J. West Virginia Office of Drug Control Policy. Published June 29, 2022. Accessed October 17, 2023.
- Researchers identify alcoholism subtypes. National Institutes of Health. Published June 28, 2007. Accessed October 17, 2023.
- Characteristics associated with denial of problem drinking among two generations of individuals with alcohol use disorders. Schuckit, M., Clarke, D.F., Smith, T.L., Mendoza, L. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2020 Dec 1; 217: 108274.
- Alcohol's effects on the body. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Accessed October 17, 2023.
- Neurobiology of alcohol dependence. Gilpin, N.W., Koob, G.F. Alcohol Research and Health. 2008; 31(3): 185–195.
- Suicidal Behavior and Alcohol Abuse. Pompili, M., Serafini, G., Innamorati, M., Dominici, G., Ferracuti, S., Kotzalidis, G., Serra, G., Girardi, P., Janiri, L., Tatarelli, R., Sher, L., Lester, D. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2010 Apr; 7(4): 1392–1431.
- Relationship between depression and risky alcohol consumption in women: The mediating role of coping styles and age. Villanueva-Blasco VJ, J. MM, Villanueva-Silvestre V, Vázquez-Martínez A. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. Published online October 12, 2022.
- Alcohol and the etiology of depression. Nunes EV. American Journal of Psychiatry. 2023;180(3):179-181.
- Effect of alcohol consumption on the development of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation: Update of a systematic review. Canada C. Published August 2022. Accessed October 16, 2023.
- The neural processes interlinking social isolation, social support, and problem alcohol use. Le TM, Wang W, Zhornitsky S, et al. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology. 2020;24(4).