The Dangerous Myth of the “High-Functioning” Addict

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The Dangerous Myth of the “High-Functioning” Addict

Though addiction to drugs or alcohol eventually exacts a heavy toll on the user’s physical, psychological and spiritual health, many of these negative effects emerge gradually, which has created a pervasive idea that some people can successfully avoid the worst consequences of a substance misuse disorder. It’s easy to find popular media depictions of these supposedly “high-functioning” addicts, but do they exist in reality?

The Progressive Nature of Addiction

Many people who drink or use drugs heavily attempt to minimize their behavior by claiming the problem must not be that serious because otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to maintain regular employment and uphold other daily responsibilities. However, the reality of addiction is that it is a progressive disease. Long-term addiction changes the brain’s structure and function, which affects things like decision-making ability and emotional health over time.

Functioning vs. Non-Functioning Addicts

One common question is: If high-functioning addicts truly exist, what qualities separate them from non-functioning addicts? Time is the most important determinant. Many addicts will be able to function relatively well for a while, but the myth of high-functioning addiction lies in the fact that an addicted person will not be able to maintain the facade indefinitely.

Some factors that distinguish a functioning addict from a non-functioning one include the following.

  • Denial
    Denial is a key element of addiction. People who are unwilling to admit to the extent of their problem often convince themselves they have everything under control. They will justify their irresponsible behavior with statements like:

    • I can stop anytime I like; I just choose not to right now.
    • I don’t need to get drunk or high – I’m doing it recreationally.
    • I work hard, and I deserve something that helps me unwind.
  • Enabling
    The support of family and friends can play another role in helping the addicted person maintain their high-functioning status. When someone such as a parent or spouse intentionally or unintentionally begins to assume responsibility for the addict, it is enabling the addiction to progress. Enablers do things such as:

    • Make excuses to help cover for the addict’s decisions or behavior
    • Provide emotional or financial support for the addict that helps them avoid the negative consequences of their addiction
    • Take the blame for the addict’s problems
  • Employment
    Being able to hold a steady job allows people to think they are not really addicted. Often, a functioning addict finds value in regular employment because it provides them with the financial ability to support their habit. They may also benefit from the support of enablers in the workplace who pick up their slack or give them second chances to do the job correctly.
  • Legal Issues
    It’s common for addicts to encounter problems with the law. People who have never been arrested for things like driving under the influence, illegal possession of a substance or forging a prescription may believe they don’t have a drug or drinking problem because they have avoided getting caught. However, allowing these activities to continue is playing with fire. It’s highly likely there will be legal consequences eventually as the addiction progresses.

Experience the Heart of Recovery

If you are struggling with drug or alcohol abuse or want to help a loved one who has a problem, the compassionate rehabilitation specialists at Seabrook are here for you. We offer comprehensive addiction services that allow adults to get to the root of their problems in a comfortable setting. Contact us today for a pre-admission assessment.