Drug Addict

Telltale Signs of a Highly Functioning Drug Addict

Garrett Stanford
April 14, 2020

Most people have an idea of what an addict looks and acts like. Depictions of drug addicts in films and television can lead many viewers to have a limited understanding of how addiction actually manifests itself. While movies might represent drug addict as living beneath the poverty line, or as unmarried and with no family, or as male, the reality is addiction can affect anyone under any circumstances. Unfortunately, these false conceptions of what an addict is can make it difficult to identify people who need help. Even people who are themselves suffering from substance use disorders often fail to recognize their own problems because of these misleading ideas they have internalized.

What is a Highly Functioning Drug Addict?

Many people are confident that they can spot someone suffering from addiction when they see how drug abuse has wrecked a person’s life. However, all too often individuals have addictive relationships with drugs and alcohol without necessarily losing their homes, their jobs, or their families. It is common for individuals to exert enormous effort to hide their addictions, but that doesn’t mean they don’t suffer from a substance use disorder. A highly functional drug addict is likely to suffer behind the scenes.

To avoid exposure, high functioning drug addicts go to great lengths to cover up their tracks. Many abstain from engaging in substance abuse around others, perhaps having one drink at a party or saying no to alcohol entirely. These same individuals might spend their alone time in a blackout state. Others successfully set rules for themselves, such as never being high on the job. While these practices might make it less likely for them to come to ruin in a material sense, the inner suffering that addiction inflicts remains the same.

Highly functional drug addicts are often reluctant to seek help or admit to having a problem. Believing that a drug addict is someone who lives on the street, a resident of a mansion is unlikely to admit to a physical dependence on drugs even if they regularly wake up every morning to snort a few lines of cocaine.

Their thought might be, “A drug addict doesn’t look like this.” Friends and family members are also less likely to be able to identify a problem when someone is functioning decently well. Because it is much harder for functioning drug addicts to seek or identify the need for help, their suffering can often be worse, or at least more prolonged, than more glaringly obvious cases of addiction. However, even the most high functioning addict is unlikely to be able to hide every symptom of their substance use disorder. Paying careful attention can help you identify the patterns of addiction in yourself or others.

Signs That a Highly Functioning Person has an Addiction Issue

  • An inability to control their substance use. By definition, addiction is about loss of control. Even if someone only drinks three drinks a night, for instance, if they are doing so without wanting to then they possess one of the primary symptoms of addiction.
  • A worsening of physical appearance. It is difficult to hide the outward signs of substance abuse. A pale complexion, heavy sweating, a bloody nose, or poor grooming habits can all be signs that something is wrong.
  • Co-dependent relationships. It is common for people with addictions to have reduced social skills and social opportunities. Many also enter co-dependent or abusive relationships with people who enable and support their habit of substance abuse.
  • Unusual patterns of isolation. When an individual suffers from a substance use disorder, they may avoid friends and family members. High functioning addicts are likely to do so to avoid having their secret discovered. But this pattern of isolation is common among all addicts.
  • An inability to enjoy hobbies or activities that were once enjoyable. When physical dependency sets in, substance abuse comes to take precedence over all other activities. The reality is that even the most pleasurable activities, whether they be sports, sex, or going to concerts, pale in comparison to the rush of dopamine produced by drug use. Withdrawal symptoms can also make a person feel so ill that leaving the house is out of the question.
  • Financial issues. Someone might function very well on the job and even win “employee of the month” for a year straight and still have an addiction issue. Many functioning addicts work hard at their jobs so that they can afford their expensive drug habits. If an individual makes a good income but suffers from inexplicable debts, chances are their money isn’t going toward rent or groceries.
  • Deteriorating mental health. Unwilling to admit a problem with drugs, many people misdiagnose the effects of their substance abuse as depression or anxiety. While it is indeed very common for individuals with substance use disorder to suffer from co-occurring mental health problems, dual diagnosis individuals can rarely find relief without also addressing their drug habits.

Dealing with an Addiction

While highly functioning addicts are often reluctant to ask for help with their substance use disorders, they should understand that their problems with drugs and alcohol are not caused by personal failings. While these individuals find success in many realms through sheer determination, personal willpower is insufficient to deal with a substance use disorder. It is essential that anyone suffering from addiction ask for help. Fortunately, many different kinds of treatment programs exist for people with different needs. While medical detox centers and inpatient residential programs are recommended for anyone with a severe physical dependence, many people with careers and families may prefer the flexibility offered by outpatient treatment facilities. At an outpatient program, even the most highly functional addict may discover that they are far more functional after all as they begin to take steps toward long term sobriety.

Garrett Stanford
Garrett Stanford brings years of experience working with individuals and families struggling with substance abuse and behavioral health issues. He began working in the nonprofit treatment sector for 2 years before transitioning into the private sector. Garrett has been involved in treatment since 2010, with 10+ years of experience ranging from operations, administration, admissions and addiction research.
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