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bearded man at window with hands on head illustrating the definition of a high functioning addict

The Trouble With High-Functioning Addicts

A high-functioning addict is someone who seems to be able to function normally, even at a higher than average level, while continuing an active addiction. Not all addicts are what Hollywood likes to portray, as living in a dark hobble with one dingy couch and a lamp with no shade on it. Many addicts who work and make good money for a living, make their car and mortgage payments, have a social circle, pick up their kids from school, and appear just as dapper and put together as someone out of a fashion magazine. These people are society’s high functioning addicts. The term, “functioning addict” has been around for decades, and began with alcoholics who could still hold down a job, and perform the basic tasks and necessities of life for an extended period while hiding their alcoholism from the public.

How Does A High Functioning Addict Hide Addiction?

The majority of addicts truly cannot maintain their addiction and normal life that masks the presence of a problem, but that is not the case for a high functioning addict. This type of addict has found a way to live a double life that looks perfectly normal to the outside world, but also maintains an addiction. How can they do that? Many high functioning addicts manage to maintain some control over their substance abuse. Just because a high functioning addict may appear to be a sober and responsible person, that doesn’t mean that he or she is. High functioning addicts have been trying to perfect their game for a while, so they’ve probably been drinking or abusing drugs long enough to know how to separate their professional and addict lives. Many high functioning addicts are intelligent, educated and relatively successful in their career. They may be executives who have no supervision at work, or they may work from home, or travel often, providing time and privacy to manage their addiction. High functioning addicts may be abusing any substance, including:

  • alcohol
  • heroin
  • prescription pills
  • cocaine
  • amphetamines
  • methamphetamine
  • tranquilizers/sedatives

There is no specific formula or set of criteria for someone to become a high functioning addict, there are varying circumstances surrounding each. However, there is one key characteristic of almost all high functioning addicts. High functioning addicts may be able to stay under the radar for a while, but eventually, they will need help to keep functioning. The more enablers they have, the longer they can function. Enablers can be family members, friends, coworkers, bosses, clients, and doctors, and nearly anyone who can maintain or preserve some part of the addict’s life.

How Do Enablers Help an Addict to be High Functioning?

If we think about stereotypical addicts whom we may see on the street or in and out of bombed out buildings, most of them have not chosen to be where they are. They are on the street because they don’t have a way to be anywhere else; because they don’t have enablers who are in a position to provide a better life for them. High functioning addicts are not especially immune to addiction; no one is. The only difference between a high functioning addict and an addict is enablers who facilitate their ability to continue being an addict. A high functioning addict needs enablers who are in a position to help them maintain their life; otherwise, the high-function would not persist.

Family Enablers
The family, including spouses, parents, and children can enable an addict to maintain his or her life by doing things like making excuses for the addict’s behaviors and absences. Family enablers also do things like providing financial assistance, cover up crimes committed by the addict, provide or pay for lawyers when there is legal trouble, and over-emphasize the need for the addict to continue working and functioning in society.
Employer and Client Enablers
It is not as common with corporate employers, but small business owners and those who have contracts with consultants and freelancers are among the most common employers or clients that can enable an addict, especially when the addict is good at his or her job and making money for the business. In these situations, an addict may relapse, but if the quality of work is profitable for the business, many will look past the problem of addiction, and bring the addict right back to work. In other situations, an enabling employer or client may be trying to help the addict by continuing to provide employment, despite relapses.

This level of enabling is most common among the populations of society that are very wealthy, talented, or otherwise famous. Many celebrities including actors, musicians and artists, have been on the receiving end of years of enabling from managers, family members, doctors, and friends. People who are in perceived positions of power and money are more likely to have enablers who will facilitate their ability to be highly functioning addicts. The unfortunate tragedy is that many of these addicts become so consumed by the enabling, that they never take recovery seriously, and they continue functioning until they perish from their addiction.

Is Recovery Harder for High Functioning Addicts?

Recovery is possible for any addict, even high functioning addicts. The difficulty for high functioning addicts is the fact that they are high functioning, and that seems to contradict a need for treatment. No addict can continue to function without someone’s help because addiction does not get better or go away on its own. Addicts who have been able to maintain a double life and present as normal to the outside world may be able to keep up the facade for some time, but the inevitable evolution of addiction demands that all else take a back seat to substance abuse. Eventually, key parts of life will spiral out of control, and a window opens for them to accept addiction treatment. It can be more difficult for the functioning addict to accept that he needs help, and it often gets harder the longer he is able to maintain a double life. The high functioning addict who has enablers despite past stints in rehab may have an even harder time accepting help because he has been to rehab, relapsed, and still has the same support and enablement to continue functioning.

How Do You Get a Reluctant High-Functioning Addict Into Rehab?

Any high functioning addict who refuses help will likely have a litany of excuses as to why he or she doesn’t need, or cannot go to rehab. Some of these excuses can sound convincing, and they include:

“I don’t need to go anywhere. I’ve been to every rehab there is. I could run the program myself. I know what I need to do, and I’ll do it on my own.”

“I can’t go to rehab. I make all of the money, and if I’m gone even for 30 days, bills won’t get paid, and we’ll be in financial ruin.”

“I don’t need rehab just because you found a few pills. What about you? If I need rehab, so do you then who will take care of things?”

“If I go to rehab, my clients will find out, then I’ll be ruined in business, and I won’t have a career after.”

“All I need is detox, and I’ll be fine. I don’t have time for rehab.”

High functioning addicts may try everything to continue with the facade they present to the public, but if a change is to come, it begins with the enablers in the addict’s life. Enablers may help addicts because they are codependent, or it may be because they are getting some benefit from the addict continuing to function on his or her terms. Regardless of why enablers have helped addicts continue to function, they must set and hold firm boundaries if they want the addict to get help. Without cutting ties with an addict, there are many ways enablers can encourage treatment and support sober functioning. Some examples include:

  • Employers and clients can maintain their contracts under the condition that the addict seek help and submit to random or regular drug tests
  • Family enablers can set and hold firm boundaries that may include
    • refusing to lie or cover for the addict
    • refusing access to the home if the addict relapses again
    • refusing any financial assistance or legal representation if the addict gets into legal trouble

Addiction is a progressive disease, so it gets worse with time and without treatment. High functioning addicts may feel invincible and believe that they have a super-human tolerance to drugs or alcohol, or they may believe that they are just too important in life to succumb to addiction. The reality is that no one is immune to addiction and its effects. It may take longer for high functioning addicts to hit rock bottom, but the problem is that rock bottom for too many of them is death. If you or someone you know is a high functioning addict with enablers facilitating the functioning, seek professional help right away. Addiction professionals can help enablers to understand the damage and harm they are causing, and redirect focus from functioning to recovery.