What is a Functioning Addict? Learn to Spot the Signs and Get Help
When you think of a drug addict or an alcoholic, what picture comes to mind? A down-and-out derelict passed out on a park bench? Or a father of two pushing a shopping cart at the mall? An unkempt woman hanging out in a seedy neighborhood? Or a well-dressed executive making business deals on the phone? The truth is any of these people could be struggling with alcoholism or drug abuse. It is a misconception that all addicts display drastic signs of abuse and addiction. In reality, there’s a good chance you know a functioning addict, a person you could never imagine is struggling with a substance use disorder.
What is a Functioning Addict?
A functioning addict is a person who is struggling with substance abuse but can outwardly project normalcy. Functional addicts take great care to avoid looking like people who’ve lost control of their lives. They are good at hiding their problems. They are fearful that if found out their reputation and career will suffer. Functional addicts continue to hold down a job. Many enjoy great professional success. Also, functioning addicts usually maintain active social lives. They can successfully hide their addiction from even their closest friends and family members.
However, because functioning addicts appear normal to their friends, family, and colleagues, they are at great risk from the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. Oftentimes it is too late by the time the addiction is discovered and a functioning addict becomes the victim of an overdose. Many functional addicts can sustain their habit for an extended period, causing significant damage to their health, relationships, and financial status.
How Common is Functional Addiction?
A study conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in the United States found that nearly 20 percent of alcoholics are highly functioning and well-educated with good incomes.2 Studies have also shown that people with substance abuse disorders have medium-level social functioning.3 A Swedish study found that nearly 14 percent of people with addiction issues are small-scale entrepreneurs whose lives seem perfectly under control on the surface.
Experts say that people with addiction problems know they have to stay employed to pay for their substance abuse. The signs of addiction may be visible in the workplace, but colleagues and supervisors tend to look the other way as long as the person is fulfilling their work responsibilities. Addiction affects many aspects of a person’s life, including health, social life, and finances. It takes a terrible toll on families. But family members sometimes accommodate a person’s addiction for years, allowing them to continue as functional addicts. Eventually, friends and family members get fed up and try to get addiction treatment at drug rehab centers.
High-Risk Occupations for Functional Addiction
Addiction doesn’t discriminate. It can affect the young and old, the rich and poor, the educated and uneducated. But the key characteristic of a functioning addict is their ability to maintain stable and successful careers. Here are some high-stress occupations that are at risk of functional addiction:
Law enforcement officers: The daily stresses of the job and various threatening and disturbing events can push law enforcement officers towards using illicit substances as a coping mechanism. Drug and alcohol addiction in law enforcement officers is higher than the national average. Up to 25 percent of police officers have serious problems with alcohol and 10 percent have serious drug problems.4
Military veterans: More than 70 percent of Vietnam vets with combat-related PTSD meet the criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence.4
Lawyers: More than 20 percent of attorneys report harmful and potentially addictive drinking patterns. Depression, anxiety, and stress are also common among lawyers, conditions that often co-occur with substance abuse.
Healthcare personnel: Doctors and nurses work in high-stress environments. Also, health personnel have easy access to powerful prescription drugs.
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Business executives: Intense, high-pressure work environments and long hours can drive business executives towards drugs and alcohol. In particular, business executives tend to abuse “smart” drugs (stimulants) to increase concentration and enhance creativity.
How to Identify a Functioning Addict?
“If I was an addict, I could not have shown up to work every single day,” said Toronto Mayor Rob Ford when allegations of drug and alcohol abuse hit the headlines. This is a common refrain from functioning addicts. However, experts warn that high-functioning addicts can show up to work every day whilst struggling with substance abuse. And if addiction treatment and drug rehab are not begun early enough, they are at high risk of physical and psychological harm. That’s why it’s important to know the signs of functional addiction.
Do you know someone who could be a functional addict? Here’s what you should be on the lookout for:
Denial: Many functioning addicts are not convinced they have a problem. “I work so hard I deserve to have some fun.” “I drink to unwind after a hard day’s work.” The denials can sound quite reasonable, but in truth, no job, however stressful, should require habitual drug or alcohol use.
Excuses: Functioning addicts often make excuses and chalk up their drug or alcohol use as standard behavior in their profession. They use their professional success to justify illicit substance use.
Isolation: Functional addicts become more and more consumed by their addiction as time goes on. They put relationships, work, family, and community on the back burner. As the addiction progresses, addicts are only interested in one thing – getting their next hit.
Enabling relationships: People who are functional addicts often seek validation from others like themselves. It’s not uncommon for certain professions to have enabling environments where people encourage each other to indulge in bad behavior.
Unexplained financial losses: Addictive substances don’t come cheap. Even though functioning addicts can maintain a facade of normalcy, they may be unable to hide large amounts of missing money from family members. Substance use disorders can quickly escalate and make finances unmanageable. This should be a red flag to loved ones that something is going on behind the scenes.
Getting Help for a Functioning Addict
Alcohol and drug abuse impact a person’s judgment and alertness at work, their relationships at home, their health, and their finances. Yet, people with substance use disorders become preoccupied with obtaining and using illicit drugs. Many addicts undertake illegal activities, such as selling drugs to other people, to fund their drug habit. Functioning addicts are very good at covering their tracks and hiding their struggles with alcohol or drugs. Functional addicts are especially at risk from the dangers of substance abuse because their addiction can go unnoticed for a very long time. That’s why it’s important to be vigilant for drug abuse and alcoholism in colleagues, friends, and family members. A proactive approach to drug rehab and addiction treatment can help functional addicts get the help they need before it’s too late.