Recognizing a High Functioning Addict

Recognizing a High Functioning Addict

People can be dependent and not have abuse problems at all. They’re successful students. They’re good parents, good workers. They watch their weight. They go to the gym. Then they go home and have four martinis or two bottles of wine. Are they alcoholics? You bet.”

– Dr. Mark Willengring of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

In 2009, the tragic story of 36-year-old mother, Diane Schuler, took the nation by storm when leaving a family camping trip Schuler drove the wrong way on the Tactonic Parkway for almost two miles before crashing into an oncoming SUV.

A total of 8 people died in the accident; Schuler, her two-year-old daughter, her three nieces aged 8,7, and 5, and the three others in the SUV Schuler collided with. It seemed as though the entire nation was baffled by the same question: By all appearances Diane was a great wife, a devoted mother, a warm, responsible employee and boss. Why did she make such a terrible decision that afternoon?

Two weeks later the toxicology reports revealed the shocking information that Diane Schuler not only had the equivalent of 10 drinks in her system, but was also under the influence of marijuana when she made the fatal mistake of entering the Tactonic via an exit ramp. Her family reacted with shock and dismay. To them, the woman they knew was no alcoholic, and had never shown any signs of a problem.

However, Diane Schuler is a perfect example of what has now been labeled a high functioning addict—people who maintain careers, raise a family, and have plenty of friends, yet continue to abuse alcohol or drugs. Unfortunately when it comes to addiction, as such is the case with Diane Schuler, some of the most tragic stories are those of high-functioning addicts.

While many are quick to assume they’d perceive a problem rather quickly, a 2007 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism discovered that only 9 percent of alcoholics seem to fit the traditional stereotype.

While these individuals are very adept at disguising their abuse because the outer trappings of their lives indicate success, and as such they can go years and even decades without being confronted, there are a few ways to unmask a high-functioning addict:

  1. Be aware of denial: Because high-functioning addicts don’t tend to fit the typical addict stereotypes they can often times spend years and even decades in denial. Additionally, family and friends who fail to recognize or confront the problem can compound the addict’s denial. High-functioning addicts may not stand out in a crowd often because they surround themselves with other heavy drinkers or drug users who fuel their denial.
  2. Observe uncharacteristic patterns of behavior: While high-functioning addicts are extremely capable of hiding their actions, even the most functional addicts will experience some form of ramifications of their drug use. For instance, some may begin to exhibit subtle changes in behavior that are uncharacteristic of their sober selves, such as skipping social events. Additionally even a high-functioning addict may begin to show physical signs of addiction such as insomnia, shakiness, paranoia, etc.
  3. Don’t accept excuses: As high-functioning addicts are often intelligent and charismatic by nature, they tend to have well-rehearsed excuses for every unusual behavior or slip up. Oftentimes these well-reasoned justifications are what sets everyone at ease and allows the addiction to continue.
  4. Watch for a double life: Maintaining their double life is something a high-functioning addict can become extremely adept at. To the outside world they may seem as if they have it all; yet inside they may be plagued by uncontrollable cravings, unsuccessful attempts to quit, obsessive thoughts about their next drink or high, or another hallmark sign of addiction. Unfortunately, many high-functioning addicts tend to wait for some sign, or the proverbial “rock-bottom,” to motivate themselves to get treatment; something that may not come for 10 to 20 years.
  5. Don’t ignore the signs: It’s extremely important to remember that someone who doesn’t necessarily fit the stereotype of an alcoholic or drug addict can still be struggling with addiction. Even though they will continue to function, high-functioning addicts pose a significant danger to themselves and others; and can be some of the most difficult individuals to help.

Only 9 percent of individuals fit the stereotype of what many perceive an addict to be like. Keeping an eye out for the signs listed above can go great lengths in helping to determine if you or a loved one is in need of help for alcohol or drug addiction.

Additionally, it’s extremely important to remember that when questioned about their drug use, a high-functioning addict may strongly deny that a problem exists and will make greater efforts to hide their drug or alcohol addiction. As such, it often can require a series of attempts to break through the many layers of denial. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, break down the barrier and find the right drug rehab program for you.


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