The common stereotype of an addict involves people who are obviously making a mess of their life. This behavior is usually associated with criminality and poverty. This hides the reality that many addicts do not fit into the stereotype. There are plenty of individuals who would be considered successful in life yet they are hiding an addiction to alcohol or drugs. These people are usually referred to as high functioning addicts and they may account for as much as half of all addicts. The fact that these people are so successful at camouflaging their problem can mean that they ultimately cause more harm to their mental and physical health.
A functioning addict can be defined as someone who is able to hide the excesses of their alcohol or drug use. An example of this would be the functioning alcoholic who may have a good job, a secure home life, and be respected in the community despite drinking an excessive amount of alcohol most day. To an outsider this individual will be functioning at a high level, but this may be hiding the reality that internally their life is falling apart. This is because addiction always involves a downward spiral even if this decline is well hidden. The functioning addict is sometimes able to maintain their balancing act for many years but eventually things will fall apart – this often happens in dramatic and tragic ways.
Despite the outward show of respectability the functioning addict will be in real danger. In fact some of the most tragic stories of addiction involve such individuals. A high functioning addict is able to hide their problems so this means that that they can fall further into the abyss without being detected. The particular dangers facing the functioning addict include:
* The individual can use their success in life as justification to keep on drinking or using drugs. This is because their achievements give them a sense that they are already doing well enough in life.
* The fact that their addiction is well maintained means that the individual may feel secure to continue drinking or using drugs.
* The high functioning addict does not fit in with the typical stereotype of addiction. This makes it easier for them to deny that they have a problem.
* They may have fewer reasons to stop than other addicts, and this means that they are less likely to stop. By the time they have developed the willingness to change they may have already done a great deal of damage to their body and mind.
* If this person belongs to a profession with a culture of hard drinking and drug use they can use this as justification. They might even believe that failure to engage in this behavior would mean that they would not be able to do their job.
* These individuals are able to put on an outward show of success. This means that there will be less pressure on them to change their behavior.
* Family and friends may believe that their excesses are excused because they are doing so well in many areas of their life.
* These individuals often do not fit in with the diagnostic criteria used to establish whether or not people have a substance abuse problem. This can be used as further evidence that they do not have an addiction.
* This individual is less likely to have the same financial constraints that hold other addicts back. They can afford to more fully engage in the undesirable behavior, and this means that they can do more damage.
* The high functioning addict can feel that they’ve too much to lose by admitting that they have a problem. This can mean that they remain addicted even though they accept that it would be better for them to stop.
* If this person has a position of power their subordinates may feel obliged to cover up for them. This can put these employees in a difficult position where they are torn between obligations to their boss and obligations to the company.
Despite their ability to put on a good show of normality there will usually be evidence that something is not right. The symptoms of the functioning addict include:
* If this individual is an alcoholic their behavior will tend to change when they drink alcohol. This change in behavior can be quite dramatic – the person who is normally introverted may become loud and talkative.
* They become defensive if anyone questions their use of alcohol or drugs.
* They may behave in a secretive manner sometimes – this can include lying about where they’ve been.
* They appear to live a double life.
* Mood swings.
* They regularly appear to be ill in the mornings – they may try to explain this away by saying that they are not a morning person. If this person is a functioning addict their inability to handle early morning may be due to hangovers.
* If they are going out for the evening they will want to drink beforehand – even if the place they are going will be serving alcohol.
* They do things they later regret while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
* Risky sexual encounters while under the influence.
* The individual may have made resolutions to cut back on the substance abuse but failed to keep this promise.
* They have lost interest in hobbies that they once enjoyed.
* Their close friends are heavy drinkers or drug users.
* They make excuses for their substance abuse – for example, they might claim that it is normal behavior in their profession or that they deserve to let their hair down because they work so hard.
* Those who have been abusing alcohol or drugs for many years may show evidence of withdrawal symptoms when they reduce their intake – they may even have withdrawals before their first hit or drink of the day.
* They try to rationalize their bad behavior while intoxicated but such rationalizations do not sound very convincing.
* They seem unable to cope in life without using alcohol or drugs.
* The high functioning alcoholic will regularly drink more than they intended to. They say they are only going to have a couple of drinks in the evening but end up drinking all night.
* They may smell of alcohol even at times when they have not been openly drinking.
* The person may suffer from memory blackouts where they are not able to remember incidents that occurred while they were inebriated.
* Does not like to socialize unless there is going to be alcohol or drugs involved.
* They regularly drink more than the recommended levels – this would be one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men under 65 years of age (1 drink for men over 65).
Trying to help an addict can be a frustrating experience for loved ones. Unless this individual is prepared to accept that they have a problem they are likely to put up a great deal of resistance. This can be particularly true of high functioning addicts who will use their success in life as a means to defend against any claim that they have a substance abuse problem. They may be completely in denial about their problem. This means that any attempts at help need to involve a tactful approach that could include:
* It is important that any discussion about the problem should occur at an appropriate time – definitely not when they are inebriated. A good time to bring up the subject is when the person is recovering from a particularly bad hangover or when they are remorseful over bad behavior while inebriated.
* An organized intervention can work well if it is done correctly. Those who are involved should state how the addictive behavior makes them feel – this should be done in a calm but firm manner.
* Another good approach is to leave recovery literature around the house where the addict can see it – this can include information about well maintained addictions. They may be more susceptible to the suggestion of help if they do not feel directly confronted.
* It can be helpful for them to meet peers who have managed to overcome their addiction. This way they can be reassured that getting help will not harm their career or future prospects.
* Family and friends need to stop making excuses for the individual’s behavior. The fact that they are doing well in some aspects of their life does not give them the justification to behave badly when intoxicated.
* The individual may be afraid to admit they have a problem because they fear it will harm their future. They can feel reassured by knowing that they can enter rehab anonymously – they can even go abroad for treatment and just tell people they are going on holiday, and they can even get a tan to prove it.