It is not uncommon for our treatment center to hear from the family of a man or a woman who binges on substances but still manages to maintain a career (or be the head of a household).
This is not the typical picture of someone who has a substance addiction, but these types of drug abusers are out there and are known as highly functioning addicts (or highly functioning alcoholics).
Addiction is a progressive disease and gradually gains more control over a person’s behavior. Addiction clinicians note that there is an “invisible line” that separates bingeing and recreational drug use from addictive use.
Along with the gradual physical and mental dependence that grows within the affected person, the addiction also causes the brain chemistry to gradually alter in a way that cause the individual to hide and protect the drug use, leading to secrecy and denial.
Identifying a Highly Functioning Addict
As we mentioned above, the insidious nature of addiction and the desire of the individual to continue the drug use often lead to secretive and defensive behavior. However, there are some clues that we’ve noticed.
First, some of the more obvious signs:
• Smelling of alcohol or possession of drug paraphernalia
• Arrest for a DUI or possession of a narcotic
• Preferring to attend events where drug or alcohol use are prevalent
• Stating they are going to avoid using or use a certain amount and then drinking or using more than originally planned.
Then there are some less obvious signs to keep on the lookout for, and an explanation of what these behaviors could indicate:
• Exhibiting a short temper and the propensity to ‘blow up’
o The person could be struggling with cravings or irritable from withdrawals
• Disappearing at inopportune times or breaking commitments
o The person’s bingeing could cause them to fail to follow through on their commitments
• Attending an inordinate amount of doctor visits
o The person could be ‘doctor shopping’ in an attempt to get more medications
• Taking an inordinate amount of ‘sick days’
o The person is recovering form bingeing on their drug of choice
• Appearing ill in the morning
o The person is hungover
Helping the Highly Functioning Addict (or Alcoholic)
Getting a highly functioning alcoholic or addict into treatment can be challenging. How easy is it for them to deflect any concern about their drug abuse if they hold a high level position in their company, or successfully run a busy family household? Additionally, their responsibilities may provide a great excuse for why they ‘can’t possibly take time off for treatment.’
Get Professional Help
Talking to an addiction specialist and perhaps getting the help of an interventionist can be the best way to plot a path to treatment for the person who needs it. The friends and family of a highly functioning alcoholic or drug addict may feel bewildered at what to do for their loved one, but trained counselors will know many well worn paths to getting that person to treatment.
In particular, the interventionist could be the key to treatment, because beyond planning the initial intervention (which may not lead to the person agreeing to seek treatment due to their highly functional status and denial), an interventionist is critical to getting the entire support system on board with setting up boundaries and enforcing those boundaries. Over time, the person who needs help might feel the pressure of losing the support of their friends and family and capitulate to entering treatment (or at least to “hearing more about it”).
Getting Help from Simple Recovery