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The Myth of the High-Functioning Addict

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Regardless of the extent, addiction is a problematic force in the lives of the addicted and their social networks. Some will excuse or minimize their own behavior or the behavior of others by stating that the problem is not that serious because they’re still able to perform their daily duties, e.g., go to work.

Someone who is still performing at sufficient level while addicted to one or more drugs is labeled a “high-functioning addict.” The media and popular culture have numerous images of the high-functioning addict. Though these characters might make for good comic relief or to set the stage for a dramatic moment, they rarely depict the serious nature of addiction. Additionally, the real life examples of high-functioning addicts are mentioned by the news media, but the coverage is not thorough and ongoing.

This leads some to wonder if high-functioning addicts are a myth constructed in the media or are an everyday reality. Can someone really be a high-functioning addict? Before that question can be answered, it’s important to take a serious look at the nature of addiction and the typical changes that eventually come as an individual’s addiction progresses.

Characteristics of the Nonfunctioning Addict

Addiction is a long-lasting condition that is marked by the impulsive and reckless desire to acquire and use substances. As the addiction develops, the addict will engage in behaviors that are increasingly risky and dangerous to themselves or others in order to continue use. There will be little concern for potential negative outcomes. The focus on using will override other values and priorities.

The depth of the addiction will be shown through the different aspects of someone’s functioning. They will show major deficits in areas like:

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  • Physical health – Increased physical health complaints ranging from mild and short-term to serious and enduring conditions are common.
  • Mental health – New or worsening mental health symptoms like depression, anxiety, or psychotic symptoms, both during and following intoxication, may appear.
  • Social relationships – Increased conflict will present with established supports as new peer groups associated with substance use develop. Many addicts experience extended periods of loneliness and isolation.
  • Employment – Work performance and attendance decline, with addiction making continued employment challenging.
  • Financial – Money set aside to pay bills or kept in saving may be spent on substances leading to debt.
  • Legal issues – Substance use may begin legally but frequently ends with some type of illegal activity that threatens the freedom of the addict.

Other effects of progressing addiction will be more challenging to identify. For example, over time, substance use changes the structure and functioning of the brain in predictable ways. These changes illustrate the progressive nature of this condition. If you or someone you love is abusing drugs, learn how to get help now.

Characteristics of the High-Functioning Addict

The high-functioning addict will be represented by a person that displays limited functional impairment. They will be able to perform well at work, home, and school with typical conflicts and financial challenges. The high-functioning addict may convince themselves or others that their substance use is not problematic. They will often cite their ability to complete required tasks while dismissing their limitations. They may provide examples of others that use greater quantities or with higher frequencies than themselves to maintain this image.

business woman functioning well despite addiction

The National Institutes of Health points to five separate subtypes of alcoholism with the functional subtype comprising about a fifth of the total population of alcoholics, associated with characteristics including:

  • High level of education.
  • Stable job.
  • Supportive family.
  • Commonly middle-aged.
  • Family history of addiction (about 30% of addicts in this category).
  • History of major depression (about 25% of addicts in this category).

Distinguishing Factors

If high-functioning addicts truly exist, what separates them from the nonfunctioning addict? A relevant factor might be time. As addiction continues and progresses, the internal ability to function or the level of support from external sources will diminish. Many addicts will function relatively well for a time, but there is no indication someone can maintain a functional addiction indefinitely. Today’s high functioning addict can be tomorrow’s nonfunctioning addict.

The factors that separate the functioning addict from the nonfunctioning addict include:

  • Denial.
  • Family supports.
  • Employment.
  • Legal issues.


Denial is a powerful force in the life of a high-functioning addict. If someone is not willing or able to admit the power of addiction in their life, they may convince themselves that their problem is manageable. They will look for justification to perpetuate their denial with statements like:

  • I don’t drink or use drugs every day.
  • I only (smoke, snort, drink). I would never use needles.
  • Nothing bad has ever happened from my use.
  • I work hard and I play hard.

When addicts are in denial, they will be less interested in taking responsibility for their own actions, poor decisions, and unwanted feelings. Instead, they will blame others for the frustrations. These users may be able to convince their loved ones to deny or ignore the severity of the addiction as well.

This denial only leads to short-term, superficial benefit. With time and increased use, it cannot be maintained.

Family Supports

Family and social supports can play another role in maintaining the addict’s status as high-functioning through enabling. Enabling occurs when someone close to the addicted person such as a spouse or family member begins to take on responsibility for the addict. Enabling can be intentional or unintentional.

mother comforting addict daughter

An enabler will:

  • Absorb the consequences that the addict would experience.
  • Make excuses and lie to cover up the addict’s behavior.
  • Accept blame for the addict’s actions.
  • Experience emotional distress and frustration as a result of taking too much responsibility for the addict’s behavior.

With the enabler taking on more responsibility for the behavior of their loved one, the addicted person is free to continue their lifestyle with minimal unwanted effects. If a poor outcome is experienced, the addict will be able to blame the enabler without accepting any responsibility. This helps perpetuate denial.

Some families may have more than one enabler – in fact, this is often the case. There may be multiple people that fulfill the short-term needs of their addicted loved one without regard to the long-term risks.


Having steady employment encourages people to believe they are not really addicted. They may think, “If I was addicted, there’s no way I could hold down a job, so I must be fine.”

In many cases, the functioning addict can identify the value of the job, which makes it one of the last areas to suffer. Jobs help to maintain:

  • Financial stability to support use.
  • Structure and consistency in the day.
  • A sense of identity removed from addiction.
  • Separation from home to reduce suspicions of family and friends.

It’s important to understand that enablers can exist in the workplace as well as at home. Bosses or coworkers may inadvertently enable addicted employees by picking up their slack, extending deadlines, and giving multiple “second chances.”

Legal Issues

Addiction is highly associated with illegal activity. Some people, though, can use for extended periods without encountering any problems with the law. If someone has never been pulled over for driving under the influence, possession of drugs, or attempting to purchase a substance, they may believe they have done nothing wrong.

Meanwhile, these people may have been forging prescriptions, drunk driving, or using illegal substances without thinking it is a problem. The high-functioning addict may believe that it is only illegal if you get caught. In most cases, the addict will in time get caught. It is extremely difficult to abuse drugs without eventually meeting with some kind of legal penalty.

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Myth vs. Reality

While it is possible to be a functioning addict, the fact of the matter is that addiction will take a toll in at least some areas. Functioning optimally while addicted is arguably impossible. Eventually, as the addiction gets more and more problematic, priorities will rearrange and drug use will come into the forefront, knocking everything else to the background.

Like any other serious disease that starts off with either no symptoms or only slightly pesky ones, drug use and addiction can seem less than threatening for a while but typically grows well beyond the addict’s control.

Find the Help You Need

Whether the person is high-functioning, low-functioning, or nonfunctioning, addiction can be addressed at any time, and treatment can be effective for ending use and breaking the façade of the “high-functioning addict.”

If you are interested in learning more about treatment options for you or a loved one, call . We can help you find the care you need to find recovery and function at the highest possible level.

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Eric Patterson, MSCP, NCC, LPC, is a professional counselor who has been working for over a decade to help children, adolescents, and adults in western Pennsylvania reach their goals and improve their well-being.

Along the way, Eric worked as a collaborating investigator for the field trials of the DSM-5 and completed an agreement to provide mental health treatment to underserved communities with the National Health Service Corp.

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