High-Functioning Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does

Myths about high functioning addicts

We’ve all read headlines of high-powered executives, entertainers and politicians going to rehab for a drug or alcohol problem. While it’s often surprising, the fact is that addiction affects people from all walks of life, regardless of age, gender or occupation. It doesn’t matter how impressive your resume is — substance abuse can turn your life upside.

Despite this, there’s a common misconception that those who are successful in their careers can’t be addicts, or their problem must not be that bad. That’s because when we think of addiction, a corner office and well-paying job doesn’t fit into the equation. But these types of addicts do exist, and they’re experts at compartmentalizing their behavior. Known as “high-functioning addicts,” people like this can hide their drug or alcohol use for a while and keep up appearances, but things are slowly crumbling. Just because someone can go about their day or hold down a job while using doesn’t mean their life isn’t being affected.

Here’s what you need to know about the myth of the high-functioning addict.

Behind the Curtain

High-functioning addicts are good at maintaining a flawless public facade. Outwardly, they can seem polished, dedicated and successful, even if they’re under the influence. At work, projects and tasks are still being completed, while the home might look clean and spotless. However, what friends and co-workers don’t see are the late nights spent catching up on missed emails or the frantic housework after a bender. For them, the same day-to-day tasks that come easily for a sober person become more difficult once addiction takes over, but they work hard to make sure it doesn’t look that way. They don’t want you to see the cracks forming. However, the mask begins to slip as they lose control, putting themselves, their companies and their well-being at greater risk of injury or harm.

Surviving vs. Thriving

While high-functioning addicts might seem to have it all, in reality, they’re barely getting by, mentally and emotionally. They might have turned to drugs or alcohol to cope with stress, boredom or trauma, but the immediate relief keeps them coming back for more. Eventually, they get hooked on a particular substance and start using just to get through the day. At this point, getting high or drinking is more about survival than anything else.

When someone’s in survival mode, they’re living a white-knuckle existence and just going through the motions. They choose the path of least resistance and carry on without much joy or purpose. Any growth stagnates, and they feel “stuck.” While drugs and alcohol are often responsible for this, they’re also used to cope with it, so it’s a hard cycle to break.

Thriving, on the other hand, means that you’re flourishing. Instead of being on autopilot, you’re in tune with yourself and others and feel present in the moment. You’re able to adapt to change or adversity and confront your issues head-on. When you’re thriving, you’re also able to do things that challenge you and work toward your personal or professional goals.

Don’t let high-functioning addicts fool you. Anyone using drugs or alcohol as a crutch is surviving, not thriving. Some people just hide it better than others.

Toxic Work Environments

Late nights at the office don’t always equal success. Sometimes, the workplace can enable an addict’s behavior just as much as their friends or family might. It’s not uncommon for employers to reward accomplishments with happy hour or take new hires out drinking as a rite of passage. While not an issue for most people, these policies can reinforce or even encourage the habits of someone with a substance abuse problem. And with high-functioning addicts, it isn’t always easy to tell who might be at risk.

We’d like to think that workplace enabling is unintentional, but many employers are willing to look the other way as long as drug or alcohol use doesn’t impact the bottom line. In some cases, bosses and co-workers even encourage taking stimulants such as cocaine, methamphetamine or Adderall to boost productivity. This might help explain why individuals with high-profile or demanding careers experience higher rates of addiction and alcoholism compared to the general population.

Regardless of the reason, an employee’s health, wellness and job performance will slowly decline when substance abuse is enabled or even accepted in the workplace. That’s why it’s important to have policies that discourage this behavior and provide a clear path for getting help when it’s needed.

Sounding the Alarm Bell

High-functioning addicts can maintain a career for months or even years while using, despite other areas of their life suffering in the meantime. Drug and alcohol use has a profound effect on their health, thinking, relationships, behavior and finances, but the office may be one of the last places where they still feel in control. There, they can convince themselves that “it’s not that bad.” The best thing to do for someone in this position is to recognize the warning signs of addiction, so you’ll know when to take action. These include:

  • Financial or legal problems
  • Increased isolation from friends, family and co-workers
  • Changes in physical appearance
  • Drug paraphernalia (pill bottles, straws, needles, etc.)
  • Strained relationships
  • Declining health
  • Frequent mood swings or anger problems
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Unexplained absences from work
  • Excessive tiredness or wakefulness
  • Mental health concerns
  • Lying or deceitful behavior
  • Ignoring other responsibilities to get high or drunk

These signs might not be as obvious in a high-functioning addict, but no one is immune to the long-term effects of addiction. By learning to recognize them, you’ll be better equipped to help yourself or a loved one before it’s too late. Even for professionals that seem to have it all, treatment is the best option for getting sober.

The Growing Impact of Addiction

Maybe you are a high-functioning addict wondering whether you should go to rehab, or you’re worried about a friend, family member or co-worker who needs help. In either case, it’s helpful to understand the consequences of putting off treatment.

Poor Job Performance

Drugs or alcohol won’t help you function better at work, no matter your job. Even high-functioning addicts eventually start to slip, letting their productivity and professional relationships decline to maintain their habit. You may miss important deadlines, show up late or call in sick because you were too high or hungover to function. Over time, you’ll be seen as unreliable or untrustworthy, leaving your professional reputation in shatters.

Irreparable Harm

Showing up high or drunk can endanger others, especially if you’re a police officer, surgeon, first responder or another professional where split-second decisions matter. Being impaired is also dangerous if you work around hazards like chemicals, machinery, kitchen appliances, electricity or biological waste. In these cases, making a mistake can cost you far more than just your job or reputation.

Financial or Legal Troubles

Addiction is risky for employees and their bosses. Endangering others by being intoxicated can leave both of you on the hook for damages, while other legal problems can negatively impact an employer’s brand or reputation. Both jeopardize your future with the company. Brushes with the law can also make it hard to keep your personal and professional lives separate and interfere with your ability to perform well at work. Financial issues caused by addiction or legal proceedings can have a similar effect on your overall productivity.

Declining Health & Wellness

It’s no surprise that heavy drinking and drug use is bad for you, but some of the short and long-term effects might surprise you. Addiction and alcoholism can increase your risk of illness or injury, alter your brain chemistry, harm your mental health and lead to difficulties with impulse control, decision-making and memory. It can also impact your relationships and cause emotional instability. These effects don’t just affect your career — they have serious ramifications in your personal life, too.

Compounding Effects

Addiction is chronic, progressive disease, so things usually get worse the longer it goes untreated. Your health will continue to deteriorate and the consequences will start adding up. As dependency grows, it also becomes harder to get sober, but it’s still possible with the right support. Even for high-functioning addicts, the first step is admitting you have a problem.

Benefits of Getting Help

Addiction is incompatible with a healthy, productive lifestyle, both personally and professionally. High-functioning addicts can keep it together for a while, but the effects of drug or alcohol abuse eventually take a toll. Rehab can minimize the damage and help you or a loved one get back on track. It might seem impossible to fit recovery into a busy schedule, but treatment options for professionals are now more flexible than ever.

At Choice House, high-functioning addicts can continue working and managing daily responsibilities while enrolled in our intensive outpatient program (IOP) for professionals. Designed to meet their unique needs without sacrificing quality of care, our IOP provides the structure and support needed to heal from addiction or alcoholism. Programming takes place in the evenings, so clients don’t have to commit to an inpatient stay to address their problems. Recovery is never easy, but the benefits of renewed health, hope and happiness will last a lifetime and lead to more personal and professional success.

High-functioning addicts can hide their problems with drugs or alcohol until they can’t. Eventually, it affects their career, health, relationships and more. In fact, there’s nothing “high functioning” about someone struggling with substance abuse, no matter how well they keep up appearances. If this sounds like you, Choice House can help you get sober with a flexible IOP designed just for professionals. To learn more about our recovery solutions in Boulder, Colorado, contact or call us today at 303-578-4975.