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Signs of a High-Functioning Drug Addict

The term “high-functioning addict” is associated with people who abuse drugs or alcohol but do not appear to suffer in their lives.

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Although the term high-functioning addict insinuates that someone can abuse drugs or alcohol while balancing work or personal responsibilities, this is simply not true.

People who appear to be high-functioning may be hiding serious problems with alcohol or drugs, including prescription medications, which they take to enhance their performance or relax from stressful situations. They do not need to hit “rock bottom” before they experience suffering, and they can get help before the worst happens.

What Is a High-Functioning Addict?

The term high-functioning addict is slightly controversial. Some experts say that most people with addiction can cope with issues like workplace stress. People like this may be able to handle life because they have a strong support system. They are functional, but they are still struggling.

Understanding what the term can mean could help you understand that addictions exist on a spectrum. Here’s what we know about people typically described as high-functioning:

  • You might struggle to moderate how much you drink but only after you get home from work.
  • You might take medication to ease your back pain, but you find that you need more of it throughout the day when you do not feel physical pain.
  • The idea of a family event is stressful and prompts you to take a quick hit, but you make your way through the event feeling good.

These are all signs you might be a high-functioning addict. This is someone who meets the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) but is not struggling to meet professional or personal obligations.

The experience of being “high-functioning” is common among people struggling with a substance use disorder (SUD). No one hits “rock bottom” immediately, and in fact, many people who struggle with addiction start with what appears to be normal recreational use. They may feel that a joint, a pill, or a shot of liquor can ease stress and help them meet their obligations better, almost as though substance abuse enhances their performance in their daily lives.

Unfortunately, chemical changes in the brain lead to more frequent cravings, while a physical tolerance means you must take more of the drug to get the original effects. This escalating abuse means someone who appears high-functioning will soon be unable to function.

Signs & Symptoms of  High-Functioning Addiction

The signs and symptoms of high-functioning addicts are very similar to those seen in people with traditional addiction. However, these people may be very good at hiding their distress. They’re still struggling, but you may not see overt evidence of it.

Common signs associated with high-function addiction include the following:

  1. Unexplained illnesses: They may complain about headaches, nausea, or fatigue. They may miss work on Mondays or Fridays (to either start or recover from a binge).
  2. Plenty of excuses: They may have statements ready to deploy when they make mistakes, miss work, or shed obligations. Someone else may always be to blame for the problems they experience.
  3. Financial difficulties: They may stop eating out for lunch, downgrade to an apartment, or otherwise make adjustments to their lives to support the expenses associated with addiction.
  4. Overconsumption: For many people, alcohol and drug use are communal activities. Someone with high-functioning addiction may consume much more than others in these settings.
  5. Strange behavior: The person may display unexplained personality changes or mood swings.
  6. Physical shifts: People may have bloodshot eyes, odd-looking pupils, or impaired coordination. They may experience weight loss, and they may smell like drugs or alcohol.

High-functioning addicts may have very mild signs that are easy for outsiders to ignore or explain away. They may also be quick to offer excuses when confronted about the changes outsiders see.

High-Stress Jobs & High-Functioning Addicts

One of the biggest problems with the term high-functioning is that, for too many people, it refers only to their jobs. While people struggling with addiction lose friends, party too hard, ignore their family, or skip out on personal responsibilities, they work harder than ever at their jobs to appear competent. They may enjoy their jobs, but they may also work too hard to prove that they are not suffering — that taking drugs makes them better at work or that it helps them relax after a stressful day.

Many high-pressure jobs are associated with high rates of substance abuse and addiction. For some, seeking out this type of work gives them access to drugs that lead to abuse. For others, substance abuse is associated with higher rates of stress and mental health disorders from working too hard.

Here are the jobs most associated with drug or alcohol abuse and the rates at which people struggle with addiction in those positions:

  • 19% of construction trades or extraction workers
  • 6% of service occupations
  • 9% of transportation and material moving workers
  • 4% of sales
  • 13% of entertainment, media, sports, and communications
  • 11% of executive, financial, and managerial workers
  • 6% of office and administration workers

Consequences of High-Functioning Addiction

The most predictable consequence of untreated high-functioning addiction is worsening substance abuse. Without treatment, people will keep using drugs and alcohol. The consequences they face can grow more and more severe.

Physical consequences of addiction can vary by substances used, but common problems include the following:

  • Lung disease
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Cancer
  • Overdose and death
  • Infections like HIV and hepatitis C

Untreated addictions can also lead to severe psychological and social distress. Hiding substance use takes its toll on a person’s well-being, and refusing to discuss something so important can mean keeping everyone at a distance. Treatment can help to heal these issues.

How to Help a High-Functioning Addict

Someone with high-functioning addiction needs help, but they may not know it yet. You could be the person that offers key support at the right time.

Here’s what to do when you suspect someone has high-functioning addiction:

  1. Do your homework. Find out more about the drugs the person often uses. Learn more about their short-term and long-term impact.
  2. Plan for conversation. Find a time when the person is rarely intoxicated, and identify a place that’s private and quiet.
  3. Open with care. Tell the person why you are concerned, and explain that you care and want to help.
  4. Listen carefully. Don’t lecture the person. Allow for a two-way conversation. Respect where the person is in the recovery process.
  5. Suggest changes. If the person is open to treatment, explain how programs typically work and why it’s a smart idea to enroll.

Know that your first conversation may not result in a dramatic change. Some high-functioning addicts need time to think about their behavior and what might need to shift. However, your conversation could help them understand that change is possible.

Updated January 22, 2024
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  2. “High-Functioning Addicts”: Intervening Before Trouble Hits. (January 2014). CMAJ.
  3. DSM-5 Criteria for Addiction Simplified. (August 2020). Addiction Policy Forum.
  4. DSM-5 Criteria for Diagnosis of Opioid Use Disorder. (2013). American Psychiatric Association.
  5. Substance Use Disorders by Occupation. National Safety Council (NSC).
  6. What Is Rehabilitation? An Empirical Investigation Leading to an Evidence-Based Description. (February 2020). Clinical Rehabilitation.
  7. High-Functioning Addicts: Intervening Before Trouble Hits. (January 2014). CAMJ.
  8. What Are the DSM-5 Criteria for Alcohol Use Disorder? (March 2020). Medscape.
  9. Warning Signs of Drug Use. Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
  10. How to Talk to a Family Member or Friend About Their Drug or Alcohol Use. (February 2023). Government of Canada
  11. Addiction and Health. (July 2020). National Institute on Drug Abuse.
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