The stereotype of individuals with drug and alcohol addictions as being total wrecks leaves a huge gap in how we look for signs of problems and try to treat them. High-functioning addicts are people who defy that social construct. These individuals are able to deal with a number of life’s challenges while maintaining an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. This ability to keep up normal appearances can make them an especially difficult group to assist because it’s not often readily apparent that they even have a problem. Over time, however, lapses in judgment and performance can lead to outward signs that these types of substance users are dealing with an addiction issue.
Signs of addiction often show up in relation to job performance. A large number of high-functioning addicts work in jobs that pay relatively well, including the medical professions. Professionals in these types of work environments are often tasked with important functions that require complete focus and an ability to remain calm under pressure. Despite their ability to appear outwardly “normal,” the stress of these positions can fuel their addictions further and lead them to start showing signs that they have a problem.
Regardless of what one does for a living, addiction can become a serious issue for anyone who loses control of their drug or alcohol use. The task of those around them is to learn the subtle signs that may signal addiction. The following guide provides a look at some of the signs that a friend or loved one may be a high-functioning addict.
One of the more obvious giveaways that someone is engaged in drug or alcohol misuse is related to the company they choose to keep. Some of this is simply that people who are into things share their enthusiasms with like-minded folks, but some of it is also convenience. Friends who are plugged into a particular lifestyle can help them make connections, which is especially useful when trying to acquire illicit drugs.
If you see that someone is hanging out with more than one person who uses drugs or drinks, you should consider that as a potential sign. However, just because someone is friends with a drug or alcohol user, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are using themselves. If this is your only indication that they may be using drugs, you should probably wait until you see other signs before confronting them.
Using Functionality as a Defense
One particularly challenging issue for those trying to encourage a high-functioning substance user to seek treatment is that these people often use their functionality as evidence that they don’t need help. For such an individual, the fact that their drinking doesn’t lead to work disruptions, for example, is evidence that they’re not in trouble. Some may even show pride in the fact that they are able to keep up with responsibilities while using drugs or alcohol. They may also see their drug or alcohol use as a reward for completing a challenging project or getting through a difficult week of school or work.
Periodically Missing Days of Work
Despite one’s ability to keep up with responsibilities most of the time, drug and alcohol use rarely comes without a price. The person who sees themselves as a weekend warrior, for example, may occasionally need to call in on a Monday in order to recuperate from an especially hard weekend of using drugs and/or alcohol. This kind of behavior often becomes an open secret in workplaces, and it’s even common for co-workers to sometimes joke about it.
The problem is that declining individual health from regular use of controlled substances is close to impossible to avoid. These health effects, ranging from hangovers for alcohol drinkers to brain damage for opioid users, ultimately present themselves in the form of more and more sick days being taken off over the course of a year.
Noticeable Mood Shifts or Cognitive Lapses
Brain changes caused by drug and/or alcohol use can often lead to changes in mood and mental function regardless of how well a high-functioning user tries to mask their addictive behavior. You may see evidence of:
- Declining cognitive abilities
- Stumbling or other clumsy movements
- Outbursts of anger for small offenses or when completely unprovoked
There’s also a good chance that someone who is using during work or family hours may experience positive mood swings from getting a fix. Depending on their drug of choice, you might also see evidence of energy coming from out of nowhere. Unfortunately, it may be hard for you to identify why the person you’re concerned about is displaying drastic mood swings, whether positive or negative, on a regular basis. If these emotional changes are occurring too often, it’s probably time to confront them about what is going on.
Going Too Far
A large percentage of the population engages in some degree of alcohol or even drug use at some point in their lives. Those without addictive tendencies, however, can often engage in this type of behavior without falling into the trap of repeated heavy use. If a friend of yours seems to always end up getting one more drink and regretting it, that can be a sign of a high-functioning addiction. In isolation, a dumb choice is a dumb choice. When it becomes even a small pattern, however, you should start looking out for other signs of potential trouble related to substance abuse.
Having Issues With Family Members
The people who live closest to us are often the ones who also have the best look at what we’re trying to hide. Parents, spouses, and kids frequently encounter the small tells of a high-functioning addict in action. This can include the little moments when they’re running a little behind the clock or getting home late on the weekend.
Conflicts often arise, especially if family members are starting to act out in ways they haven’t before. Outbursts of anger and declining patience can be normal in times of stress, but if they are common occurrences, family members may want to confront their loved one to get to the root of the problem.
Losing Interest in Things One Once Enjoyed
A sudden loss of interest in one’s hobbies is often a sign that someone is devoting too much time to something else. In the case of a high-functioning addict, this may mean deciding to invest more effort in seeking a fix and less time in keeping up with other interests. This class of substance abusers, however, often includes busy people, and they will lean on that to excuse their behaviors. No one, though, should be so busy that they can no longer do any of the things they once loved.
Declining interest is frequently more than just a time allocation issue. The brain chemical dopamine plays a key role in how people seek rewards. By acquiring a sense of reward from drug or alcohol use, a person may simply not need their hobbies anymore in order to feel rewarded for their pursuits.
Unkempt or Odd Appearance
Most healthy people invest a degree of effort in keeping themselves presentable for others. When drugs or alcohol begin to take control of a high-functioning substance user, however, they may start to neglect their personal hygiene. You may see subtle indications such as:
- Messy hair
- Unwashed clothes
- Wearing the same outfit two or more days in a row
People also make changes to their appearance in order to mask drug use. In extreme cases, such as IV drug use, they may start wearing long sleeves even during warmer times of the year in order to hide track marks. Folks using substances that cause red eyes, including alcohol and cocaine, may start wearing sunglasses or overusing products such as Visine to hide signs of their addiction.
Conflicts With Friends
Investing effort in maintaining friendships is something that most healthy adults do. Problems with friends can emerge for a variety of reasons. A high-functioning addict, however, will often experience relationship issues that are directly connected to their substance use. They might, for example, ask around to borrow money for drugs. Continued drug use may lead them to ask for cash more frequently, which can eventually place heavy strains on any relationship.
Developing new friendships with people who use drugs may also strain prior friendships. Old friends may not approve of the new companions, and they may even end up being completely replaced by them. In some cases, someone who begins using drugs and/or alcohol more regularly may replace their former friends with an entirely new peer group comprising other users.
The rewiring of the human brain during drug use can lead to changes in how a person perceives risks. In fact, research has shown that drug and alcohol use can lead a person to engage in risky activities. You may notice that a student, co-worker, friend, or family member suddenly drives more recklessly, engages in risky sexual practices, or makes unwise financial choices. In professional environments, they may choose aggressive paths or solutions they would have never even considered in the past.
Food consumption and drug use often operate on the same pathways in the human brain. This means that the introduction of drugs may lead to weight shifts. This is especially the case with substances such as opioids, which can also change the way the digestive tract responds to food. In some cases, these changes can make eating unappealing. Of course, if a person isn’t eating regularly, they’ll likely begin to lose weight. Avoiding food can also lead to other health issues related to malnutrition and continued drug and/or alcohol use.
Getting help for someone who is a high-functioning addict can sometimes lead you down a long and difficult road. There’s a chance that a specific event, such as an arrest for a crime, may enable a court to place the person into a treatment program. In most cases, however, it’s a friend or family member who ultimately confronts a substance user with their concerns. Eventually getting the person the help they need may take a fair amount of both time and patience.
If you’re dealing with an individual’s problems in an environment where others may be endangered by their conduct, the first order of business is to pull them out of their position. This should be taken as an opportunity to present any concerns to the substance user in a reasoned manner. Anyone who has a personal connection may be brought in during this time to discuss the issues that need to be addressed.
For those who’ve recognized their high-functioning addictive behaviors on their own, it’s important to know that treatment options are available. Bear in mind that there are no magic fixes, however. Even in cases in which people have strong support networks around them, relapses can and do occur. The critical thing is to stay focused on long-term goals. Keep recovery and better living as your ultimate objective regardless of how much time it takes to get there. Working within a structured program, you can begin to address addictive behaviors as well as the core issues that caused you to use in the first place. From there, you can continue on the path to recovery and a healthier life.