The Dysfunction of High-Functioning Addicts

By Meghan Vivo

You drink a lot or use drugs more than you probably should, but you’ve managed to keep your job, stay out of jail and fulfill your family responsibilities. So there’s no problem, right?

This is the faulty logic of the high-functioning addict – a person who is able to maintain their career, home, family life and friendships, while drinking or using drugs excessively.

Denial: The Primary Obstacle to Treatment

A significant concern with being a high-functioning alcoholic or addict is that these individuals have as serious a disease as the more easily recognizable “skid row” addicts, but have never received a diagnosis. Thus, they have never sought or received much needed addiction treatment.

Denial is the main reason that many high-functioning addicts avoid drug treatment. Because they can maintain some semblance of normalcy in their lives, they believe they are in the “early” stages of addiction, if they admit to having a problem at all, and that they can fight it if and when they so desire.

If told they have a drinking problem or drug addiction, most high-functioning addicts would laugh, as would their families and friends. They would simply point to their impressive salary, big name, strong reputation or wall of awards and honors and tell you it’s “those other people” who have a problem.

Convincing a High-Functioning Addict to Enter Drug Treatment

Some high-functioning addicts can maintain the façade of functionality for years, but eventually, their lives will begin to crumble. While some high-functioning addicts seek treatment after years of suffering, others experience a precipitating event that brings their addiction to the attention of others and puts them in a position where they can’t ignore their problem anymore.

“It’s only a matter of time until the high-functioning addict begins to feel the consequences of their drinking or drug use,” said Michael Hurst, the marketing coordinator at Sober Living by the Sea, a network of addiction treatment centers in Southern California. “Their spouse may leave, or they may lose their job, develop serious health conditions or get arrested for driving under the influence. Our hope is that they or their loved ones realize the need for treatment before they lose everything.”

Being a high-functioning alcoholic or addict is every bit as dangerous as being a lower functioning addict, possibly even more so because the signs of trouble are easier to miss and treatment is frequently delayed. In many cases, it takes losing everything or one eye-opening – and often life-threatening – event to show the individual how desperately they need addiction treatment.

Hurst’s advice to family, friends and coworkers who suspect that someone they care about is a high-functioning alcoholic or addict is to stage an intervention before it’s too late. Getting a professional interventionist or addictions counselor involved is critical because high-functioning addicts will likely deny the need for treatment since they have been able to function in the past.

“You don’t have to wait until some tragic accident occurs,” Hurst advised. “Many high-functioning addicts can acknowledge their inability to control their drinking or drug use and enter treatment before their luck runs out.”

Executive Rehab: An Ideal Place for High-Functioning Addicts

Executive rehab programs are an ideal choice for high-functioning addicts in need of drug treatment. The Landing, an exclusive men-only addiction treatment center in Newport Beach, California (a member of the Sober Living by the Sea network of drug treatment programs), is well-known for its ability to persuade addicts who are stuck in denial to take an honest look at where their lives are headed.

Residents at The Landing participate in specialized groups that focus on men’s issues, including anger management, relapse prevention and spirituality. They also learn how addiction affects their interpersonal and professional relationships and enjoy esteem-building activities, such as tai chi, surfing, sailing and group sports. Through the program’s holistic approach to addiction recovery, men discover the countless benefits of a life of sobriety.

“The men and women in treatment with us become invested in their own recovery because the staff shows them that living sober is better than they ever could’ve imagined,” said Hurst.