Dealing with the Seemingly “High-Functioning” Addict

High-functioning addict

When I worked in telecommunications, my company didn’t notice there was a problem with their new sales manager until he insisted on leaving a few days early for a trade show in Kansas City. His early departure wasn’t so significant in itself. What was significant was that no one could reach him during those few days.

It took a while for his real situation to emerge. It turned out that when he left early for a trade show, it was so he could go on an alcoholic bender out of sight of anyone he knew. Then when other staff finally did arrive for a show, he began to rope co-workers into his heavy drinking patterns.

Before long, his behavior began to affect other staff’s production and even their personal lives. Undoubtedly, he had done the same thing at his prior telecom company (which was probably glad to get rid of him). Eventually this led to his departure at the new company as well.

When a person has a good job and a good track record at work, it can take quite a long time for their addictions to take them down. I didn’t know how long this fellow had been struggling with alcohol but it could easily have been decades. When he arrived at the point of losing multiple jobs in a short period, he was also arriving at the end of the line. A careful examination of his record at work and at home would have certainly revealed his situation much earlier if anyone had taken a close look.

How to Identify a High-Functioning Addict

Addict worker
  1. They make continual excuses for their poor behaviors, faulty work performance or mistakes. If they can find someone else to blame for mistakes or missed deadlines, they will. This can make for a hostile work environment for other people in their area.
  2. The person will frequently complain of headaches, stomach upsets or mystery ailments, especially in the morning. They may self-medicate with analgesics or other drugs to hide these problems caused by drinking or drugs. An opioid user may complain of constipation and use an unusual amount of laxatives.
  3. There may be missing money accompanied by secrecy about money matters. Alcohol is expensive. Illicit drugs or pills are very expensive. Sooner or later, their addiction is going to drain their bank account and they won’t want to admit it.
  4. They very often rope in family, co-workers or friends to cover for them. These people may know or have a good idea of what’s going on but because of loyalty or intimidation, they may not go public with their knowledge.
  5. They may begin to shed friends, especially friends who might confront them about their substance use. This often means they become more isolated the deeper their addiction becomes. Or they may begin to hang out with people who drink or use drugs like they do.

Why Do They Refuse Help?

Why is it so common for an offer of rehab or treatment to be rejected? Don't they know they need help? Maybe, maybe not.

  • Denial: Maybe at the moment the addict claims they don’t need rehab they truly believe it. But when push comes to shove, if they don’t actually take action to get sober on their own, you can safely assume they need professional help to achieve that goal as continued drinking results in an increasing number of problems.
  • Stigma: Many high-functioning addicts have good jobs and even some prestige. Some are running companies or holding down jobs with a lot of exposure to the public. The stigma of admitting they are an addict can be severe. Even though there have certainly been many well-respected people who have gone public and sought treatment for their problems, stigma keeps many people from taking that first step: Admitting they have a problem.
  • Guilt: Every person who damages themselves by drinking or using drugs enough to become addicted suffers from guilt. They are guilty about the harm they’ve done to themselves and the money they spent. They may have neglected or abused their families and skated through work assignments. They undoubtedly have lied repeatedly about where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing. It’s hard for any well-meaning person to admit their own guilt. If you count on this guilt being there, it will help you understand their reactions.

Recriminations, Fault-Finding and Guilt Trips

What can you expect when you sit down with a high-functioning addict to point out their behavior? In most cases, this person is going to turn things around so you are at fault. They will accuse you of all kinds of wrong-doing. This is true if you are the spouse, co-worker, management, human resources staff or friend.

What might they say?

  • You don’t know the kind of stress I’m under.
  • It’s your fault for not supporting me.
  • Yes, I drink (or use a few drugs) but I have it under control, can’t you see that?
  • Why don’t you look at your behavior? You drink, too!
  • I can quit whenever I choose. I just do this to cope.
  • I have to do this because of your actions.
  • My boss hates me and this is the only way I can stay on the job.

And hundreds of other similar statements. These responses and many others like them are normally delivered with indignation, anger and even intimidation. It’s all part of the mindset of addiction. If this person can manipulate you into leaving them alone, they can keep using their substances of choice.

They’re also likely to blame someone else for their substance abuse. A boss who didn’t promote them, someone who failed to hire them for a good job, not getting into the college they wanted, whatever. They build up the blame so they don’t have to feel the shame.

If you expect statements like the above plus the anger, manipulation and fault-finding, you have a better chance to keep from being intimidated by the addict. So expect them. It may just be what you have to go through so you can get this person into rehab.

Where Can “High-Functioning” Addicts Be Found?

depressed restaurant cook

In all social, cultural and economic strata. Addiction knows no bounds. I’ve known moms with teenaged kids, successful rock musicians, restaurant owners and laborers to be functional addicts. Well, they were until they couldn’t be functional anymore.

Addiction is accompanied by a deterioration of many human faculties. This deterioration ultimately means the end of functional and the beginning of non-functional. These and many other abilities will begin to dwindle:

  • Clear thinking or decision-making
  • Completing personal or work tasks
  • Keeping to a schedule
  • Creativity
  • Connection to other people
  • Care for one’s own health and appearance
  • Management of one’s money
  • Proper care for spouse and children

We often hear about successful performers and artists who nearly or completely destroy their careers because of their substance abuse. Elton John described his addiction this way:

“I always said cocaine was the drug that made me open up. I could talk to people. But then it became the drug that closed me down, because the last two weeks of my use of cocaine I spent in a room in London, using it and not coming out.”

Why didn’t he accept help? He said:

“When you take a drug and you take a drink and you mix those two together, you think you’re invincible.

Eric Clapton survived a long period using alcohol, cocaine and heroin. In his biography, he estimated that he spent $16,000 a week on heroin. Why didn’t he accept help? He said:

“The thing about that kind of addiction... is that I always thought, 'I'm handling this. I can handle it. I can stop anytime. I just don't want to stop right now.’”

Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died in New York City in 2014 from mixed drug toxicity. The coroner found heroin, cocaine, benzodiazepines and amphetamine in his body. Repeated trips to rehab failed to save him. He managed to stay off the deadliest of drugs while involved in filming but suffered his fatal overdose while on a break from shooting The Hunger Games.

Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford repeatedly denied his addiction. In one interview, he said, “If I’m an addict, I could not show up to work every single day.” In 2014, however, he finally confessed to a long-term addiction to drugs and alcohol. He managed to hold onto the position of Mayor despite multiple videos being released that showed him drunk or smoking crack cocaine.

Professionals and performers have staff around who can protect them from destroying their careers—up to a point. But these staff are often enablers, helping their employer acquire drugs or covering up the signs of their addiction.

It really doesn’t matter who the functional addict is or what their profession is. An addicted person’s life will eventually show the strain of the toxicity of the drugs and the dishonest lifestyle. The moment a person shows that they truly can’t stop on their own, the right thing to do is get them to rehab as instantly as possible. It may be the only thing that saves their life.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP LCDC


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.