Why do D&M focus on ‘high functioning’ addicts?

By D&M Consultants

Who is a high functioning addict?

High functioning addicts are people struggling with an addiction (a behaviour or a substance) and who haven’t lost everything. In other words, they have not hit a ‘rock bottom’. Most of the time they still have their career, home, social life and family.

On the outside, they seem to be doing well. The high functioning addict believes they are doing a great job at hiding their addiction from the world. At this point in their journey, there have not been enough negative consequences for them to even consider treatment.

Ironically, this group are the last to lose their career. High functioning addicts need a job, in fact, often they are workaholics. Their work gives them money, status, fuels their need for self-worth and offers them the external markers of being ‘ok’.

To solely consider employment as an indicator for whether someone is functioning or not, is limited. As discussed here the impact of addiction on families and children is likely a more realistic indication of the level of dysfunction in a person’s life.

What is addiction?

So, what is addiction? In recent decades there have been many different words and concepts attached to problematic substance use, for example, ‘dependence’, ‘abuse’, ‘misuse’ and most recently ‘disorder’, see our blog about the language of addiction here.

At its simplest, an ‘addiction’ is the compulsive use of a mood- or mind-altering substance (including some behaviours), despite negative consequences. And here’s the rub, because of the stereotypes, myths and misconceptions about addiction and who the typical addict is, a person who still has a job, family and social network may not see the extent to which their life is being impacted by their addictive behaviour.

Sure, they may have the externals in place but what is happening on the inside? The self-loathing, the aching despair and loneliness, the sense of impending doom they are living with each day is only relieved by their addictive use of substances or other behaviour.

What keeps a high functioning addict stuck?

High functioning addicts may be able to control their using for a time. They may constrain their drinking during the work week only to binge on the weekends. Or they may be able to participate in ‘dry July’. They may become focused on a sport or achievement like training for a marathon and control their substance use for that period.

This constraint is usually followed by a binge or at the very least a return to the old pattern of substance use. The harmful aspect of this sort of behavioural cycle is that it keeps the functioning addict stuck. They are able to deny they have a problem because they can at times control their using.

One of the very real threats to entering recovery for these individuals is what we at D&M call downward comparison – and we ALL do it! Think about that time when we decided to have ‘seconds’ at Christmas dinner. You feel guilty for going in for another plate – but then, you look around and notice, ‘oh, that person is having thirds. I’m not that bad!’ and immediately the guilt and shame dissolves.

To ignore, justify, rationalise or downplay the harms is an important reason why high functioning addicts stay stuck and do not enter recovery. But the damage is real and is manifesting in ways that they are unable to see without gentle and supportive help.

Let’s remember, that most addicts on the street with a needle in their arm, were also ‘once upon a time’ a functioning addict…until they weren’t.

If you want to talk with us further about someone who may not know they are a functioning addict, or if this discussion resonated with you, please contact us at D&M.

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