Is There Such a Thing as a “Functioning Addict?”

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The term “functioning addict” is commonly used, and the idea that drug abusers can complete normal day-to-day tasks is popular and partially true. But there is a myth being perpetrated that being a functioning addict is somehow better than being a non-functioning addict, or even socially acceptable.

The truth is, all drug use will affect life in one way or another, whether it is immediate or in the long-term. All drug use is harmful to the body, to relationships, and to society as a whole. A functioning addict can be defined as a drug user who is able to perform at a sufficient level while abusing drugs.

This can define a person who drinks every day until two in the morning and still wake up at six to get ready for work with no real issue. Technically, they are completing standard daily tasks, but that doesn’t mean their drug use isn’t negatively impacting their lives. Research shows that drugs have severe negative impacts on a person’s body, whether they manifest immediately or over a period of time.

The Functioning Addict Myth

We know that a non-functioning addict is someone who cannot complete standard tasks every day because of their drug use. So, someone who can’t make it to work because they are too intoxicated would be an example of a non-functioning addict. In no way is being a functioning addict healthy. In fact, the idea of functioning addiction is considered a myth in the substance recovery community. Even though a person seemingly goes about obvious tasks without error while using, it doesn’t mean that their life isn’t being affected in a less obvious way.

The National Institute of Health defines five subtypes of alcohol addiction, and the functioning alcoholic is a subtype. It makes up about a fifth of the total population of alcoholics. There are certain characteristics used to describe high-functioning addicts such as:

  • High level of education
  • Stable job
  • Supportive family
  • Most commonly of middle age
  • Family history of addiction

Many people see tolerance as a factor in becoming a functioning addict. After prolonged use, the body becomes used to the drug’s effects and some people find it easier to function than others. This is why people perceived as functioning addicts are middle-aged. They have been using long enough to build up a tolerance and their job history is long enough to see any gaps in employment caused by drug abuse.

But having a stable job isn’t the only quality that is pointed to when talking about functioning addiction. People who are in denial about their addiction seem to fit into the group of functioning addiction. If a person is less honest with themselves and others about their addiction, they can better convince themselves and others that it doesn’t even exist; an out of sight out of mind mentality. However, denial is only a short-term out, with time, most addictions become more obvious.

Enablers Play a Part

Family support is another factor in the myth of a functioning addict, but by “support” it really means enabling. A person who enables another’s addiction is someone who takes on responsibilities that the drug user can no longer take on, they make excuses for the user’s behaviors, and they may even provide a way in which the user can obtain substances.

When the facade the abuser has built begins to crack, and their addiction is more obvious, they will blame the enabler. Enabling allows a substance abuser to never accept responsibility for their actions, which is very detrimental.

Functioning Addicts May Have More Legal Issues

Legal issues are other characteristics used when describing a functioning addict. Many drug abusers are perceived as having repeated legal troubles; arrests, probation, or jail time. If a person is using a substance and never gets caught, it may seem like they have better control over their use than someone who has legal issues stemming from their drug use.

But, just because they haven’t gotten caught doesn’t mean they are functioning at a higher level. It’s luck of the draw, sometimes, with legal consequences. Many users can go without legal recourse throughout their entirety of using, some go to jail multiple times. Legal issues are not a gauge for the severity of the addiction. By perpetuating the myth of a functioning addict, it also allows for the myth of addiction as a choice or character flaw.

If one user can function and another cannot, then it must be a flaw specific to that one user. But this is wholly inaccurate. Remember, drug addiction is a progressive disease. The longer a substance is used, the more severe the symptoms and side effects will become. The more severe, the more obvious they will become. This is why the facade of a functioning addict is easily demolished.

At Northstar Transitions, we understand addiction as a disease and not a choice, and therefore the functioning addict is a myth. It’s like telling a diabetic they don’t need their insulin if they can ignore and disguise their symptoms well enough. A major problem with drug addiction is that it is a silent killer. The stigma is so profound that many people already suffer in silence. To push the idea that there is a functionality to addiction is just as dangerous as saying it is a choice. If you or a loved one is coping with substance use disorder, Northstar Transitions is here to help. Call us now at (303) 558-6400.


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