Characteristics of High-Functioning Drug Users
Not all drug addicts appear like the stereotype: pale skin and emaciated, with sores all over their face, seemingly dead to the world. Like the functional alcoholic, who can hide or ignore his or her condition for many years, the functional drug addict can appear to lead a normal, successful life for a long period of time. High-functioning addicts are able to manage their addiction, postponing many of the pitfalls that other chronic addicts can suffer from. A functional addict is often able to thrive in the workplace, manage household finances and even successfully raise a family. Many of these addicts are also able to hide their addiction from family members.
However, no addict, no matter how high-functioning, can avoid the dangers of long-term drug abuse, and are in just as much need of help and rehabilitation as a drug addict who falls apart early on. In addition, all functional drug addicts and their families may face greater hurdles on the road to rehabilitation. Denial can become more difficult to overcome, while very long-term use, even if that use is moderate, can lead to chronic health issues. Overdose is also still a risk. At home, problems inevitably occur as the addict breaks family trust with behaviors such as lying, stealing, and hiding to protect their drug use. In other words, while the addiction itself is fully functional, the user is not.
Common Drugs Used by Functional Addicts
A minority of addicts may appear to live fulfilling, successful lives for a period of months, or even years, on many different drugs, just as alcoholics do. Functional addicts often use stimulants, such as meth or cocaine, while others choose drugs like alcohol and opioids, which are depressants.
– Meth: The highly destructive methamphetamines are sometimes used by active, competitive members of the workforce. Students may use them for exams, while others may use to meet a tight deadline. Meth users, however, rarely appear to function for long.
– Cocaine: Believe it or not, cocaine is actually popular within some circles of business executives. Like meth, this drug is a stimulant, giving the user temporary increased focus and energy. Long-term use, even if the addict is high-functioning, can lead to weight loss, seizures and heart and respiratory failure.
– Prescription painkillers: Opioid narcotic drugs are prescribed by doctors for chronic pain. For some patients, prolonged functional dependency is possible when under the careful supervision of a physician. However, physical dependency, increased tolerance and dangerously high doses can quickly ruin the lives of even the most high-functioning recreational drug addicts.
The high-functioning drug addict or alcoholic may be able to manage their addiction effectively for a period of time, sometimes for many years, but some of the same warning signs can still be there. You just have to pay close attention and not let your own denial prevent you from encouraging a loved one to seek help—even if, on the outside, they do not appear to have a problem.
Denial is perhaps the first and one of the most difficult hurdles in the way of rehabilitation for every addict. Those who are highly functioning are especially prone to denial. When pressed to seek treatment, they often question the need to seek help at all and refuse to see their behavior as dangerous or destructive. After all, they have a job, volunteer, and run the house without any problems, right? But these users are leading a double life, both as a successful member of society, and as a drug user. Functional addicts have not stopped the process of addiction; they have merely slowed it down. For these users, it often takes a personal tragedy or other event to make them “hit bottom” before their wall of denial finally crashes down.
Functional Addicts in History
In the world of psychology where Sigmund Freud worked, cocaine was being touted as a treatment for opium addiction. One of Freud’s closest friends struggled and eventually died from a morphine addiction, and it was during attempted treatment using cocaine that Freud became exposed to the drug. In the beginning of Freud’s cocaine addiction, he was fascinated, and even in awe of, cocaine’s effects. He often published articles praising cocaine. In particular, Freud was interested in the psychological side effects, such as speaking at length about mundane subjects, feeling euphoric and even experiencing vivid hallucination-like dreams. However, Freud could not maintain his high-functioning addiction forever. Before long, he started to report mental and health problems. At one point, Freud’s nose was so damaged that he had to have it surgically opened so he could breathe. These overwhelming consequences drove Freud to renounce cocaine and later to successfully rehabilitate himself – a truly impressive feat. Some of Freud’s most famous and influential works on psychoanalysis was performed and published soon after his successful rehabilitation.
Like Freud, some drug addicts can lead highly functional, even successful, lives. But addiction takes its toll, and chronic drug abuse will catch up to a user sooner or later. And while it’s interesting to note that some users can lead more functional lives than others, it’s still a matter of when, not if, a drug addiction takes over completely and turns into a life that isn’t functional at all. If you suspect a loved one is addicted to a substance—even if they do not yet appear to be losing function over it—contact a private rehabilitation center or a local chapter of Narcotics Anonymous. Do not wait until the addiction spirals out of control, or worse, claims the user’s life.