Is There Such a Thing as a 'Functioning' Addict?


My husband has been having a hard time sleeping the last month, and in desperation he went to the doctor for some help. He came home with a few different things over the course of the month to try and help; I didn’t approve of all of them.

You see, I’m a recovering addict, and there are certain substances I do not want in my house for the safety of my sobriety. I’m now 19 months sober, and I want to see that number continue growing.

So, although my husband absolutely needed these medications, we absolutely needed a game plan on how to keep me safe.

We chatted about it back and forth for a couple of hours, and besides the game plan to keeping me safe, one of the things that came up was that I had been a “functioning” addict when I used. Functioning. Should there even be a label, “functioning” addict?

What does one look like? How are they different than “typical” addicts? How do they act? What challenges do they face in regards to addiction? Are those challenges different than from someone “non-functioning?”

How would one define a “functioning” addict?

A functioning addict is most likely a person who’s drug or alcohol use hasn’t caught up to them yet. It’s a person who is able to hide the severity of their addiction to the people close to them, often at tragic cost.

Functioning addicts are often able to perform their tasks on a daily manner, but there can be tell-tale signs. Some of these signs include making excuses for their behaviors, trying to justify their drug use. Who they hang out with says a lot as well. If all their friends are using drugs or alcohol or they don’t want to attend events unless drugs or alcohol will be there, that’s also a sign of a bigger issue. And if they suddenly lose interest in their hobbies, the addiction could be starting to take over their life.

According to the National Institutes of Health, some distinguishing characteristics of a functioning addict include: a high level of education, a stable job, supportive family, commonly middle-aged, family history of addiction (about 30 percent of addicts), and history of major depression (about 20 percent of addicts).

One of the most challenging issue that faces functioning addicts and their loved ones comes from the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to convince them they’re actually addicts. They’ll often point out that nothing bad has ever happened from their use or that they’re able to keep a job and provide for themselves and “addicts can’t do that.”

I denied I had a problem with my medications for years. I hid it as best I could and justified it and explained away symptoms until my face was blue. Years before I was even close to admitting I was an addict, my religious leader suggested I look into rehab, and I was shocked and offended because I wasn’t an addict. He obviously knew something I still could not see. I honestly didn’t think I had a problem. I didn’t doctor shop, I didn’t try to get more meds than I was prescribed, I didn’t lie about my pain or anxiety to get higher dosages. I didn’t buy pills off the internet or from dealers off the street. I thought I was doing quite well, in fact. My kids were generally well taken care of, I worked and went to school. I participated in extracurriculars. Yet I was still an addict. I discovered it’s possible to be an addict and not do any of those negative things, which was an incredibly painful, humbling time in my life.

So the answer for me is yes, it is possible to be a “functioning” addict, but from my experience, it’s not worth it. You go just that much longer before getting treatment, you have just that much further to rock bottom, and you have just that much more to lose.

I hope sharing my story shows just how easy it is become addicted and how much possibility there is after recovery once you’ve admitted you need help. There’s no shame in having an addiction; it is a disease, not a character flaw.

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

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Thinkstock photo by Peshkova

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