What is a High Functioning Addict?

What is a High Functioning Addict?

When most of us think of addiction we think of people who are lazy, unable to perform their job, constantly out of it, and typically, jobless. Few of us think of high performers, excelling at their school, job, or family life – but the truth is that millions of addicts are high functioning. As many as 19.5% of all alcoholics qualify as high-functioning, able to function well in society and often completely hide their addiction from others.

For example, thousands of doctors across the country use alcohol and medication to deal with stress, keep themselves awake for long shifts, and to unwind after emotionally and physically grueling work weeks.

What is ‘High Functioning’?

A high functioning addict is typically not someone you would think of as an addict. They get good grades, they go to work, they are in the top of their class or employee of the month. They are often well-educated, business owners, surgeons, lawyers, and generally smart. Because they don’t fit the typical stereotype of an addict, and their addiction does not visibly affect their lives, many people assume they’re okay, even after noticing high levels of substance abuse or alcohol consumption.

Many high-functioning addicts feel the same way about themselves. If they’re still going to work, getting good grades, etc., they’re still in control and therefore able to stop whenever they want to. Despite that, most eventually crash, suffering blackouts, health problems, liver failures, financial repercussions, or other lasting damage.

Recognizing a High Functioning Addict

High functioning addicts can be difficult to spot. They typically hide in social conformity, meeting or exceeding expectations and doing whatever they want when alone. However, alcoholism and substance abuse all leave signs, and over time, they will show – especially to close family and friends.

Health Problems

Even a high functioning addict will begin to experience health complaints over time. Depending on what they are using, most will either gain or lose weight, experience blackouts, become irritable, experience problems with anger, depression, or anxiety, have mood swings, experience strong ‘low’ periods, and may exhibit long-term cold and flu symptoms. These signs can worsen over time as the addict becomes more and more hooked on their drug, uses more, or toxicity builds up in their system.

Social Withdrawal

High-functioning addicts may be the life of the party when they’re high, but they may often vanish, may have difficulty communicating, and may suppress relationships with old friends and family. This can relate to periods of highs and lows experienced by addicts, guilt over using, and the intent to seek out friends or acquaintances they can use or drink with. Friends or family members suddenly being too busy to spend time with you or reply to texts or calls with no other obvious changes in their lifestyle when you suspect of them of drinking can be a red flag.

Slow Decline in Performance

While high-functioning addicts may maintain a job, may be high functioning at work or school, and may even outperform expectations, this will begin to slip over time. As they become more and more addicted, they will make more mistakes, cause more problems, and experience more mental health problems which makes it more difficult to concentrate, respond to unpleasant social situations calmly, and to function well in normal social situations. Someone who is slowly slipping up and slowly becoming worse than they were is likely suffering from a health problem, which in combination with substance use, likely points to an addiction.

Financial and Legal

If someone is high-performing but frequently facing legal and financial trouble, the problem may point to issues with substance abuse. For example, if someone frequently receives parking or speeding tickets, never has money despite a good job, or otherwise has unexplainable problems, substance abuse may be the problem.

Consistent Substance Use

If you see someone using drugs or drinking on a regular basis, outside of societal norms, it’s usually a problem. In many cases, this also applies if someone appears to have a higher-than-standard tolerance for alcohol.


Hiding substance use, especially legal substances, is usually indicative of guilt and may show that the person is struggling with consumption or is addicted. Many high-functioning addicts deny their dependence even to themselves, and part of that means hiding it from others. Someone going out of their way to drink or use without being caught but who is otherwise functioning well may be a high-functioning addict.

Getting Help

High functioning addicts may not suffer the immediate social consequences felt by most substance-dependent persons, but they are still suffering. Despite having a job and usually maintaining friend and family, high-functioning addicts put themselves, their mental health, and their physical health at risk. Long-term drug and alcohol abuse permanently damages the body including the liver and gut, may cause long-term problems with anxiety and depression, and will cause worsening health problems over time.

Getting Help for High Functioning Addicts

If you or your loved one is dependent on drugs or alcohol, you do need help. High-functioning addicts can keep up the façade of being okay for years, but eventually, cannot maintain it anymore. In most cases, high-functioning addicts eventually crash, suffering severe health problems, are involved in car accidents, or otherwise experience major trauma because of their addictions before seeking help. If you suspect that your loved one is suffering from addiction, you may be able to prevent this and get them help.

Unfortunately, most addicts are good at denial and high functioning addicts even more so. With no (current) life problems to remind them of the dangers of substance abuse or addiction, it is easier to brush alcohol or substance abuse off as temporary and not an addiction. Working with a professional interventionalist may be a crucial step to convincing a high-functioning addict that they need help. Fortunately, many high-functioning addicts are very intelligent, eventually able to recognize that they do need help. However, accepting that help when it comes their way is sometimes another question.

High-functioning addicts are accustomed to taking care of themselves, often use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate, and may feel that they don’t need professional assistance. Therefore, actually getting someone into rehab may be difficult.

It’s also important that your chosen treatment facility can create a personalized treatment program. Some programs offer an addiction recovery program for executives and professionals. This is because high-functioning addicts may need special treatment. They are often self-sufficient and may not function well in programs designed to teach self-sufficiency. Instead, they need behavioral therapy, stress management, and to learn to relax and handle emotions without drugs or alcohol.

If you or your loved one is addicted to alcohol, it is dangerous and will negatively impact your life and your health if it hasn’t already. Going to a professional treatment center will give you the tools to detox safely and begin to learn safe and effective coping mechanisms for living a happy life without drugs or alcohol.

Please contact Beginnings Treatment Centers today and speak with one of our experienced and professional intake advisors, help is here. We are located in beautiful and sunny Southern California in Orange County, which has one of the best and most active recovery communities in the United States.