Recognising Addiction in Yourself and Others

We all know what an addict looks like right? It’s a down-and-out person, someone without a career or home, or a washed-up rock star. Wrong. Addicts can be anyone and many demonstrate no outward signs of their addiction. The majority are employed and regularly successful, have active social lives and are fun to be around. They hide their addictions from even those closest to them. These are known as high functioning addicts.

Functioning addicts are becoming more commonplace in modern society. In particular, alcoholism is not what it used to be. Alcoholics vary greatly from moderate drinkers to those at-risk of long-term damage. Not every alcoholic or substance abuser has the train-wreck image that we imagine or is portrayed in the media. Signs of a functional addict are far more subtle and the advancement of the condition can be slower. High functioning addicts set themselves limits but inevitably go over them and are unable to quit this behaviour.

Functioning addicts in the workplace

The main trait of a functioning addict is that they maintain a successful career, therefore it comes as no surprise that many are employed in high-stress jobs, which cultivates addiction and often allows access to substances that are abused.

These careers can include:

Healthcare Professionals – Doctors and nurses work under a severe amount of pressure and this intensity can make drug use an attractive option. In addition, the easy access to powerful medications makes drug use very easy.

Law Enforcement – Those in law enforcement suffer drug and alcohol addiction at a rate of two to three times the national average. Similar to healthcare professionals, the availability of substances and high stress nature of the job makes substance abuse an appealing coping mechanism.

Lawyers – Studies have shown that lawyers suffer alcohol abuse at a rate of twice the national average. Less conclusive were statistics regarding drug abuse, but it is considered that there are similar levels of problems within this community. The long hours that lawyers work is generally to blame; many drink excessively to cope with the stress, then take stimulants in order to maintain focus.

Am I living with an addict? How to recognise a high functioning addict

High functioning addicts are very adept at hiding their problem, usually because they fear damaging their career or reputation. There are however, some subtle signs that may develop:

Excuses and Denial – Almost all addicts deny they have a problem. The difference with high functioning addicts is that their denial can often sound acceptable. They will justify that drug and alcohol is a reward for their hard work and success.

Taking more substances than intended – We’ve all said “I’ll just have the one drink”, only to continue drinking. However, addicts are unable to control this impulse and regularly overindulge.

Their friends or family also have addiction issues – Look at the people that a suspected addict spends their time with. If they also regularly binge drink or consume substances, then it is likely there is a problem.

Deteriorating appearance – A functioning addict may display symptoms such as regular headaches or lack of energy but blame these on “not being a morning person” or similar excuses. As addiction develops further, the addict’s health begins to suffer and they may not put as much energy into their appearance as usual. Look for dishevelled clothes or hair, or in the case of women, overuse of makeup to cover their deteriorating appearance.

Losing interest in activities, becoming isolated – This usually presents in the later stages of addiction. The addict will start to withdraw from usual activities, often at short notice, which is a sign that the addiction is taking their energy and spare time and becoming a priority.

Financial issues – Addiction is not cheap and many addicts will develop financial troubles. Because high functioning addicts are usually successful in their careers, having financial problems and asking for assistance is a particular warning sign.

Neglecting Responsibilities – High functioning addicts are usually so successful that when they begin to neglect responsibilities this is a warning of underlying issues and a possibility that addiction is taking control of their life.

How to approach a high functioning addict

It can be very difficult to encourage a high functioning addict to get help. Many can function for years without a ‘rock bottom’ or life-threatening moment that causes them to face the issue. Because of the high level of denial, when the problem is eventually admitted it can be difficult to treat.

The best way to approach the subject is to start small and work your way up. Sometimes just a general conversation can be enough to ‘wake up’ an addict and encourage them to seek treatment.

Pick an appropriate time for a conversation, ideally when the individual is remorseful for their behaviour, not when they are under the influence or recovering immediately afterwards. It can also be beneficial to bring together a small group of loved ones to form an intervention.

Talk to your loved one about their changes in behaviour and how this makes you feel. Point out the things that they do when under the influence and how this can cause health problems further down the line. Be prepared to be tough and remind them that although their addiction may not currently be causing problems, eventually it will, and you will not support that.

Am I an addict?

It can be harder to recognise an addiction problem within yourself than in others. Addiction is a chronic brain disease which causes permanent changes in the brain, causing you to struggle to control your impulses. Remember that addiction can happen to anyone and there is no shame in seeking help.

If you’re not sure whether you may have any addiction problem, consider asking yourself these questions:
• Has your drug or alcohol use affected the relationships in your life?
• Have you ever used drug or alcohol to ‘fit in’ with a certain peer or social group?
• Have you ever lied to a loved one about your substance use?
• Do you hide your substance use from others?
• Do you schedule your time around drinking or taking drugs?
• Have you tried to stop your substance use, but been unable to?
• Do you drink or use drugs first thing in the morning?
• Do you use substances to cope with stress, anger or sadness?
• Is your performance at work suffering as a result of your substance use?
• Have you been suspended or fired from your job because of your substance use?
• Have you ever partaken in risky behaviour connected with your substance use i.e. driven drunk, stolen substances or money?
• Are you concerned about your drinking or drug use?

Answering yes to some or all of the questions above may indicate that you have a substance abuse problem. Many high-functioning addicts are concerned about the effect on their career or reputation should they seek treatment. However it is important to consider the long-term benefits and how different your life can be without substance abuse.

Next Steps – Getting Help

“I am an addict and I need help”. Once the addiction is acknowledged, it is important to seek help as soon as possible. The best place to start is with your doctor, or to contact an unbiased organisation such as The Recovery Trust who can advise the treatment options available and refer you to relevant specialists.

A residential 3-6 month addiction treatment programme is proven to be the most successful in the long-term. During this time, addiction clients leave their everyday lives meaning there are no distractions, triggers or temptations. Living in this way and spending time with other recovering addicts provides an environment that encourages the client to focus fully on their recovery.

Here at Hebron House, we provide addiction treatment that is tailored to each individual client. We help our clients explore their past, understand how their addiction started, the triggers and how it is affecting their lives. We then work together to develop other coping mechanisms and find healthy, long-lasting ways to manage the addiction. At the end of the treatment period, we help clients integrate back into society and independent living. An informal aftercare service is provided for life to all clients, with a more formal service provided to those who decide to relocate.