What is a High Functioning Addict? How to Spot the Signs

high functioning addict

When the subject of addiction comes up, many people immediately jump to the stereotypes. They tend to imagine the down-and-out derelict or the flamboyant rock-bottom moments we see on TV. The truth of the matter is more complex.

The image of all addicts displaying these very drastic sign is just another myth. In reality, there is a very good chance that someone who struggles with addiction is a high functioning addict.

What is a High Functioning Addict?

High functioning addicts are people who are addicted to a substance but still project an outward appearance of normalcy.

Functioning addicts eschew the stereotype of someone who has completely lost control of their life. Almost all are steadily employed, and many even enjoy high degrees of professional success. Many even maintain active social lives and successfully hide their addictions from those closest to them.

But despite outward appearances, their struggles are both real and dangerous. Most high functioning addicts cannot sustain their habits indefinitely. Even those few who can still suffer damage to their health, relationships, and quality of life.

Functioning Addicts are Becoming More Common

Research seems to indicate that incidences of functional addiction are becoming more the norm. A 2007 study on alcohol abuse found that 19.5% of all U.S. alcoholics were considered “functioning”. That translates to about 4 million functional alcoholics.

Experts like Dr. Mark Willenbring, former Director of Recovery Research at the NIAAA, have pointed out that the face of addiction has changed.

“Alcoholism isn’t what it used to be,” Dr. Willenbring explains. “We think of it as this really dramatic, debilitating disorder, but actually there is a wide range of alcoholism, from moderate drinking to at-risk drinking. Every alcoholic isn’t Mel Gibson or Lindsey Lohan–people who are really train wrecks.”

Instead, the signs of the functional addict tend to be more subtle, and the advancement of the addiction more incremental. As Dr. Willenbring explained further:

“Many high-functioners try to set limits but inevitably they go over them. They want to quit but they can’t. They might suffer from hangovers, insomnia, or heartburn, but they don’t experience the same life-disrupting problems that befall other addicts.”

While these studies and interviews examined alcoholics in particular, similar trends are found among other substance abusers.

Understanding that addiction can take many appearances is crucial to understanding a high functioning addict. Young, old, rich, or poor, addiction doesn’t discriminate.

Addiction in the Workplace

High functioning addicts are defined in part by their ability to maintain stable and successful careers. In fact, several high-powered and high-stress occupations have a tendency to foster addiction.

Emergency Healthcare Professionals

Doctors and nurses working in high-stress settings are at higher risk for drug abuse issues. Their intense work environments make drug use attractive. Their easy access to powerful medications make abuse feasible, sometimes to a tragic degree.

Law Enforcement

Law enforcement officials suffer drug and alcohol addiction at between two and three times the national average rate. The reasons for this are much the same as for healthcare professionals. The ready availability of drugs seized during operations and the high-stress nature of the job makes substance abuse an easy and attractive coping mechanism.


Research shows that lawyers suffer alcohol abuse at about twice the rate of the national average. While the study was less conclusive about rates of drug abuse, there is significant conjecture that rates are similarly problematic.

Anecdotal statements lay the blame on the long hours many lawyers work. Many lawyers will drink heavily to cope with the stress, only to turn around and use hard stimulants to maintain their focus.

These three examples illustrate the primary risk factor for developing a functioning addiction. The pressure to perform a difficult job efficiently can entice someone to cope with that stress in unhealthy ways. The temptation is only exacerbated by easy access to addictive substances.

Signs of a High Functioning Addict

High functioning addicts tend to be very good at hiding their problems. Many fear that if they are found out, their careers or reputations will suffer.

The facade is rarely ever perfect, however. Here are some signs of a high functioning addict:

Excuses and Denial

The most basic behavior that almost all addicts exhibit is denial. The only difference with a high functioning addict is that their denial may actually sound reasonable.

Many will justify their substance abuse by saying things like “I work hard, I deserve to have some fun once in a while.” This alone doesn’t sound outrageous. Many people like to unwind after a hard day’s work, so pressing the issue can leave one open to charges of hypocrisy.

Alternatively, they may specifically cite their work, saying things like “You need to drink/take drugs to do this job”. This is a more obvious red flag, as no job should require habitual substance abuse to be bearable.

In any case, breaking down these excuses often proves particularly challenging. Many high functioning addicts use them to convince themselves as much as anyone else.

Deteriorating Appearance

This sign usually appears during late-stage addiction. But as one of the more visible signs, it is an easy one to spot.

As the draining effects of addiction start to take their toll, you will likely notice that someone no longer takes care of their appearance. While one day they were neat and professional, the next they may appear shaggy and unkempt.

This is because as an addiction drags on, an addict’s physical health will suffer, and they will tend to have less energy to devote to their own upkeep. Look for disheveled clothes and poorly kept skin and hair. Women may compensate by overusing makeup to conceal their declining appearance.

Using More of a Substance than Intended

This sign on its own is not always indicative of a greater problem. Many people who only drink occasionally will go out for “one drink”, only to have that one become several. It becomes a problem when that scenario becomes the rule rather than the exception.

Addicts, by definition, are unable to control their substance intake. If someone seems otherwise normal but routinely overindulges, it may be a sign of a problem.


This is another trait that tends to show itself in the late stages of addiction. It should be especially alarming if it is a significant deviation from their normal behavior.

If someone who used to be very active in their work, family, or community suddenly closes themselves off from others, that should be a red flag. As addictions progress, addicts will often only have time for getting their next dose. Everything else, including relationships, gets shoved to the back burner.

Enabling Relationships

This tends to be an issue for all addicts but is a particular problem for high functioning addicts. Addicts tend to congregate together, both for the sake of validating their bad behavior and for sharing sources of drugs.

This can be problematic for high functioning addicts who work in enabling environments. It is not uncommon for a high functioning addict to deny having a problem on the grounds that “everyone they work with uses more than they do”. This is not normal and should be a big warning sign.

Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal is an undeniable symptom of addiction. Nausea, anxiety, headache, sweating, and fatigue are all common withdrawal symptoms.

A high functioning addict may chalk these up to mundane illness or just not being a morning person. If they become routine, however, it could be a sign of physiological dependency.

These symptoms can appear when an addict tries to get clean themselves. Aside from recovery being exceedingly difficult without treatment, withdrawal from some substances can have life-threatening complications. For this reason, the appearance of withdrawal symptoms makes it extremely urgent for the addicted person to get professional help.

Loss of Interest in Hobbies and Pastimes

This symptom goes hand-in-hand with. If someone who was once an avid musician of active community member suddenly gives up on something they were passionate about, it could be a sign that their addiction is beginning to sap all their extra time and energy.

Failing Memory

Memory issues are common in alcoholics but can occur with other forms of substance abuse as well. Addicts may experience episodes where they have either an incomplete memory or no memory whatsoever of certain moments. This should be a call to get immediate help. Loss of memory indicates that the substance abuse is already affecting a person’s normal brain functions.

Unexplained Financial Issues

Addiction doesn’t come cheap. Most addicts will end up in financial trouble, often turning to loved ones to enable them. As many high functioning addicts are seemingly successful, it’s even more obvious.

If someone with a well-paying job and few major expenses frequently finds themselves in financial trouble, it’s clear that something is going on behind the scenes. It may be that as an addiction becomes unmanageable, they are beginning to fall behind financially.

Neglecting Responsibilities

This sign tends to appear as an addict loses their ability to function. Once the addiction becomes the center of their life, an addict will often begin to shirk their responsibilities.

This is easy to spot in a high functioning addict. A formerly focused and motivated individual will begin shirking work, financial responsibilities, and familial obligations.

Getting Help for a Functioning Addict

As with all forms of addiction, the most important thing is to remember that a high functioning addict is not a lost cause. With love, support, and treatment, recovery is possible. Visit our blog to learn more about addiction and recovery.

Pathways provides 28-day and extended care treatment programs for adults with substance use disorders. In addition to engaging clients in the 12-Step process, the program also focuses on setting boundaries, developing coping skills and handling trauma. If you, or someone you know is in need of substance abuse treatment, contact Pathways for more information at 855-433-2254.