Blog | Addiction Warning Signs

High-Functioning Addiction: What It Looks Like, How to Help

Some addicts wear their addiction on their sleeve and openly talk about their struggles with substance abuse. However, many addicts live with what is termed “high-functioning addiction.” A high-functioning addict is both physically and psychologically dependent upon their drug of choice, but they still manage to hold down a job and/or remain part of an intact family.[1]

Despite the outward appearance of normalcy, these individuals may be in a far more dangerous position than those who are open about their addiction. If no one knows how much the person drinks or uses, no one knows a problem exists.

A Thin Veil

Man with three personalitiesThe veil of deception is often thin for functional addicts. Anyone who pays close enough attention—and knows the signs—will quickly see that many of the details in the person’s life are hanging by a thread. It can be a very fearful and anxiety-inducing place to be for the addicted person. Many high-functioning addicts say that being “revealed” as an addict to their spouse, their boss, or concerned coworkers was ultimately a relief; they didn’t know how much longer they would be able to tread water with addiction continually pulling them under.

In some cases, the veil may be thin enough that loved ones can see through to the problems of drug use and addiction – but thick enough that they can look the other way and avoid addressing the issue. Some people hope that it’s nothing because the individual is still able to get to work and pay the bills. Others hope it will pass in time on its own.

Unfortunately, unless someone lifts the veil of addiction and pulls the problem out into the open, it will only get worse. Addiction doesn’t just go away on its own; action is required.

Jacob’s Story

When Jacob was 20 years old, he started a snowboard company. His business saw high growth: new stores, new products, and new employees. Jacob flew back and forth across the country from LA to New York and then to China to oversee the production of new products. He was constantly in meetings, constantly on the go–and constantly high on drugs.

Said Jacob: “I was a drinker back in high school and then in college. I was a snowboarder; I partied. But I had an accident and broke my leg and my clavicle. I got hooked on painkillers. I still drank, but the pills were my thing. They were easy to get, especially when I was traveling. My doctor in New York didn’t check with my doctor in LA – and nobody even knew about my doctor in Colorado.”

For years, only Jacob knew that he had a pill problem. He wasn’t married and only saw his parents and siblings on occasion. His friends, too, were only around him intermittently and for short periods of time. If something happened to reveal he was struggling, he would write it off as a one-time thing.

“One time I passed out at a dinner. Just passed out. I had flown into LA from China, and the travel plus the pills plus I was fighting off a cold–it was too much. While with some friends, I passed out. One of my buddies said something about it later and asked if I was all right – he saw the bottle of Oxys in my bag–but I just blew it off, said I wasn’t feeling well. He probably knew I was lying but what could he say about it? I hadn’t seen him in months, and I left the next day.”

It wasn’t until his assistant had to check him into the hospital for an overdose that Jacob finally admitted he had a problem. “I was so mad at her when she did that. I fired her. It didn’t make any sense when she was just trying to help me. Now, I’m glad she did it. If she hadn’t taken me to the hospital, I would have died. It was at the hospital that the doctors told me I’d end up dead if I didn’t go to detox. It hasn’t been an easy road since then, but it started because my assistant had the balls to stand up to me. I credit her with my life.”

How to Recognize a Functioning Addict

Paying attention to the details when your instincts tell you that something is awry is the best way to see the signs of hidden addiction for what they are.[2] You may notice that the person often:

  • Misses work meetings, social functions and other events with little or no notice.
  • Displays erratic and dangerous sleep patterns, staying up for days on end followed by sleeping for days.
  • Seems to slip in and out of focus during conversations.
  • Exhibits signs of extreme anxiety or paranoia.
  • Seems moody with little provocation.
  • Displays signs of or complains of illness frequently
  • Becomes hostile if you attempt to broach the conversation abouthis or her drug or alcohol use.

It is common for addicts to make excuses, especially if the individual believes he is hiding his habit well. Even the most sincere offer for help may be seen as a threat. If you feel that someone is trying to cover up an addiction, no matter how high-functioning, connecting him with addiction treatment may be what saves his life. If you would like to talk to someone at Michael’s House about addiction treatment, please know we are here. Feel free to reach out and call the number below to help your friend or loved one.


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4070117/ Family Functioning of Addicted and Non-Addicted Individuals: A Comparative Study. Hosseinbor, Mohsen.

[2] https://blogs.psychcentral.com/addiction-recovery/2012/02/high-functioning-addict/ 5 Tips For Recognizing The High-Functioning Alcoholic Or Addict. Sack, David.