The Myth of High-Functioning Addiction

The Myth of High-Functioning Addiction

The Myth of High-Functioning Addiction

A study conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has revealed that at some point in their lives, 10 percent of adults in the United States have had a substance use disorder. [1] The DSM-5 identifies eleven symptoms that are used to diagnose a substance use disorder. [2] Some of these symptoms include unsuccessful attempts to cut down on the use of the substance, cravings for the drug, failure to fulfill work and family obligations due to the use of the substance, and increased tolerance. But many people believe they can fly under the radar with a high-functioning addiction.

The Stigma Behind Addiction 

While these symptoms are straightforward, as are the symptoms for any disease, there’s definitely a stigma attached to admitting to a substance use disorder and deciding to get treatment. Our culture perpetuates the myth that addiction is characterized by those who display out-of-control behavior and are unable to hold a job, parent their children, or maintain personal relationships. Society feeds the fallacy that addiction is equivalent to hitting “rock bottom,” when that’s often not the case.

In fact, there are many people who are able to manage their careers, keep their personal relationships intact, or continue to attend school and are still struggling with addiction. These people have convinced themselves that they don’t have a problem and sometimes make light of their disease by referring to their addiction as “high-functioning.”

Why “High-Functioning Addiction” is a Myth

Despite government health agencies’ use of the word, “functional” to identify a subtype of alcohol addiction, “functional” describes what’s really just a cover for what’s going on with the person who is struggling with a substance use disorder. [3]

Although they may try to convince themselves and others that they are high-functioning because they can complete every day required tasks and often perform them well, denial of their disease eventually catches up with them.

Working Hard to Appear Functional

Individuals who have a substance use disorder tend to feel the need to work double-time to keep up appearances. Many feel the need to overcompensate at their jobs or in their relationships to hide the fact they are struggling. Hiding the issue and overcompensating can cause additional stress and perhaps even worsen an addiction.

Often, support from family and friends – and their complicity in the denial – works to exacerbate or prolong the problem. Family, friends, and coworkers may be fooled into thinking a problem doesn’t exist because they observe what looks like functional behavior, but is really just a further attempt by the sufferer to avoid coming to the realization that there is a problem.

Recognizing “High-Functioning” Behaviors

Because those suffering from substance use disorders are skilled at covering their tracks and keeping up appearances, it can make their loved ones or those close to them oblivious to their struggles. When people don’t exhibit what most believe are classic signs of addiction, it can be difficult to convince them that they need help.

Someone struggling with a substance use disorder can recover and get healthy. When family and others who care about their loved one can learn to recognize common behaviors associated with substance abuse and addiction, they may be able to intervene before the problem becomes even more dire.  Some of these behaviors include: [4]

  • Decreased socialization with family and friends
  • Making excuses for poor behavior or ignoring the negative consequences of actions
  • Lack of interest in things once enjoyed
  • Changes in personality
  • Increased secrecy

These subtle symptoms are warning signs that you or a loved one may need to seek treatment. Even though high-functioning addiction behavior can persist for some time, the disease eventually takes over and becomes a bigger problem than the sufferer can deal with alone. 

Get Help for High-Functioning Addiction Today

At Silver Sands Recovery, we understand how difficult it is to admit to needing help. It’s our mission to encourage, support, and help you get through the most difficult of times. Through our personalized treatment programs, we will be able to guide you through a successful recovery that works in the long run. Contact one of our team members today and see how we can help you.



[1] National Institutes of Health,

[2] DSM-5 Diagnosis Reference Guide,

[3] National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH),

[4] Healthline,


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