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When Addiction Doesn’t Cause Any Problems, It’s Still an Addiction: High Functioning Addicts

If someone were told to close his eyes and visualize what a stereotypical alcoholic or drug user looks like, odds are that he won't imagine his highly-respectable neighbor, his loving mother, or his doctor. But, researchers and physicians caution that even those individuals that seem to be living the ideal life may have a hidden problem. Although hidden, their addiction can be very dangerous to them.

Almost four million people are living a secret life as an addict. A 2007 study by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) states that of alcoholics, 19.5 percent are considered "high-functioning" alcoholics. They have successful careers (usually high-paying jobs), happy marriages, good children, nice homes, and many friends. Social drinks with business associates or a one drink at home at night to relieve stress from the day can build slowly into multiple drinks each night that an individual falls into addiction without realizing it.

What Problem

An addict who can function like anyone else, or even excel in work and play denies that they even have a problem. Dr. Mark Willenbring, former director of the NIAAA's division of treatment and recovery research, says that these individuals don't see any interference from the alcohol that they use. Other than a hangover, their quiet addiction isn't interfering with their business or their family. How could they have a problem if there are no problems in their life? Willenbring states that the addict usually can't comprehend that there is a problem until it finally starts disrupting work and family.

Few Symptoms

High-functioning addicts hide their abuse problems well, but there are a few noticeable habits that these individuals may convey to those around them. A growing dependence on alcohol may cause the individual to start abusing work time and stepping out for a drink, missing engagements and meetings, losing their focus, taking sick days more frequently, and being less productive at work. Physical problems may include shakiness or insomnia.

Sarah Allen Benton, a mental health counselor at McLean Hospital in Waltham, Massachusetts, and author of Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic, is concerned about dangerous behavior the addict may fall victim to. Benton cautions that the alcoholic who is unaware or is trying to hide their addiction may be more likely to drink and drive, black out, or engage in risky sexual encounters.

Facing the Facts

For a high-functioning person to acknowledge that they have a drinking or drug addiction it usually takes a traumatic event. Some see their problem after getting issued a DUI, losing their job, getting a divorce, or engaging in life-threatening behavior. Oftentimes, these events come too late for the person to easily throw down the bottle. Once they realize they have been abusing substances, they are in so deep that they can't quit using the substance without professional help. Those who want to seek professional help then fear that they can't take time off of work for detox and rehab or everyone will find out about their addiction.

It's easy for life to become suddenly unmanageable for a high-functioning addict. Friends, family, doctors, and psychiatrists may notice subtle changes in an individual that may help that person avert an addiction. Looks can be deceiving. Awareness is the key. Alcohol and drugs can affect even the most successful and stable individuals but, with early intervention, individuals can manage their life more responsibly before the substances begin to manage it.

Posted on February 17th, 2012

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