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What Does It Mean to Be High-Functioning?

handsome serious looking young Black man at work in office - high-functioning

One of the greatest challenges is recognizing when you or someone you love has a substance problem—especially when they seem to handle daily life just fine. Unfortunately, some people can be what medical professionals deem “high-functioning” but still struggle with drug or alcohol addiction.

Misconceptions Hide True Problems

There are many preconceived notions about who an “addict” might be and who doesn’t have a problem.

I’m a good person

“I’m an active member of my community, haven’t stolen anything, don’t hurt anyone, and pay my bills on time.” Aligning morality with substance use disorder (SUD) or alcohol use disorder (AUD) is an antiquated notion from before Prohibition. You can do all the “right” things but still develop SUD or AUD, because addiction is a chronic brain disease caused by chemical changes.

Yes, someone’s behavior often changes as a result of their addiction, but even without these indicators, a person could have AUD or SUD if other risk factors are present, such as mental health issues, genetic predisposition, stress, trauma, grief, and environmental pressures.

I can stop anytime I want

“I don’t have a problem. This is just how I blow off steam or hang out with people at work or entertain clients.” Maybe on occasion, this rationale works fine. But experts say over time, altered brain chemistry caused by excessive drug or alcohol use creates a compulsion that isn’t managed simply by willpower.

How do you know if drinking is truly interfering with your life? Here are some of the key symptoms. Many of these signs are indicative of a drug problem as well.

I don’t have any issues

“I’ve never had a DUI, my health is fine, my family is fine, I don’t have legal or financial trouble.” This is when the line blurs between someone who’s high-functioning and an individual suffering severe consequences because of SUD or AUD.

WebMD outlines that heavy drinking for a man is defined by four or more drinks daily, or an average of 14 weekly. For a woman, the range is three or more drinks daily, or about seven weekly. These and other guidelines referenced above help to identify AUD. If someone continues to take medication after a physical or mental health problem is resolved, or combines prescription drugs with alcohol for a desired effect, these are just two key indicators of SUD.

Other Factors of Someone Who Is High-Functioning

Notably, people who are high-functioning appear to be in control most of the time. However, experts say eventually, they might put themselves and others at risk through behaviors such as:

  • Driving while under the influence of alcohol, illicit drugs, or prescription medication.
  • Engaging in other compulsive behaviors such as gambling, excessive shopping, risky sexual encounters, gaming, and eating disorders.
  • Not addressing more serious issues, such as blacking out or health concerns.

Some people who are high-functioning also tend to use alcohol or drugs more often when they’re alone, as a way to feel more confident, or as a method of relaxation.

Additionally, they might have a strong aspect of denial—not simply regarding the points we outlined above, but in other ways, such as getting upset when someone else references their drug or alcohol behavior, joking about excessive use, not being truthful about how much they use, or hiding their behavior.

More About High-Functioning Addiction

But being high-functioning isn’t always about denial or concealment. This term is frequently applied to people who have anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues; autism; and even chronic physical conditions who “seem to function mentally or physically at a higher level than others with the same condition.” So if a person drinks or uses drugs excessively, but not as much as others in their household, workplace, school, or peer group, they might be defined as high-functioning, especially if no other issues are present.

Another interesting point: people who are high-functioning are often in the following industries:

  • Restaurant and bar service
  • Construction
  • Entertainment
  • Law enforcement
  • Healthcare professionals, including pharmacists, physicians, and nurses, psychiatrists
  • Pilots
  • Lawyers
  • Financial managers

The Mayo Clinic details the specific symptoms of SUD for various types of drugs as well as alcohol. This information might be a helpful resource to start a confidential conversation with a medical professional about your use or the concerns you have about a loved one.

Don’t Put Off Rehab

Many people believe they can’t seek treatment because of repercussions from coronavirus. While this public health concern is still a strong priority—so are other aspects of health. If you or someone you love knows deep down there’s a substance abuse problem, or had treatment before but fears a relapse, we can help.

Even a short-term stay in a specialized inpatient rehabilitation facility may provide essential clarity and access to wellness resources. Don’t put off treatment because of the coronavirus: start your healing journey today.

Looking for the top drug rehab in Georgia? Find out more about services offered by Willingway contact us 24 hours a day at, 888-979-2140, and let us help you get started on the road to recovery.Willingway - Addiction Treatment Experts

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