Functional addicts: Is my loved one hiding an addiction?

Do you suspect that a loved one is hiding an addiction? Parents, kids, spouses, lovers, and friends…all can become adept at functioning even when they are suffering inside.
So, what is addiction? And what can you do about it? We review here. Then, we invite your feedback and questions at the end.

minute read

Is it addiction?

“Addicted” means being physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance, and being unable to stop taking it without incurring adverse effects. How do you measure dependence and who gets to decide what is an ‘adverse effect?’

The picture most have of an addict is someone out of control, stealing to get enough money for one more hit, the drunk passed out on the floor. We know these people have a problem because it is totally obvious: they can’t function to take care of themselves. But the vast majority of people with addiction problems are functional, and can maintain the appearance of normalcy. Plus, some addicts and alcoholics are highly functioning…making it difficult to convince them that they need help.

Different ways of hiding addiction

We don’t classify people as being “good” or “bad” at addiction, but some are better at managing than others. Think about the social drinker who seemingly thrives in life until something changes and then suddenly they need help. Are they not an addict until the moment when they finally need help, or are they just better at managing their dependence through the years?

For the family of a functional addict understanding “the problem” in the home can be enormously difficult, because “the problem” may not be obvious. The same behaviors that enable the addict to mask their problem are often emotional and psychological manipulations that subtly distort reality. So how do you know if there is a problem with addiction or alcoholism in a functional household? How do you identify a problem with addiction?

Questions to ask about addiction

These questions can help you better understand the situation, and allow you to get support even if the individual who is dependent isn’t prepared to seek help themselves:

1. How often do they use drugs or drink?

With the enormous number of addictive pharmaceuticals on the market sometimes this may look like “needing my medicine” even after the acute medical condition has passed. Think about the woman who at sixty-five has been taking cough medicine with codeine every night for twenty years, or the thirty-five year old man who never stopped taking the stimulants for ADD that he was given as a teen.

Does a “glass of wine” with dinner need to happen every night and is it really one glass or does it always turn into two, or three, or more? Or, is your teen highly functional but hiding alcoholism or drug use? Get honest and take stock of what is going on around you.

2. Are they using to effect a result?

After a stressful day you might need to unwind. But what if that requires a chemical substance of some kind? Is there always a cocktail before dinner, or smoking a joint as soon as they get home? If so that is probably an indication that functioning is dependent on drugs or alcohol.

3. How important is it?

What happens when the addicted behavior can’t occur? If there is no wine in the house to have with dinner is the meal held up while someone goes to the store? If the prescription bottle is empty what happens, is there a mood change, irritability, panic, or anger? Is it important to make sure that there is always a supply available of whatever it is that is used? If so this is a good indication that there is functional dependence in the home.

Functional addiction can be hard to spot

Some people are good at hiding their addiction from others and from themselves, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real and it doesn’t mean that there is no impact from the behavior. With functional addiction we have a hard time identifying exactly what the problem is. But it can be a slow poison for the people who live around it, certainly no less damaging than living with someone who is not functional.

If you feel like a loved one is dependent on drugs or alcohol you can try to address your concerns with them. If they aren’t willing to hear that, or simply don’t agree that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem, it just means that you have to focus on taking care of yourself and getting the support you need to cope with your reality.

About the author
Maggie Harmon is a writer, speaker, leadership coach and business consultant who approaches every engagement through a holistic understanding of the situation. Her consulting practice focuses on deeply understanding who or what you are and what you want to achieve, and from there helping to create a plan, develop tools, and access resources that let you get where it is you want to go, and do what you do, better! You can connect with her here or via Maggie's Blog.
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