The media gives us images of haggard, homeless addicts ranting, fighting or getting into accidents while high or drunk, but not all addictions are so simple to spot. Many individuals maintain a functional addiction for months or even years before drug use begins to take an observable toll on their lives. This does not mean that a functional addiction is harmless as it still has severe consequences on a person’s health and personal and professional life.
Identifying functional addiction in a loved one or coworker can help him or her put an end to addiction before it progresses further. The sooner you take action against yours or a loved one’s addiction, the easier it is to get treatment and establish mental and physical health.
Denial is a common sign of functional addiction
Functional addicts are, by definition, difficult to identify. As Understanding Why Addicts Are Not All Alike explains, “functional addicts are maintaining jobs and relationships, managing to avoid the criminal justice system, and are not experiencing serious health problems” (2011). The most obvious markers typically used to determine addiction are not present, but this does not mean that there are no signs of functional addiction.
Denial is one of the most obvious signs of functional addiction. Users often point to the lack of serious or stereotypical consequences of drug or alcohol use as a reason their substance use habits are “harmless.” Stigmas and misconceptions about addiction harm those who would otherwise seek treatment or ask for help, and they harm those who see these classic images of addiction and see that they do not apply to their lives. Functional addicts are not homeless or jobless, so they can deny that substance use is a problem in their lives.
Addiction is a chronic disease, and it progresses in time, even if the progression is slower among functional addicts. The progression of addiction is also typically slower among men than women, so it is easier for men to continue to deny addiction and continue to function in daily life.
As Harvard Medical School explains, “Women tend to progress more quickly than men from use of an addictive substance to dependence on it (a phenomenon known as telescoping).
They also develop medical or social consequences of addiction faster than men, and are more susceptible to relapse after quitting” (“Women Face Tough Challenges in Overcoming Addiction,” January 2010). Although experiencing severe consequences of drug use is never preferable, telescoping does prevent individuals from maintaining a functional addiction and continuing with harmful substance abuse for long periods of time.