When you think of someone who suffers from drug or alcohol addiction, typically people’s minds automatically go to those rock-bottom moments we see on TV. However, not all those who abuse drugs or alcohol fit the stereotypical addict living on the streets.

These stereotypes cause many to look past the signs of someone being a drug or alcohol abuser, thinking “but they do ____, there’s no way they can be an addict”. In reality, many who rely on substances have learned how to seem fully functional while under the influence. Recent studies have found that 20% of alcoholics are highly-educated professionals with good incomes.

These high-functioning addicts rely on substances behind closed doors to get through the day, just behind closed doors. It is because these high-functioning addicts are so good at hiding their struggles that loved ones often don’t become aware of the problem until it’s too late.

What qualifies someone as a drug or alcohol abuser? What are some signs to look for in a drug or alcohol abuser that does not fit the stereotype?

If you’re worried your loved one might be a high-functional drug or alcohol abuser, here’s all you need to know to spot the signs.

The Definition of a High-Functional Drug or Alcohol Abuser

Addiction occurs when someone regularly participates in substance abuse over the timespan of several months or years and then becomes physically and psychologically dependent. Many high-functioning addictions begin due to social experimentation then using the substance regularly to help wind down after a long, taxing day. This kind of regular use often leads to tolerance and physical dependence.

If someone develops a dependence on a substance, the body requires a certain amount of it to avoid experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Substance abuse comes in many different behaviors, such as daily practice, habitual patterns, or binging.

It’s common for people to excuse these actions if the person doesn’t fit the stereotypical addict, but addiction is not a one-size-fits-all. Those who struggle with addiction have been stereotyped as someone violent, emaciated, constantly heavily sedated, unable to keep a job, or homeless. However, this stereotype creates an unrealistic depiction of addiction and allows those not actively seeking help to believe they don’t have a problem.

Signs of a High Functioning Addict

They Make Excuses for Behaviors

Many high-functioning addicts will downplay their drug and alcohol use and make excuses due to their profession or as a reward for their hard work. Often addicts will also use substances as a coping mechanism and justify it because they are feeling stressed or have negative emotions, but this is how many people develop a dependency on substances.

Having More than Intended

Many of us have gone out with friends saying “I’ll just have one drink,” which then turns into several more than expected. While this can be an occasional mishap when going out with friends, this is a regular occurrence for a high functional addict.

Since addicts develop tolerance, more of the substance must be used to feel the effect which makes it hard to limit themselves and often results in having much more than anticipated. High-functioning addicts are also great at hiding the amount they had, so while they may not have seemed blacked out at the time a sign of addiction is if they often forget what they were doing or what happened.

Participate Outside of Social Events

Using drugs or alcohol is a social activity for most people, whereas addicts feel they need substances just to get through the day. If someone regularly drinks or uses alone, has it first thing in the morning, feels the need to before going to an event, or if you catch them trying to hide it then they may be developing a dependence on the substance.

Experience Withdrawal Symptoms When Not Using

Some common withdrawal symptoms that are easy to spot are shakiness, irritability, insomnia, restlessness, frequent bloody noses, and nausea. They may even look a little different, such as having bloodshot eyes, bad breath, or a weight change. Many addicts will blame their low energy in the morning or constant headaches due to “not being a morning person,” when in reality they could be suffering from hangovers or withdrawal symptoms.

Their Friendships

If their friends binge drink or participate in illegal substance use, there is a good chance your loved one may be as well. Addicts may even start to lose friends who don’t participate in substance abuse, for their interests have changed or maybe their friend confronted them on the matter so they distanced themself.

Financial Problems

When someone is addicted to drugs or alcohol, they may begin to have an unusual need for money and ask their loved ones for help financially. While it could be situational, it may also be a sign they are spending all of their money on their addiction.

Losing Interest in Activities

While high-functional users are often still able to keep up with their responsibilities, their performance might fall at work or they will lose interest in activities they used to enjoy.

Joking About Addiction

You will often hear those that participate in substance abuse make jokes about addiction or addicts to downplay their actions. However, addiction is no joke and these statements shouldn’t be taken lightly for they may have an underlying larger issue.

How to Help

Even if your loved one hasn’t hit rock bottom, it’s never too early to get help. If you think that your loved one may be a high-functional drug or alcohol abuser and think treatment is the answer, call Healthy Life Recovery at (855) 982-2757. We have many different treatment programs in San Diego, CA, and resources available to help support your loved one on the road to recovery.

Is your loved one in denial or refusing to get help? High-functional addicts may become defensive when questioned and deny they have a problem. Read our article on How to Help an Addict that Doesn’t Want Help.


Bienvenu, Melissa. “Am I a High-Functioning Alcoholic? Know the Signs.” WebMD, WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/high-functioning-alcoholic#1.

“Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/researchers-identify-alcoholism-subtypes.“Why It’s so Difficult to Identify High-Functioning Alcoholics.” WebMD, WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/connect-to-care/addiction-treatment-recovery/identifying-high-functioning-alcoholic.

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