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What is a Functioning Addict?

Most people hear the term “addict” and immediately picture someone who is down and out. They imagine someone so addicted to their substance of choice that they may have lost their home and be living on the streets. Or someone involved in a life of crime, and maybe they have even been in and out of prison. While this is the reality for many addicts, there is another kind of addict called a “functioning addict.”

The term “functioning addict” is a bit of a misnomer. While yes, functioning addicts are typically able to maintain their jobs or losing all their money, they are not fully functioning people. The typical day of a functioning addict may start with a drink in the morning, and barely making it through the workday until they have a few more drinks when they get home. Functioning addicts are typically absent from their role in the family. They are removed from social groups and tend to keep to themselves.

While this may not cause physical harm, it can adversely affect the family unit and friendships.
Friends and family of an addict need to understand that addiction is a disease, even when it is in the form of a functioning addict. Often, people may look at a functioning addict and assume they simply do not want to get help or do not care to remain involved in their family and friend groups. However, functioning addicts are suffering from a disease that they may not be able to heal from on their own.

There are actual physical brain changes that occur in the brain of a functioning addict. Typically drugs and alcohol cause a dopamine release in the brain. After this pattern is repeated multiple times, as is the case with an addict, the brain stores the memory that using a specific substance will make the whole body feel better, even though the substance is harmful. The dopamine release is so powerful, it makes it very difficult for the addict to find happiness or joy from anything other than the substance to which they are addicted. The more a person uses a substance to feel better, the stronger the neuro connections in the brain become that drive the person to desire the substance.

One of the important parts of addiction treatment is building new neuropathways the re-teach the brain how to find pleasure in something other than the addict’s substance of choice. It is also important that addicts learn to avoid triggers, and when they do encounter triggers, learn healthier ways of dealing with them. Functioning addicts may be able to participate in most day to day activities. However, their lives are still negatively affected by substances. Many functioning addicts can find outpatient treatment, which can help them regain control of their lives. Addiction is a challenging disease to heal from without help. Fortunately, there are many resources available to those living with this disease.

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