But maintaining this difference between a functioning addict and a regular addict can be harmful to a person who truly struggles with a substance addiction. The term can act as a barrier to someone deciding to get help. If my drinking or drug use isn’t causing too much harm, and if we’re all casually joking about it, is it really that big of a problem?
The “functioning addict” idea can indeed fuel a lot of delusion. I used to convince myself opiates were performance enhancing for me to the extent I would look down judgmentally on colleagues who drank alcohol at lunch—“Don’t they consider the impact that will have on their work!?” Meanwhile, I’d just been taking heroin in the toilet.
A substance may be functional at first in the sense that it helps you cope. But the addiction is papering over the problem, which is growing and growing all the while. That’s partly why it can be so terrifying to quit—you are confronted with all the problems you tried to escape in the first place, many magnitudes greater by now, with your self-esteem in tatters. From this stems the belief “I can’t cope without it.”
Finally, all aspects of my life spiraled out of control. My performance plummeted, and progressive dysfunction set in…. Sometimes people cling to a romanticized idea of the functioning addict, the creative genius, etc. But the reality is most people’s output slides in quantity and quality as their addiction progresses.
An addict may be “functioning,” but at what cost? What cost to their physical and mental well-being, to their social and professional life, to the well-being of their family?