Can functional addicts change?

If someone is really “good” at being an addict, do they ever really need to change? More on how you can cope with a functional addict who never really “hits bottom” here.

minute read

Some people aren’t good at being addicts

A few years ago, I was listening to an old rock star being interviewed on the radio. I was struck by something he said when the interviewer asked about struggles with addiction and drug use over the years:

“I’m not very good at being an addict so I have to just stay clean,” he said.

I really had to pause and think about that statement and it clearly struck the interviewer as well because she followed up by saying that is was an odd statement and ‘Who is really good at being an addict?’

The answer was so simple – loads of people, really. There are way more functional addicts walking around than people who get so caught up in their addiction that they either get help or die. And I just had to stop the car and think about what I was hearing. On the one hand it was so obvious, and, on the other hand, it seemed absolutely absurd.

An addict doesn’t have to LOOK like an addict

My parent’s have led their lives revolving around substance use since before I was born. If you asked, they would never say they were addicts because addicts are the people who:

  • can’t hold down a job
  • pass out from over consumption
  • end up completely out of control and in need of rescue

Only addicts like that need to get help. But it occurs to me that maybe that is just the kind of person who is not good at being an addict.

There is the other type of addict that quietly defines their life around their substance of choice and just gets by. You know, a functional addict. I don’t think they are any less an addict, they are just better at maintaining their addiction, and I think that can be incredibly hard on the people around them.

Functional addiction affects the whole family

Growing up I was always clothed, I was always fed, I had shelter. The horrors of addiction as they are advertised did not live in my house. But there was everyday use, and everyday being just wasted enough to feel good and still just functional enough to cook a meal, clean the house, go to work.

Decisions were made based on the ability to access the substance, some choices were curtailed because of the need to use. In my mind… that is addiction, but that is what I understand today. Growing up, they would point to the other person who was falling down drunk, or in jail, or who had lost a job or their family and say,

‘See! That person has a problem, we don’t.’

Can a functional addict change?

When you live with or love an addict, there are times that you hope it will come to a crisis point. You may not know how to name it… but you hope that they are not good at being an addict, that they will realize this, and they will be forced to change. After all, people only change when something becomes so uncomfortable that they feel compelled to do something different.

If you are good at being an addict, then you never have that crisis point, and you never have an opportunity to change the behavior and change the relationship. Living with a functional addict is living with a crazy person and it can destroy the lives of those around them just as easily as it destroys their own.

Resignation and acceptance of a “managed” addiction

I am now in my middle years and I have done a great deal of work to understand and accept who my addicted parents are, which doesn’t make it any easier. It just makes it more peaceful.

What I find now is a resignation that when someone is good at being an addict there just isn’t a crisis moment when things can change, because the addict has no reason to do anything different. So, the challenge for the adult child of an addict is the challenge of the child of any aging parent coupled with the necessary acceptance of an unpleasant reality.

Some things never get old

I often find myself wishing that my parents were bad at being addicts. I think it might have made some things easier over the years. Certainly, the ability to jointly address the problem with honesty would have been great. But here we are, and even as so much else has changed and the roles associated with parent and child are adjusting with the complexity of aging, some things are not changing, some things are not going to change, they just get older.

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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