4 Signs of “Functional” Addiction

There are many myths surrounding the nature of addiction, perpetuated by both the media and people’s own misconceptions and assumptions. One of these is the physical and mental state one must be in to be classified as addicted.

The popular stereotype of rock bottom addiction means complete destitution, homelessness, and near-death experiences. While all of these situations can indeed be the catalyst for great change, you don’t have to wait until you reach that point to get help. 

It’s possible to have an addiction or substance use disorder (SUD) and still be housed, employed, and have money in the bank. Many people manage their day-to-day lives, turn up for appointments and appear accountable, all while under the dark cloud of addiction.

Some people use their ability to function on a day to day basis as ‘proof’ they don’t have a problem, while others minimise their use as functional addiction. However, this can be extremely dangerous, and friends and loved ones don’t typically find out until it’s too late. Addiction usually gets worse the longer it is left untreated, so the sooner people move on from denial and into acceptance they need, the better their outcome.  

Functional addiction is different for everyone, but there are a few key signs to look out for if you’re concerned about yourself or a loved one:

Regularly Drinking or Taking Drugs

The most obvious sign of functional addiction is, unsurprisingly, drinking or taking drugs very frequently. It’s important to remember that people might appear to act normally due to their high tolerance levels, even after consuming large amounts.

If someone has been using this way for some time, they’ll likely have become adept at masking the more obvious signs of being intoxicated. You might also hear excuses or outright lies about their consumption levels as they seek to minimise their habit.

They might constantly justify why they’re drinking or using and frequently have a drink in their hand because they’ve “had a difficult day at work” or “they’re under a lot of stress”.

Social Life Revolving Around Alcohol or Drugs

On top of regularly drinking around the house, or even alone, you might notice a tendency for the person to gravitate towards events where drugs and alcohol are going to be present. 

You’ll also see that they’re less keen to attend events that don’t provide a suitable backdrop for substance use, such as family days out. They typically might find it difficult to socialise when they aren’t under the influence, so you might see a dramatic personality shift at these events as they struggle to function without a chemical crutch.

Behaving Secretively

People experiencing functional addiction will go to great lengths to hide their habit. This might work with more casual acquaintances and co-workers, but close friends or family members will notice discrepancies in their behaviour.

You might find alcohol hidden in strange places, such as garden sheds, gloveboxes, or drawers. You may also see physical signs such as nosebleeds, congestion, or smell alcohol out of context to the situation, e.g. they tell you they had to stay late at work but appear inebriated.

If you do comment, it’s common for people to have an excuse prepared. They might also offer partial truths if they’re caught out, telling you that this is the first time it’s happened or minimising their consumption levels.

Displaying Withdrawal Symptoms

One of the tell-tale signs of any addiction is withdrawal symptoms – where the body’s neurotransmitters have been unbalanced through protracted substance use, and it now depends on the substance to regulate itself. 

While physical withdrawal symptoms vary from substance to substance, the common theme is a distressed mental state. You might observe sudden mood swings which could seem out of character and occur unpredictably. They might also seem incredibly depressed or anxious if they haven’t had a drink or used their substance of choice but suddenly perk up when they get a chance to.

Getting Help for Your Loved One

Being close to a functional user can be incredibly taxing – sometimes more so than someone in full-blown addiction who does not try to hide it. The uncertainty and lies surrounding them can feel like they’re driving you mad and leave you questioning your judgement.

It’s important to remember that denial is a powerful thing, and often people have not admitted to themselves that they have a problem. People don’t use alcohol or drugs because they’re bad people – it’s often masking a greater problem such as past trauma or an undiagnosed mental health condition. 

As frustrating and unpredictable as it can be, always approach them with kindness as they need to know that they can open up to you about what’s going on for them. Coming across as angry or judgemental could potentially drive them further away and be a barrier to them seeking help.


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