We speak with four high functioning recovering addicts to understand the challenge of this disease.

At one point when Joe (not his real name), 42, was at the height of his addiction, he was imbibing a bottle of vodka a day. “I’d drink at work, after work. I would even wake up in the middle of the night to drink,” he recalled. “I wasn’t drinking the good stuff, just whatever I could get my hands on. At work, I had a water bottle that I’d fill with vodka, and people would comment that I was going healthy, drinking more water. They didn’t know.” 

A management consultant, Joe’s erratic work schedule abetted his addiction. He’d hop into a bar claiming to be with a client, or excuse himself from work and drink while on international conference calls. He even briefed the CIO of a company once while he was completely drunk. No one knew, because work was getting done. 

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Joe and many others like him, are what addiction counsellors call “high functioning addicts” (HFAs). They are not your typical addicts – criminals with dodgy pasts or gang members who deal as much as they take in. Joe had a wife and a professional career. His parents were non-drinkers. But his obsession for drink and sex were eating away at his life in ways no one could tell. “I wasn’t happy with myself, and alcohol and compulsive masturbation were escapes. When I drank, I didn’t want to stop at one drink. I wanted to get hammered and I had this deep-seated belief that I could control it,” he explained. “I watched pornography, and visited massage parlours and prostitutes. In the meantime, I did a lot of work so no one knew the depth of my addictions.” 

Today, Joe is sober. He checked in to a private recovery clinic in Chiang Mai called The Cabin on 11 September 2013, and has been clean for the last two years. He’s not the only one who’s made a clean break from his past lifestyle. But for every one success, there are nine others who don’t break away. Worldwide, only around 10 per cent of addicts seek help. High functioning addicts are even less likely to do so, based on statistics and estimates. According to The Cabin, Singapore reads high on its list of clients who come in for recovery, and the majority of these patients are HFAs.

Medical professionals believe high functioning addicts account for as much as half of all addicts. They tend to be productive and responsible, are high achievers in the office, work in a job that pays well, and have good friends and social connections. Yet, behind the veneer of a seemingly normal life, HFAs have a compulsive need to abuse their substances of choice. Eventually, the habit catches up to them, and that’s when the problem starts.

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Charlie, 19, started using weed at the age of 12 in Switzerland before his family relocated to Mumbai. He had started smoking weed as a bit of illicit fun with friends before delving into harder drugs like MDMA (ecstasy), cocaine, smack and much more. Six weeks after he moved to the United States to go to college, he was caught by campus police with two kilograms of weed and 20 grams of cocaine. The school threw him out. But before they informed his family, he disappeared on a four-day bender with the drugs he had on him. “I left my wallet, my phone and disappeared with whatever drugs the police hadn’t seized. They’d searched my room, took everything they could find but they didn’t take what I had on me at the time,” he said. “I hadn’t considered the repercussions of my actions. It was still fun, until everything came crashing down. I was young and believed I’d kick the habit when I finished college and started work. I felt I could always stop messing around when I wanted. I didn’t have a clue I was hooked.” 

Between school and dealing drugs, Charlie consumed between five and seven grams of cocaine a day (that’s about 20 to 30 lines). “I was also smoking 10 to 12 joints, popping prescription meds and drinking,” he said. “Looking back, the quantities I was doing was quite shocking.” He checked into rehab last year, and he’s planning to go back to school this year. “My family is in Singapore. We decided we’d relocate there because going back to India would be detrimental to my recovery. The deterrents in Singapore are hefty, so those would help keep me from going back to my bad habits.” 

A number of factors helped convince Charlie that he needed help. His grandmother who was an alcoholic suffered a bout of cancer, which served as a wake-up call for him. In addition, his campus arrest did make him realise he had to do something about his drug use.

John, 35, is another successful individual who methed his way through work. “I was an analyst. I started out taking meth for fun, but found that when I used it at work, I could speed-analyse my way through. My bosses, who had no clue about my addiction, were impressed with my  productivity. I’d smoke my way through the night, seven days a week, churning out dozens of reports in days and no one questioned how I was doing it,” he said. “I did try to stop, but found that I felt lethargic and could not process as quickly. I simply could not function, so I went back to it to regain my productive levels.” Due to his heavy dependency on the drug, John began to hallucinate and eventually overdosed. He survived, but lost his job and checked in to rehab to salvage his marriage. Five years on, he’s come clean but doctors pointed out that he’s lucky not to have suffered serious damage to his health. His marriage, however, did not survive. He gets to see his son regularly and he’s made amends to his wife and family, but he knows the trust they had in him before will take much more to rebuild.

All of them have something in common, even though they are from diverse backgrounds. They all had to keep up a façade in public, even though they had a completely different life in private. 

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“Addiction is difficult to overcome,” explains Tony, a counsellor with The Cabin and a former addict. “Addicts feel like they cannot be themselves with their friends. I was addicted because I could not be in my own skin and the only way I could socialise with them was when I was on drugs, in a mask through which I could interact with them.” 

Tony picked up gambling at the age of 13, and it started around his neighbourhood in Joo Chiat over two decades ago. “I’d play poker at school with friends, drinking, smoking and all these escalated when I started to work. I got into horse racing with illegal bookies and started taking marijuana. When I was 17, I joined a gang and that’s when my addictions got more severe.” 

Meth and heroin were his drugs of choice. “I came clean for a couple of years when I was in the army but the moment I completed national service, I fell right back in. I started using at home and eventually my parents threw me out. That’s when it became rapidly worse. I moved into an apartment with other gang members and became involved in organised crime. Gambling dens, pimping, dealing… we were gambling every day. Money was easy-flowing since I was involved in so many vices. I was spending $500 to $1,000 a day on drugs, drinks and gambling.” 

Tony kicked the habit after he was arrested for possession and consumption. He went to a halfway house, disconnected from his gang and got a degree in marketing and finance. That was when he learnt to trade, and his gambling addiction took over. He borrowed money, maxing out credit loans to speculate on options and shares. He convinced himself he was making investments for the future but it was essentially a way to feed his addiction. “To me, money wasn’t the end game, but a way of keeping score. Gamblers want to beat the system, to be in control because we are insecure and bored. We’re in it for the thrill when we win and for me, that was when I beat the market when I was trading.”

Joe concurs. “When I went to prostitutes to feed my sexual addiction, it wasn’t about the sex, but about the BDSM fetishes and about the idea of paying for love. It was the emotional satisfaction of the process. During the entire time when I was addicted and at work, no one there realised I had a problem, or they were too polite to speak about it.” 

Charlie recalls sitting down for family dinners high. “For seven years, I did not know my family. I’d be sitting at the dinner table, listening to them talk. But I was not absorbing anything at all. My parents had no idea about the depth of my addiction. They thought I was just experimenting. They caught me with weed, MDMA, cocaine, but they would sit me down and have words, but I always managed to convince them I was just messing around with my friends.” 

One thing that Charlie got very adept at was hiding his addiction from his family. He would time his drug use at home so that they would not realise it. “I’d line up two fat lines of coke, one gram each, go in to the bathroom for 10 minutes, play some music, flush and snort one line, then turn on the tap and snort the other. I spent hours a day thinking about how I would make sure the smell of weed would be hidden, how to smuggle drugs from one place to another. It was worse when I travelled. I had to figure out how to hide the drugs, to avoid detection at the airport, hide from sniffer dogs, what were my sources when I arrived, etc.” 

Tony agrees that hiding your addiction is something that’s common among HFAs. Nobody realised the severity of his gambling addiction until he lost over $100,000 and could not cough up the dough to pay back the legal moneylenders. A friend helped him to cover the six-digit debt. He has since repaid the debt but it took another five years before he reconciled with his family. “I became fiscally responsible, got married and demonstrated that I was not about to fall back. But it was still difficult for them to trust me fully.”

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With Joe, the only person who was aware of how bad a state he was in was his wife. He cites two major incidents when he was with her, getting thoroughly wasted to the point of blacking out and after that she insisted he get help. “I don’t remember what happened. One was at a work function for her company. She still refuses to tell me what happened.” He went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but continued to drink. “I couldn’t stop it. I was like a zombie. I knew better, but I would walk towards the convenience store to buy liquor. I became suicidal at one point. One day in 2012, I got completely smashed and thought it would be a good day to die. Right up to the time when I was heading to the rehab clinic, I was downing Bloody Marys on the plane.” 

When Joe returned to work after rehab, no one realised what had happened. He stayed with the firm for two years before he left on sabbatical. “It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work, but my priorities had changed. Recovering addicts look for meaning in life, and the company was not a good fit for me.” He’s been focused on his family the last few months, and now appreciates that gaining power and influence is not the only purpose in life, but being of service to the people around him.

Realising that they aren’t the only ones with a problem was key to recovery. “When I started to talk about drinking at work in group therapy, I felt ashamed, but then I found  others who had done the same and have managed to stay sober. It gave me confidence that I could do it too.” 

Tony notes that in his professional capacity as a counsellor, “the stigma in society of people who are seen to be successful, standing out there to admit that they have an addiction and need help is a big challenge for most people”. But that first step is important. “You follow through on things, telling the truth each day, stick around and be responsible.” They agree. It’s the start and there is no end to the road, but perseverance keeps them on it. 

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