“Are you okay?”
This was what I remember Mr. Johnson (not his real name) asking me as I exited the upstairs executive restroom after having sniffed the contents of a glassine bag through a dollar bill. It wasn’t a hundred-dollar bill like they show in all of those docudramas. It was a single. My hundred dollar bills were dwindling by the early part of the workweek.
I was a salesman at a busy Honda dealership, and I was doing okay financially, but most of what I had left after my weekly expenditures were left in the glove box of my car. When I’d go out to my car later in the morning, the money would miraculously turn into various substances I’d put up my nose throughout the day. We had a pretty good system. That is, until the dealership’s service writer witnessed the entire transaction one morning and took me aside:
“Some nefarious looking character pulled into the parking lot and opened the passenger door to your car, took something, left something, and closed the door. If I were you, I would do everything possible to make sure that never happens again.”
This was the culture at the car dealership. Illegal and reckless behavior wasn’t encouraged, but if you were “moving units,” it was somewhat tolerated. At the time, in my temporary insanity, I felt like I was fortunate to work in such a permissive situation. Looking back today, I am not so sure how lucky I really was.
I was living in a hell that I did not know how to escape from. As I mentioned, in retrospect with over nine years of sustained recovery, I can now see how destructive and skewed my perception was back then; however, while I was in it, it felt inescapable. That seems foolish to me now.
There was a time a few years ago, I saw a turtle dead on its back, and it made me think of that time in my life. Survival would have been as easy as someone coming along and turning that poor creature over—but in the absence of that assistance, she died. It was such a shame. That’s what it was like. It felt like I was imprisoned by my circumstances, but all I needed was a little help. Just one little push to right myself.
Statistically, 50,000 people die each year in the United States because they never get that help.
It is a lot more common to find high-functioning alcoholics than it is to find employed, socially acceptable addicts, but we are out there. The similarities both situations share is the lonely daily existence, vacillating between sadness, fear, and apprehension. There are other traits to look for if you suspect someone you love is suffering in this way.
1. Isolation. This can present in its most literal form, such as holing up somewhere each day to use substances without drawing attention to oneself, and more figuratively, when the addict has to exist emotionally detached from their loved ones to keep the charade going successfully. Neither situation is healthy and really only serves to augment the inherent feelings of loneliness this lifestyle is known for.
2. Engaging in risky behavior. It is almost a given that this sub-section of the population is always driving under the influence unless they live in an area where public transportation is readily available; however, even in these metropolitan areas, getting around under the influence can be dangerous. It doesn’t end with that, though. Poor decision making, whether in sexual situations or illicit transactions to obtain drugs, also results in unnecessary and sometimes daily life and death situations. Rolling the dice that often just means that coming up with a pair of snake eyes becomes an eventuality. The odds are not in the person’s favor.
3. Severe mood swings. In the roller coaster life of running out of addictive substances, having to get more, and thinking about the ways and means to do so, it is inevitable that the person will always come off as unpredictable and mercurial. Happy when they have what they need, apprehensive when they begin to run out, and downright intolerable when they are without. This only adds to the isolation because, as a matter of course, people begin to avoid the person.
4. Amnesia. One of the dangers of substance use is blacking out. The person tends to use too much of whatever it is they are using and oftentimes can act belligerent and obnoxious to everyone around them. It is not unheard of for domestic violence issues to crop up in these situations. With blackouts, though, there is never any memory of what took place for the bad actor—because of this, there is just no way to repair the damage that is done. Obviously, a person needs to be aware of their behavior to change it.
The M.O. of the high-functioning addict consists of many other traits and oddities, but these are the most noticeable and the most destructive.
While it is never very easy to get someone with a substance use issue to seek help, making an attempt is a noble act. It is true that 90 percent of the time, the effort will be stymied by an energetic refusal and a protestation, but it is all worth it in those rare cases where you helped save a life.