Evolving Beyond High-functioning Addiction
Deep Fix №18
When I lived deep inside a chemical dependency, I did not have the presence of mind to do many things. Paying bills, wiping coke residue off my nose at social gatherings, and watering plants were outside of my capacity. There was a stretch where I mainly ate Nerds Rope, drank Coca-Cola, and forgot to brush my teeth. Hence the joke in A.A./N.A. to ensure you take your “14th Step”—going to the dentist. And don’t even get me started on the predatory so-called “13th Step”—sleeping with a newcomer.
One thing I was sure about, however, was that I was a “high-functioning” addict (an “HFA”). I’ve written extensively about how addicts, especially those of the privileged variety, believe that they possess superhuman qualities. That they are special, distinct from the folks shooting dope huddled up on the street. My own notions of superiority prevented me from getting help for many years. I ineffectively sought hybrid treatment in secret, unable to face the fear of my colleagues and friends finding out the (glaringly obvious) reality of my existence.
The term high-functioning addiction is often used to describe such an addict who can maintain a respectable, even high-profile life, usually with a home, family, job, and friends. Typically, HFA’s carry this juggling act until something nasty happens when, finally, the truth is revealed to themselves and others.
As I continue to study addiction and mental health, my thoughts about “high-functioning addiction” have evolved. A revisiting is due.
First, should we even call it ‘high-functioning’ addiction?
Whether or not you are an addict, chances are someone you care about is, and this disorder has touched you. The language we use to describe addiction is essential. Nuance is welcome.
(Read one of my early addiction essays to understand why I believe it's outdated and inaccurate to describe addiction as a “disease.” Also of note: when I use the term “addiction,” it includes alcoholics since they are addicted to alcohol.)
Nearly all addictions begin as “high-functioning” ones. But without treatment, an intervention, or the rare “one day, I just decided to quit drinking!” personal change (bless their hearts), addiction will not stay “high-functioning” for long.
Towards the end of my rope, when I was jobless, on the brink of divorce, and broke, I was no longer “functioning”—by anyone’s standards. That is partially why my experience with addiction and recovery produced lasting change: an egotistical Ivy League technocrat, like myself, was properly humbled. It turns out, my degree from the School of Hard Motherfucking Knocks was far more valuable to my development than any fancy diploma. I was schooled to the point where my heart, mind, and spirit knew no difference between anyone. The walls of separation dissolved, with each ego death drawing me further away from my identity as a productive member of the working class.
So, what are we saying when we describe ourselves as “high-functioning” addicts?
We are signaling our social status. We are differentiating ourselves from “low-functioning” addicts (“LFA’s”).
To be even blunter: the term high-functioning addict describes sick, addicted people who are still capable of producing capitalistic value.
It differentiates between the wealthy and the poor, creating a false dichotomy between the two. The term is a woeful reflection of our values.
In a sense, HFA’s are an even sadder story than LFA’s because they are under the illusion that their economic output renders them more worthwhile than their “counterparts.” Yet, in truth, both HFA’s and LFA’s are sick, often highly traumatized people incapable of handling their suffering.
Now, this doesn’t mean that I’m tossing the HFA term out the window. Deep Fix swims in the Metamodern Sea of Nuance, and the term is still useful—mainly because it shows just how delusional our collective thinking is.
If you have the time and the means to read this newsletter, chances are you have a high-functioning addiction. Specifically:
A functional, compulsive dependency on digital media consumption.
An addiction to work itself (workaholism).
1. The Illusion of Participation
Addiction signifies a compulsive, repetitive behavior that has negative consequences.
Our digital screen addictions often reinforce the idea that we are highly functioning members of society. That we are not just of the world but tuned in to the world, following updates in Afghanistan, the latest flame throws in the U.S. Covid Civil War, and Britney Spears’ conservatorship.
Unless you’re a journalist or politician, I’d argue that having any notifications turned on—especially receiving “breaking news” alerts or social media mentions—has negative consequences. Notifications of any sort create false urgency—a term I coined to describe feelings of hyperarousal related to attention and productivity.
The distinction here lies in the compulsion. Whenever a free moment of stillness, an awkward silence, or when the host quickly goes to check on whether your dinner table is ready, people impulsively reach for their phones.
Too many people are hooked on glaring at shiny screens on whatever “smart” device they fancy. The harum-scarum use of phones—like checking the ‘gram whenever a moment of boredom arises as a self-soothing coping mechanism—is a functionally addictive behavior. The consequences are not as severe as snorting cocaine or Adderall unprescribed, but the same pathways in the brain become activated from seeing a “like” or “comment” and feeling as if you must respond. Spend enough time on Twitter or Instagram, and you’ll scroll across something that pisses you off, triggering your sympathetic nervous system into a state your ancestors only felt when seeing a saber tooth tiger.
At what cost are we willing to stay “high-functioning?”
2. The Delusion of Hard Work
According to a 2019 survey, nearly 48% of Americans identify as workaholics. The survey also suggested that the majority of Americans check their email before they even get out of bed in the morning. My thesis is that these numbers likely increased after a year of Working From Home with little external IRL stimulation.
Many people work neurotically rather than thoughtfully. The rise in workaholism is, of course, tied to the pervasiveness of digital screen addiction. But it’s also inseparable from the dysfunction of our work and “productivity” tools, where we can justify filling any gaps of idleness by scanning Slack channels or refreshing email—because that’s productive!
I’ll admit, workaholism as an addiction category is elusive. How can we tell someone whose livelihood depends on their productivity that their behavior is wrong or harmful?
Here, again, we must look for the negative consequences. Burnout is an obvious one, where someone reaches a state of mental exhaustion and nearly collapses from overwork.
But there’s also the more nebulous brownout—a term that originates from the energy industry, where a drop in voltage of electrical power causes lights to dim or flicker. In humans, a work-induced brownout occurs when a person drops in energy levels and enters a fog of dullness. Employee brownouts result in disengagement, demotivation, and lack of interest.
And while not as well-known as burnout, a brownout is, in fact, far more common: up to 40% of workers suffer from it. Yet, if an employee’s output remains functionally high, the brownout state of frenetic gloom can be ignored, trading paycheck and production for health.
Wounded People in a Wounded Society
I believe addiction is such a relatable topic because most people possess some form of it. But let me remind you, gentle reader:
Addiction does not live in the drug, drink, app, or Slack. It dwells inside our bodies, minds, and culture.
One of my most popular pieces of writing came when I described how America itself operates like a polluting, wasteful, and destructive HFA. Daniel Schmachtenberger, a philosopher I reference regularly, believes the most effective signal of the overall health of a society comes from measuring how much the society produces addiction in the people within it.
As far as I can tell, our culture is producing a lot of fucking addiction.
The shift I’m proposing starts with a recognition that “high-functioning” addictions are even more dysfunctional than “low-functioning” ones. Whether the addiction is one of silent suffering—with faded energy levels and incessant screen time usage—or one of the more visibly destructive kinds—with homelessness and crime—primarily depends on a person’s socio-economic status.
At least the LFA’s aren’t kidding themselves about the burdens they carry. Workaholism amongst the rich is insidious and ensnaring: wealthier people have less leisure time than the poor. For the knowledge worker, work is more than an addiction. It’s a religion that blinds us from looking at our individual and collective darkness.
I’m not suggesting we label every new technology or remote work development as an addiction.
Rather, we should understand the side effects of merely functioning in our modern society. Wounding occurs at every turn.
We should strive for less compulsive behavior against things we value—on all ends of the socio-economic and addiction spectrum. The bar for what makes a healthy and fulfilled life should remain high. We cannot break our own addictions and then help others do the same while compulsively doom-scrolling and working until we reach a breaking point. Perhaps it starts by reevaluating our own ability to function.
🫀Community. We met this week to dialogue about psychedelics and altered states of consciousness, and we meet again in two weeks. Still over a month to finish reading our book club read. And finally, the last call to join the Discord! Click here to join our digital campfire.
😂 Situation Normal. Michael Estrin is one of the funniest storytellers out there. His short story “We Got a New Garage Door” had me IRL LOL’ing several times. It’s damn refreshing to read a Substack newsletter like his. Subscribe here, and enjoy!
💊 Defeat Addiction. Dr. Andrew Huberman interviews Dr. Anna Lembke, Chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic. After listening to this, I def plan on reading her book that was just released this week: Dopamine Nation.
🤯 The Secret History of Psychedelics. Brain Muraresku, author of the Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name, was interviewed on Lex Fridman’s podcast. Mararesku is exceptionally well-read, articulate, profound, and undoubtedly a rising star. This is a must-watch for anyone interested in the history of psychedelics, philosophy, and religion.
Thanks for reading Deep Fix.
Until next time …
P.S… if you enjoyed this week’s missive, you can LMK by hitting the heart button below 🖤