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Access to Excess

access to excess header

If you’ve ever seen the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, it tells of the dramatic rise and fall of Jordan Belfort. Belfort was a New York City stockbroker whose unstoppable quest for money and power took him to the heights of Wall Street. Eventually, his behavior landed him in prison. At a screening for the film, an audience of actual Wall Street financial professionals cheered when Belfort’s character (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) violently tears apart a cushion couch to get to his secret stash of cocaine in a rage-induced relapse.[1] This is an example of the kind of access to excess that makes high-powered success synonymous with drug and alcohol abuse.

The Functioning Subtype

high functioningOne popular perception of drug addicts is that they are dirty, unemployed and morally weak people. One surprising truth about substance abuse is that addiction is not exclusive to individuals in with financial struggles.

Studies have shown that approximately 20 percent of alcoholics are high functioning. They also have good education and make good money. Out of the total US population, 19.5 percent account for the “functional subtype” of alcoholics. These individuals are typically middle-aged, have stable families and can hold down a job.[2]

While we’re all familiar with the image of an alcoholic who struggles to keep his or her life together, a “high-functioning alcoholic” is one who engages in abusive and harmful patterns of drinking. In many cases, you wouldn’t know an individual is an alcoholic from looking at them. They get to work on time. They are there for their kids at home. They have hobbies and spend time with friends.

However, they are still alcoholics as shown by the following signs:

  • They still turn to the bottle to deal with frustration and stress.
  • They make drinking part of their everyday routine.
  • They require increasing amounts of alcohol to feel any effect.
  • They engage in other forms of risky behavior.
  • They often react with denial and belligerence to the idea of their drinking being a problem.[3]

The idea of successful, ambitious people being driven to dangerous excesses makes sense. An article in Forbes magazine points out that the qualities of a good CEO – being willing to take risks, having an uncompromising vision for success, an all-consuming obsession with being the best– are the qualities that would prime someone for a substance abuse problem.[4]

The Roots of Addiction

Roots of AddictionThe electrical and neurological signals of pleasure human beings derive from successful ventures, creativity or competition come from the same place in the brain that entices drug and alcohol addicts to indulge in their behavior. The dynamics of the thrill of danger and the exhilaration of success are not that different.

Addiction is rooted in pleasure, no matter if the catalyst is chemical or behavioral. Every time we do something that gives us pleasure and enjoyment, the brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This gives us feelings of reward and satisfaction.

The connection between the activity and the sensation is sealed in the brain. It trains the brain to recognize and seek out future exposure to the activity.

However, in an unhealthy brain the chemical pathways cannot easily surrender the dopamine. When someone at risk for developing an addiction does a line of cocaine, places a bet in a casino, or goes on a wild shopping spree, their brain is forced to pump out dopamine at an unhealthy and artificial rate. This not only makes a connection between the activity and the sensations, it carves into the person’s psyche. The behavior is then actively sought out. Often this is to the detriment of other priorities in life.[5] While a drug addict hankers for his next fix, a CEO cannot control their desire to make more, to do more or to be more. While this approach may give them the appearance of success and accomplishment, it also may lead to the development of an addiction.

All Work and No Sleep

In many ways, addiction is like learning. Successful people are, by nature, intelligent. They learn about their industry and their competition. As a result, they can learn how to make substance abuse a part of their lives, while still being the first one to the office.

That incessant drive to compete and succeed can be a source of stress in itself. Often hard workers seek to cope with stress through the use of drugs or alcohol. It starts early with some high school students experiencing stress as a response to unrelenting parental and peer pressure for good grades. Complacency and relaxation may mean failure. The only way to stay ahead of the pack is to push yourself beyond your natural limitations. For students, this may mean resorting to cheating or self-medicating with stimulants to stay up all night to finish assignments or cram for an exam.[7]

Sleeping on the Job

competeMany powerful men and women deprive themselves of sleep. Research shows that many successful CEOs average only three to four hours of sleep a night.[8] One example is Vince McMahon. McMahon is the chairman of the professional wrestling organization WWE and is renowned for not having any interests or social activities outside of his business. He works relentlessly long workdays (7 am to 10 pm), and sleeps only four hours a day.[12]

Researchers have found that people who sleep less than eight hours a night are often more lackadaisical about gambling losses. This may also suggest that those who forego sleep in the pursuit of success and hard work are more cavalier about their losses. This then empowers them to take greater risks, both in their professional and personal lives.[13]

Risky Business

Successful people crave stress in the same way that a drug addict knows their habit is bad for them. They may even start a substance abuse habit as a challenge. That willingness to challenge themselves and the world around them is often what makes a dynamic, compelling and natural leader.[15]

The Never-Ending Quest

Addiction is a complicated issue.For those with a substance abuse problem, the roots of the problem might run quite deeply. An addiction researcher has found that top executives often have some kind of trauma that occurred at an early point in their lives. That event – anything from parental abuse to being told by an adult that they would never succeed in life – is usually the trigger for the unwavering determination that drives those executives.

Maybe it is to prove the person wrong. Maybe it stems from a desire to overcome the emotional roadblock of the traumatic event. This can be a “never-ending quest.” The addict continually delves deeper into their work, unhealthy lifestyle or substance abuse.[16]

Oprah WinfreyFor example, Oprah Winfrey was raped at the age of nine and gave birth at 14.[18] She later attributed a number of abusive relationships with men in her adult life to an all-encompassing need for approval. She found refuge and solace in a food addiction, which led to a weight problem.[19]

However, Winfrey never shied away from hard work. She took on more professional responsibilities.[20] Due to her constant juggling of opportunities and ventures, she had a nervous breakdown in 2012. She described the feeling as “speeding” and “numbness,[21] eerily like the feeling of being on stimulants like cocaine.[22]

The Walls of a Successful Addict

When people are successful, they often can build walls around their problems. A high-functioning addict can excuse his addiction by claiming that he deserves to take the edge off his 12-hour workdays. He can use his innate powers of persuasion, seduction, and intelligence to deflect concern. [26]

businessman alcoholMost addicts will hit rock bottom before they seek treatment. High-functioning addicts may not seek help until it is too late. The author of Understanding the High Functioning Alcoholic says it is only “a matter of time” until someone who claims to be in control of their drinking starts losing multiple battles. And when they crash, they crash hard.[27]

The hooks of their chemical abuse are too deep to easily remove. Addicts come from all walks of life.This includes individuals who have given up on life and also those who seem to have everything to live for. The successful, high-functioning addict may be the last person in the world that someone would suspect has a substance abuse problem. However, the hard-working, hard-rewarding lifestyle can only last so long before it collapses.

If any of this resonates with you or describes one of your loved ones, please call The Canyon today. We have professionally trained counselors ready to answer your questions. The Canyon offers the highest quality of care to help individuals move past substance abuse and addiction. There are many different forms of therapy available to treat you both physically and mentally. We will create a custom plan just to fit your needs. Don’t delay any longer. Get the help you need today.


[1] “We Saw “Wolf of Wall Street” With a Bunch of Wall Street Dudes and It Was Disturbing.” (December 2013). Business Insider. Accessed February 9, 2015.

[2] “Five Distinct Subtypes of Alcoholism Identified.” (June 2007). News-medical.net. Accessed February 9, 2015.

[3] “Are You a High-Functioning Alcoholic?” (n.d.) WebMD. Accessed February 9, 2015.

[4] “Why the Brains of High-Powered People May Be More Prone To Addiction.” (August 2013). Forbes. Accessed February 10, 2015.

[5] “Understanding Addiction.” (n.d.) Helpguide.org. Accessed November 28th, 2014.

[6] “Pressure for Good Grades Often Leads to High Stress, Cheating, Professors Say.” (February 2005). Stanford University. Accessed February 10, 2015.

[7] “Finals Stress Can Lead Some Students to Substance Abuse.” (December 2012). The Daily Californian. Accessed February 10, 2015.

[8] “19 Successful People Who Barely Sleep.” (September 2012). Business Insider. Accessed February 10, 2015.

[9] “Donald Trump.” (February 2015). Forbes. Accessed February 10, 2015.

[10] “Do History’s Greatest Figures Owe Their Success to Sleeping Less?” (June 2009). NYDailyNews.com. Accessed February 10, 2015.

[11] “WWE CEO Vince McMahon No Longer Billionaire After Losing $350 Million In A Day.” (May 2014). Forbes. Accessed February 11, 2015.

[12] “9 Examples of WWE CEO Vince McMahon’s Insane Work Ethic.” (August 2014) Business Insider. Accessed February 11, 2015.

[13] “9 Fascinating Facts About the Science of Sleep.” (February 2015). Vox. Accessed February 11, 2015.

[14] “Drug Use at Work: Higher Than We Thought.” (February 2011). Fortune. Accessed February 10, 2015.

[15] “Addictive Personality? You Might Be a Leader.” (July 2011). The New York TImes. Accessed February 10, 2015.

[16] “The Successful Drug Addict.” (October 2011). The Huffington Post. Accessed February 13, 2015.

[17] “Oprah Winfrey.” (n.d.) Forbes. Accessed February 10, 2015.

[18] “Oprah’s Path to Power.” (March 2003). The Guardian. Accessed February 10, 2015.

[19] “Oprah’s Ex-Boyfriend Says She Smoked Crack With Him In The 1980’s in New Book.” (January 2009). The Cleveland Leader. Accessed February 10, 2015.

[20] “What Career Women Can Learn From Oprah Winfrey.” (June 2011). Forbes. Accessed February 10, 2015.

[21] “Oprah Winfrey Reveals She Nearly Suffered a Nervous Breakdown in 2012.” (September 2013). E! Online. Accessed February 11, 2015.

[22] “Drug Abuse.” (February 2013). Medline Plus. Accessed February 11, 2015.

[23] “Can Depression Medications Make You Emotionally “Numb”?” (2008). PsychCentral. Accessed February 11, 2015.

[24] “McMahon Talks About Wanting to Kill His Stepfather on ESPN E:60.” (April 2009). Bleacher Report. Accessed February 11, 2015.

[25] “Linda McMahon’s Husband Vince Fought the Law, and the Law Lost.” (December 2009). Concussion Inc. Accessed February 11, 2015.

[26] “The Challenges of Treating High-Functioning Addicts (and How to Overcome Them).” (2012). PsychCentral. Accessed February 12, 2015.

[27] “Are You a High-Functioning Addict?” (May 2011). The Fix. Accessed February 12, 2015.

[28] “Alcoholic Liver Disease.” (October 2013). Medline Plus. Accessed February 12, 2015.