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Substance Use & High Achievements: A Paradox

There’s a paradox in the ways we tend to think about achievement and substance use.

On the one hand, we frequently think of those who have lots of success—in school, at work, financially, in their relationships—as “winners.”

On the other hand, we frequently think of those who misuse drugs or alcohol as “losers.”

Despite society’s tendency to make everything (and we do mean everything) into a competition, life is decidedly not a competition. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Think how much better off we might be if we thought of life as a collaboration rather than a competition.

But that’s not the paradox we are concerned with here.

Instead, the paradox is that some high achievers are also drug users—and they are drug users because they believe the substances help them reach their lofty goals. They might use drugs or alcohol to help them manage stress. Or they might use stimulants to help them focus and keep them going for long stretches of time without a break. Or they might get hooked on pain medications if their perfectionism has led to chronic stress-related pain.

An Unsustainable Situation

For a while, using drugs or alcohol may seem to help, as the high achiever continues to rack up an impressive list of accomplishments. But that’s unsustainable over time.

Is a person who accomplishes a lot with the help of drugs or alcohol a “winner” or a “loser”? We tend to believe people can only be one or the other. But the truth is far more complicated. And the answer to our question about whether a person is a winner or loser is: neither.

They are, instead, a person who needs help right away.

A Terrible Trade-off

High achievers—whether they are topflight athletes, high-profile professionals, exceptional artists, or have accomplishments in some other area—are often looking for anything and everything to give them an edge.

The highest profile examples of this tendency are probably to be found in sports. World-class athletes, some of them truly at the very pinnacle of their sports, still succumb to the temptations of performance-enhancing drugs. Why? Because they are driven to be even better—at any cost.

And make no mistake: These athletes are aware of the risks of taking drugs. But they take them anyway.

It’s not just athletes. Many high achievers in a whole range of professions make a similar decision, despite knowing the dangers of taking drugs.

Adderall: An Example

For example, Adderall, best known as a treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, is often the drug of choice for ambitious students and workers. The drug helps you stay awake for longer periods of time and can also help you maintain your focus. Those are certainly appealing benefits for a certain kind of person.

But Adderall abuse can lead to terrible consequences. Side effects of Adderall misuse may include:

  • Heightened anxiety and/or depression
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Loss of appetite, nausea, and/or weight loss
  • Constipation and/or frequent urge to urinate
  • Twitching, seizures and/or convulsions
  • Hallucinations and/or paranoia
  • Headache and/or dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Pain in the lower back and/or side
  • A sense of a loss of strength
  • Dry mouth and/or peeling skin
  • A false sense of well-being

That last symptom is shocking to consider. Your physical and mental health are both under assault when you misuse Adderall, but you may not be able to fully come to grips with that reality. The drug can actually prevent you from seeing all of the things the drug is doing to undermine your health.

An Achiever Might Be Reluctant to Seek Help

Many high achievers have their entire sense of self wrapped up in their accomplishments. They value themselves because other people value and admire them. As a result, they tend to be very resistant to anything that might tarnish their reputation, and by extension, their self-esteem.

That can include a resistance to getting help for a substance use disorder. High achievers want to be seen as winners, not as losers. And admitting to a drug problem, from their point of view, would be admitting to being a loser.

We have already discussed how this notion of winners and losers is unhelpful. But it is more than unhelpful in the situation we have outlined here. If a person obsessed with winning refuses to get help because they don’t want to be seen as a loser, they run the risk of ongoing, permanent consequences that will eventually topple their tower of accomplishments.

Reframing the Narrative: Recovery Is an Accomplishment

If you are the kind of person who pins your self-worth on your accomplishments, but you need help with a substance use disorder, we suggest a reframing.

Admitting you have a problem and then working hard to overcome that problem is, in fact, a significant accomplishment. It isn’t easy to ask for help, and the work of recovery comes with plenty of challenges. But high achievers thrive on challenges, right?

No Judgement. Just Help.

At French Creek Recovery Center, we are not focused on what you have or have not accomplished in life. And we won’t judge you for struggling with a substance use disorder. Instead, we will provide personalized, compassionate, evidence-based care that can help you reach your goal of regaining and maintaining your sobriety.

If you have been putting off getting help because you are locked into the winners vs. losers mindset, we encourage you to shift your internal narrative. You have a significant challenge to face down, and you can do it. And French Creek Recovery Center can provide the expertise, resources, and support you need to find success.

Considering a Pennsylvania addiction treatment center? For more information about French Creek Recovery Center, contact us at (814) 417-8080. We look forward to hearing from you.