Many stereotypes about people suffering from opioid addiction are wrong and outdated. The fact is, opioid addiction affects people of all ages, from all walks of life. It affects clergy members, medical professionals, housewives and CEOs. Crossing socioeconomic lines, people of all ages can develop an opioid addiction. At times, the addiction can be deceiving, as life seems to continue as “normal”. In fact, it’s possible to be a highly functioning addict temporarily.

A functioning addict will often successfully hide his or her opioid abuse from friends, family members, and co-workers. He or she may be a model student, an attentive parent, or highly skilled and valued at work. But how long can someone who is addicted to opioids remain a functioning addict and prevent the substances from impacting their life?

Here are three important things you need to know.

1. Addiction is always progressive.

By its very nature, addiction is a progressive disease, much like diabetes or heart disease. Without treatment, it always gets worse. This is due to the brain changes that characterize addiction.

A healthy brain rewards healthy behaviors with a rush of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that produces feelings of pleasure. When you eat, exercise or bond with someone you love, the brain releases a certain amount of dopamine so that you’ll continue to seek out these life-giving activities again and again.

When you use drugs, the brain’s natural reward system is hijacked, according to Harvard Medical School. Large amounts of dopamine are released, making you want to use drugs repeatedly. After a while, normal, everyday pleasures are no longer as rewarding as they once were, and your primary focus in life turns to getting pleasure in life from drugs rather than seeking out natural, healthy pleasures.

Chronic opioid use affects areas of the brain responsible for learning, memory and motivation. It affects the decision-making center of the brain and makes it very difficult to make choices that are healthy and promote optimal functioning. Over time, using becomes central to life, while relationships and hobbies begin to take a back seat. You begin to neglect duties at work, school or home, and you start to neglect your health and wellbeing. It could take months, or even years, but eventually, addiction will inevitably progress to the point of dysfunction and disability.

2. Opiates may seem to help at first, but they almost always make things worse.

A functioning addict may abuse opiates for a variety of reasons:

  • To reduce symptoms of anxiety or depression.
  • To get high.
  • To self-medicate physical or mental pain.
  • To prevent withdrawal.

No matter the reasons a functioning addict has for using opioids, and however opioids seem to make life better, using makes everything much worse in the long-run, including pain and mental illness. Even a highly functioning addict can’t escape the devastating effects of long-term opioid abuse on physical and mental health, including organ failure, blood diseases and serious mental illness. Additionally, the risk of overdose and death for a functioning addict is always high, whether the addiction involves heroin or prescription opioid painkillers.

3. Treatment can help a functioning addict end the addiction and dependence before they lead to severe disability.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, willpower and good intentions are rarely enough to end an addiction for the long-term. Professional help is almost always needed.

Medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction can prevent withdrawal and block cravings while helping to normalize brain function so that you can focus on addressing the issues behind the addiction and work on improving or restoring your life.

A functioning addict is always on borrowed time. Getting help before the addiction progresses can save your relationships, your job, your health and even your life. Treatment works, and it can work for you, too, whatever your reasons for using opioids.