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Closet addicts

They're successful, rich and sought after. But few know they hide a substance or process addiction
Aug 12, 2017 5:50 AM

SIMON is a 39-year-old high-flying advertising exec who makes "in excess of a million dollars a year". Like many in his industry, he thinks nothing of winding down at a bar after a 12-hour workday, downing a drink or two.

But over the years, the nights grew longer and the drinks got harder. "Every now and then when Facebook offers an 'On This Day' photo memory from a few years back, that photo is frequently of me and my mates drinking in a bar," he says wryly.

It got harder and harder for him to get up in the morning for work. And even at the office, he was listless and lethargic. Despite still delivering mediocre to good work - enough to justify his high pay package - depression set in, giving way to more heavy drinking. And he soon found himself descending into a dark and desperate state.

"I was having many suicidal thoughts, which I never had before," says Simon. "I have a good career and terrific family - but here I was thinking of ways to give it all up."

He is one of thousands of Singaporeans and expatriates who are classified as high-functioning addicts. At the outset, they could be top university scholars scoring straight As or legal hotshots who are partners in law firms. They could be exemplary school teachers, model airline pilots or - paradoxically - in-demand medical professionals.

But beneath their golden veneers of success is a secret addiction to a substance such as alcohol and drugs, or a process such as sex, gambling and Internet use. In most cases, many of their friends and colleagues are either vaguely or completely unaware of the problem - only the people who live with high-functioning addicts know or suspect it.


The Cabin Singapore, one of The Cabin's chain of addiction treatment providers across the world, says hundreds of successful Singaporeans have come through their doors to seek treatment in recent years.

Although drug addiction cases are fewer here compared to other countries owing to Singapore's punitive drug laws, it is still a common problem along with alcohol addiction. Among its patients, 90 per cent are white-collar workers, with about 70 per cent of that holding senior and middle-management positions.

For Simon, things finally came to a head when he lost his temper in front of his daughters, screaming obscenities and breaking things. His wife, who had mostly tolerated his drinking, decided enough was enough. She demanded he get help for the sake of their family - and through his drunken haze he knew she was right.

Simon checked into The Cabin's inpatient rehab centre in Chiang Mai, Thailand. There amid the lush and tranquil landscape, he underwent a classic 12 step-programme of owning up to his alcoholism, making a commitment to turn things around, and following through on this commitment.

This was augmented with other forms of treatment such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), in which the patient learns to recognise his impulses and develop alternative ways of coping. There were also daily exercises and yoga classes.

After about two months, Simon was able to return to Singapore, where he has been sober for 10 months. He goes to The Cabin Singapore at Novena Medical Centre once a week for group therapy with dozens of other men.

He says: "I find a lot of comfort being in that room with other recovering addicts. Even though they might be drug or sex addicts - different from me - we can relate to each other's battles. For me, they became the final pieces of the jigsaw in understanding my situation - something that non-addicts, like my wife, don't get."


Eleanor Ong, a clinical psychologist at The Cabin, says high-functioning addicts can be found in just about any industry where the pressure and stakes are high.

She says: "When they come to us, things have gotten very bad in terms of their work, health and/or relationships. If they had been high performers in the past, their work might now be mediocre. If they are married - and more often than not, they are - their wives have had it with them and are threatening divorce."

While high-functioning addicts are unsurprisingly skilled at hiding their addictions, there are always tell-tale signs. In the case of alcoholics, for instance, these include the compulsion to always "go for a drink" during lunchtime, making drinking a priority at events, and frequently talking about trying to quit but never quite kicking the habit.

Ms Ong says: "Many of my clients are men, with the youngest being 17 and the oldest in his mid-50s. About 65 per cent of the men here are addicted to alcohol, or a combination of alcohol and sex, and the remaining 35 per cent are hooked on drugs, gambling, gaming, food, and so on."

Why the preponderance of men among high-functioning addicts?

Ms Ong replies: "There's no evidence that high-functioning addiction is tilted towards one particular sex, so it's not correct to state that men are more prone than women to become high-functioning addicts... However, there are more men compared to women in high-functioning jobs and there is also evidence that men are more vulnerable to depression caused by stress. And stress is one of the main causes of addiction."


According to Ms Ong, many of her patients start using experimental drugs or alcohol while in their teens. One young man now undergoing therapy is JX, who was until last year pursuing economics at an Ivy League institution.

He says he and his buddies started sampling their parents' alcohol when they were in Raffles Institution. When he went to the United States for his studies, his schoolmates introduced him to recreational drugs.

Before he knew it, he was hooked, blowing all of his allowance on drugs. When he had to beg his parents for more money, they thought something was amiss. His elder brother flew down for a visit and uncovered the facts.

"I was livid as hell when my brother arrived. I screamed at him and threw stuff at him... Looking back, I'm glad he came at the right time. I was on a dangerous downward spiral, far away from home, with no family member looking out for me. I could have hurt myself or someone else."

JX has taken two semesters off to recover. His parents wrote to the university administration, using "stress" as an excuse. "Only my closest friends know the real reason."

When JX returns to the US for his studies next spring, his parents will take turns visiting and staying with him to ensure he doesn't relapse. JX says: " I know the other undergrads would call me a Mummy's boy if they found out my Mum will be temporarily living with me when I resume my studies. But I'd risk that than the possibility of relapse."

He has also arranged to speak to his counsellor on Skype every week for an hour. And he is exploring the possibility of joining a drug addicts anonymous group for support - like Simon, JX says a support group is crucial for staying clean.

According to Ms Ong, most of her young Singaporean patients are overseas students. Various factors such as newfound freedom, loneliness, insecurity, peer pressure and the need to fit in drive these youths to drink excessively or experiment with drugs.

JX recalls: "When I first got accepted into this university, I was over the moon. Little did I know that being away from home and the social structures I was used to made me prone to feeling anxious and depressed. Right now, I dread going back there - even though getting into this university was once all I ever wanted."


* The Cabin Singapore: 3158 9949

* National Addictions Management Service (All Addictions): 6732-6837

* National Council on Problem Gambling Helpline: 1800-6668-668

* Thye Hua Kuan Problem Gambling Recovery Centre: 6576-0840

* The Samaritans of Singapore (24 hours): 1800-2214-444