Treatment Center Founder: Why Executives Struggling With Addiction Deserve Empathy

Addiction doesn't get off the elevator before the C-suite floor.


Addiction doesn't get off the elevator before the C-suite floor. Addiction doesn't care about job title, pedigree, college degrees, or how many employees you're successfully managing every day. I know that for a fact because my addiction persisted while I managed a successful agency with 200 employees. I also know that I'm not the only executive who has managed to keep my addiction in the background by succeeding, outperforming, and creating the illusion that I was in control.

Yes, You Can Be Productive and Addicted at the Same Time

I know about CEOs and addiction better than anyone because it's the story I lived before obtaining long-term sobriety through an outpatient program. However, I was still shocked by the rates of addiction among executives once I pivoted from Hollywood to opening my own residential rehab facility in Hawaii in 2020. It's a myth that people living with addiction can only devote their entire lives to their substances of choice. According to the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 8.7% of full-time workers between 18 and 64 have used alcohol heavily within the past month. Another 8.6% report using illicit drugs in the past month. What's more, 9.5% of full-time workers report being dependent on or abusing alcohol or drugs in the past year.

Dr. David J. Linden is a neuroscience professor who has put out plenty of work on how the same traits that make someone an effective executive can also prime them for addiction. While there isn't a lot of data specifically on addiction among executives due to the high stakes of coming out as a high-profile person struggling with addiction, there is some. Risk-taking, impulsivity, fearlessness, dedication, obsessiveness, and a desire for novelty drive many CEOs and business leaders to push the limits in business. These same traits can also make them more susceptible to drug abuse, according to Linden.

Addiction Often Grows Along With a Person's Success

There's also the fact that some successful people use substances to be able to stay up all night, putting in long hours during the climb to the top. Once they reach the top, the pressures they find waiting for them can exacerbate the need to "escape" through substance use. While it can be hard to draw sympathy for CEOs with vast resources for seeking recovery, the truth is that many executives feel trapped in their self-built prisons of success because getting off the roller coaster can't be easily done in secret. Many are afraid that the "magic stops" when they stop using.

Getting help for addiction is never easy. It's especially difficult for executives serving as the faces of companies and brands. Finger-wagging board members are watching your every move. Imagine the pressure of knowing that one headline about checking into a rehab clinic could hurt investor confidence enough to impact the salaries and investments of thousands of people.

There's also a general lack of sympathy for CEOs struggling with addiction due to the fact that many successful people struggling with substance use convey "superhuman" personas on the outside that conceal the pain and loss of control happening behind the scenes. What's more, I can tell you from experience that professional success doesn't magically undo all of the buried hurts and traumas from childhood that may have contributed to addiction. Drudging up emotions and experiences that have been buried by a compulsive need to succeed can turn a CEO from confident to cowering.

Why do I think it's so important for everyone to care about addiction rates among executives? While it's easy to blame addiction among high performers on a love of excess, addiction is more complicated than that. When CEOs step down to get help for any mental health challenge, they signal to the people they lead that no job is worth your life. A movement among executives to be candid about these struggles is vital for creating policies for allowing employees at every level to seek help without stigma. They just need our empathy and understanding to get there.

The information provided here is not intended as medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. You should consult with a qualified healthcare provider for advice concerning your specific situation.

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