Contrary to popular belief, you cannot be eligible for disability benefits on the basis of having a drug or alcohol problem. However, many people who are disabled also have drug or alcohol problems. For instance, mental illness is often concurrent with drug and alcohol abuse because people who are mentally ill often seek to medicate themselves with drugs or alcohol. People who are experiencing chronic pain often do the same. It is an unfortunate fact that many people who have chronic pain become addicted to narcotic pain medications. Once a person has a problem with narcotics, he or she might start misusing the medications. When that happens, the doctor who was prescribing the narcotic medications often cuts the patient off, and the patient is left with an addiction. After that, the chronic pain sufferer who is now addicted to narcotics seeks to satisfy the addiction with street drugs or go from doctor to doctor trying to get more. This is called “doctor shopping”. Once you have a narcotics addiction and that is in your records, if you seek to obtain narcotics from a new doctor you might well get labelled as a “drug seeker”. This pattern is also common with people who suffer from anxiety and develop an addiction to benzodiazepines.
If there is any indication in your medical records that you currently have or in the past had a problem with substance abuse, it can make your efforts to get approved for disability benefits an uphill battle. The Social Security disability regulations state that your substance abuse must not be materially related to your disabling impairments and the limitations your impairments cause in order for you to be considered disabled. In practice, this means that you would need to have your doctor state that your limitations would be just as severe even if you were not abusing substances. So long as you are abusing substances, your doctor is probably not going to be willing to say that. It is a lot easier for your doctors to say that if they have treated you during a substantial time period when you were sober. Even if your doctor is willing to say that your substance abuse is not materially related to your disability, judges still do not want to grant benefits to people who have active addictions. Another issue is the cost. Judges often wonder where the heck you are getting the money to buy all those expensive drugs and speculate that perhaps you are working in some way. (Even illegal work activity is considered work activity for the purposes of the disability determination.) Substance abuse can affect your credibility with the judge on every level. The bottom line is that if you want to receive disability benefits, you are probably going to need to get sober.
If your substance abuse is not related to your disabling impairments, it is possible to be successful in your disability claim. For instance, if your problem is arthritis in your joints, then technically substance abuse is not related to that problem. However, any kind of substance abuse problem will affect your credibility with the judge even if we can definitively prove that your substance abuse is not at all related to your disabling impairments.
Because substance abuse makes a disability case so hard to win, in most cases we will require you to produce a clean hair test before we can agree to represent you for your disability case if you have a history of substance abuse that could be worsening your disabling impairments. It is sometimes the case that a person who has an active substance abuse problem, even when it does have some relationship to their disabling impairments, could be still considered disabled. This is true, for instance, when a person’s substance abuse has already done so much damage that it clearly cannot be reversed. For example, if a person has been a heavy drinker for years and that has resulted in severe and irreparable damage to the liver. If that is the case for you, it is possible you could get you considered disabled because even if you quit drinking you would still have the same degree of liver damage. However, we do not like to do that because we would prefer to obtain benefits for people who are going to be alive to see them if possible. In short, get sober.
If you have a serious problem with addiction to drugs or alcohol, you should not attempt to go “cold turkey” without consulting with a doctor. In many cases a sudden withdrawal from a substance to which you are addicted can cause serious health issues such as seizures. Please consult with a doctor and ask about getting into a rehabilitation program.