Addiction doesn’t come out of nowhere. There are predictable signs of addiction, onset and progression that can be identified and dealt with. Of course, every person is different, so the progression for one person could take two years while the next person could spend a decade moving through the stages and teetering on the brink.
And, just as a side note, most of us don’t self diagnose as having a problem early in the game. After two binge drinking weekends a person doesn’t usually say, “Hey, this is a warning sign. I think I’ll stop drinking completely and just go ahead and avoid years or decades of heart-wrenching difficulty and despair. Problem solved.”
It would be nice if avoiding addiction were this easy, but since addiction is generally not the “root” but is, in reality, the fruit of a deeper, core issue (such as childhood trauma, unresolved grief, or simply a spiritual longing that you don’t know quite what to do with), we often fail to see the onset with any amount of clarity. We just know we have anxiety or struggle with impulse control, and we aren’t quite sure why.
One in Ten Americans Are in a Stage of Addiction
The early stages of addiction are hard to identify for a variety of reasons. First, there is the unwillingness or denial of the addict. Mass media and the acceptance of wild “boys night out” behavior or “mom needs wine every night” helps to protect an early addict from coming to terms with what he or she is up against.
According to the National Institute of Health, nearly one in 10 Americans over the age of 12 are classified with some form of substance abuse or dependence. Addiction is robbing millions of individuals of much of their lives. It is also robbing an entire generation of their parents. The first place to begin in turning these statistics around, is recognizing the stages of addiction in yourself and others.
Stages of Addiction: Initial Use
Whether it’s a doctor’s prescription or that first beer your dad let you drink, there is always “initial use.” Innocent or not, it often awakens us to the thought that we enjoy the way the drink or the drug made us feel.
From a medical standpoint, they began the cycle the moment they first tried the drug. Their brain reacted strongly in a highly pleasurable manner. This is how addiction begins. Once the pleasure centers of our brains are triggered, we want to relive the experience again and again. In more relatable terms, chocolate can have the same effect on our brains. So can sex. Anything that triggers our pleasure centers and releases dopamine has the propensity to become an addiction. Of course, drug addiction will have far more negative consequences than chocolate, so it may seem silly to compare the two, but the principle is the same.
Stages of Addiction: Experimentation
Maybe a person decides to take a prescribed pain pill to self-treat their anxiety. Maybe they finish a bottle of wine after a bad breakup or a stressful day at work. Experimentation is just what it sounds like. It is an attempt to add a substance to your body in order to alter your state of mind or alleviate emotional pain.
A person who experiments will do one of two things. They will either decide to stop at this stage, or they will gain a false sense of safety and move on to stage two.
Stages of Addiction: Occasional Use
Occasional use is the slippery slope that can lead to full blown addiction. The experimenter has decided they enjoy the feeling of their drug (or drugs) of choice and decide to self-regulate their use. They may become weekend users or “only on special occasions” but the pattern (or trap) is being laid.
Stages of Addiction: Regular Use
This can be the tipping point into addiction. Regular users can often remain in this stage for years. This is where regular use of drugs or alcohol can lead to risky behavior, and we hear the stories: blackouts, driving while under the influence, domestic problems.
At this stage, there may still be a good deal of social use, but the individual may begin to use alone as well. Work and family life may start to suffer as compensating for drug or alcohol use becomes more of a priority. Maybe the family can only go out to eat at a restaurant that serves two-for-one drinks. Maybe there’s pre-drinking or pre-drug use before going out to the bar with friends. At this point substance use is being tied to the idea of escaping negative emotions or social anxiety. These are serious warning signs to those who work in the field of addiction, treatment and recovery.
Note: As the individual’s use progresses, so does the sickness and denial of the entire family. Often, to avoid confrontation, the family turns their head and repeatedly makes allowances for regular drug use.
Stages of Addiction: Problem Use
There is a fine line that separates regular use from active addiction and the exact moment an individual crosses over can rarely be identified, but abuse begins when relationships and responsibilities are negatively affected by drug or alcohol use. Look around. Is there damage? Are people angry? Have you missed deadlines at work? Is your vehicle, your home or your personal appearance run down? Have you had legal problems connected to drug use? Those in active addiction will continue even if they can answer yes to the above questions. They are now in need of help whether they realize it or not.
The Final Stage: Addiction
The final stage is active addiction, and it has three characteristics:
- Tolerance – Your body will require increasingly higher amounts to achieve the same high.
- Physical dependence – Any time you stop using and your body responds with withdrawal symptoms. This can occur with street or prescription drugs as well as alcohol.
- Psychological dependence – Drug cravings and impulse control are difficult in active addiction. Psychological dependence forms when the brain stops (or greatly decreases) the production of “feel good” hormones on it’s own.
These stages are cumulative. For example, you can have a tolerance for a substance without being physically dependent and be physically dependent without being psychologically dependent, but you cannot be psychologically dependent without being physically dependent and having developed a tolerance.
Do You See Yourself in One of the Stages of Addiction?
Recovery can be a very long and difficult process, but there is hope at any stage.
If you saw yourself or a loved with any of the signs of addiction above, we are here to help.
We want to partner with you for a better tomorrow.