Despite popular beliefs, people do not have to “hit bottom” before they can benefit from help. Substance abuse can be addressed and treated at any stage. Going into treatment at any stage can be beneficial. However, the level of treatment necessary for the regular user will differ greatly from the needs of the dependent user. And for those in the end stages of addiction it could literally save their life. The stages leading to addiction include experimentation, regular use, risky use, dependence, and addiction.
Stage One: Experimentation
The first stage, experimentation, is the voluntary use of alcohol or other drugs. Many times it involves teens going to a party and drinking or popping pills in order to fit in. Sometimes, the person experimenting is trying to forget about or escape from an issue. An older person may start drinking to cope with depression after losing a job. Experimentation may even include a teenager taking their mom’s prescription painkillers to cope with an injury from a sports activity. At the time the substance seems to solve the problem. The person takes more, and moves from experimentation to regular use, the next stage.
Stage Two: Regular Use
Many people stay in the stage of regular use for months or years. Some may not develop a problem but many may not be able to stop by themselves. This is ordinarily the period of time where the consequences of using drugs and/or alcohol regularly begin to show up. Some will completely stop at this point. Others will stop for a period of time in order to get back into the good graces of loved ones or possibly the law; for example if someone gets a DWI and is put on probation they may quit drinking completely or agree with their family never to drink and drive again but as soon as they complete their probation they feel they are “off the hook” and can finally return to their old behaviors. Many times they have a false sense of entitlement and will justify their using by saying things like, “I quit drinking/using while I was on probation, I obviously don’t have a problem.” This is usually when people begin using substances in a manner that is risky and/or hazardous to themselves or others.
Stage Three: Risky Use
How the transition from regular use to risky use differs for every individual and what constitutes “risky behavior” by another person can be difficult to gauge. But if someone’s behavior has changed noticeably and/or suddenly you should definitely speak up and seek help. This is also a point where consequences begin to build up and if someone continues to drink or use despite the negative effects it is having on their life they will pass quickly from risky use to dependence. And it is very possible for risky use to overlap with dependence. Some risky behaviors include: Promiscuous sex, stealing from family members, binge drinking, constant blackouts, and unexplained violence, toward one’s self or another.
Stage Four: Dependence
Characteristics of dependence include: Constant use of alcohol or other drugs that lead to the inability to take care of major responsibilities related to work, family, school and other roles. Repeatedly using drugs in situations that are physically hazardous, such as sharing needles or driving while under the influence, repeated legal problems, or any combination of these. Their risky behavior may also escalate to things such as prostitution and stealing from society because they can no longer take from their family.
Many dependent people could be categorized as functioning, and are able to work, maintain family relationships, and friendships. They will attempt to limit their use of alcohol or other drugs to certain times, such as evenings or weekends. However, many times they can only keep up this façade for so long and they will begin to disappear for periods of time without any explanation. At this point they have already become addicted. A lot of times family members and loved ones are walking on eggshells for the dependant individual in order to “keep the peace.” Unfortunately, this is only allowing their disease to progress and if they are not confronted they will continue to manipulate, rationalize, and justify in order for them to keep up their way of life.
Stage Five: Addiction
The last stage of persistent abuse of substances is addiction. At this point they have been addicted for some time but this is the point where change is inevitable because continued use will only lead to a few places. Addiction is a disease involving serious psychological and physical changes from constant heavy use of alcohol, drugs, or both.
Symptoms include uncontrollable alcohol use and/or other drug craving, seeking, and use, that continues even in the face of repeated negative consequences.
Addiction is a progressive, chronic, and fatal disease. If left untreated, it can only lead to jails, institutions, death, and dereliction, in no specific order.
Addiction is a treatable disease. Recovery rates for people who go through treatment are very similar to those who get treatment for other chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. There are a number of treatment methods and community resources, including outpatient or residential inpatient treatment programs. And just as important as treatment is what the addict does after treatment, such as finding a support group & a network of positive friends who will hold the addict accountable for their actions. There is no cookie cutter way to treat addiction because each individual’s needs are different and need to be assessed before they are placed in treatment. It can also be beneficial for the family to seek support as well, addiction causes a great deal of chaos and pain in the family and finding a support group such as Al Anon or online support will give family members an outlet to voice concerns, talk about issues or just have people who understand their situation. Most treatment facilities also provide family education classes. The following link also has a list of resources for family and addict support: