It’s not always easy to recognize when someone has developed an addiction to drugs or alcohol. In many cases, a substance disorder develops gradually and the affected individual is able to hide their behavior from those who are closest to them.
The More You Know
Taking the time to learn about the stages of addiction can help you better identify if your loved one is in need of substance abuse treatment. We also encourage you to review our post on How to Recognize Addiction in a Loved One to learn more about the specific signs of a substance use disorder.
Stage 1: Initial Use
Initial use of a substance can occur under many different circumstances. For example:
- Peer pressure. A person might be experimenting with drugs or alcohol at a party due to a desire to fit in with friends or be seen as an accepted part of the group.
- Mental health struggles. Experimentation may be motivated by a desire to self-medicate the symptoms of a mental health condition. This is commonly seen with people who struggle with depression and anxiety.
- Chronic pain. Struggling with chronic pain has a negative impact on a person’s quality of life. This can make it tempting to seek relief from addictive substances—especially when other medical treatments haven’t been effective.
- Trauma. Drinking or using is sometimes a coping mechanism to escape the effects of abuse or other forms of trauma.
Stage 2: Frequent Use
Over time, a person’s use of the substance starts to increase. While they may have once limited use to weekends or special occasions, they may now be using on a daily or nearly daily basis. Using is slowly starting to become their “go-to” strategy for dealing with challenges or uncomfortable situations.
Frequent use is often accompanied by an increase in risky behaviors, such as driving under the influence, engaging in unsafe sex, or picking physical fights. At this stage, a person may also be ignoring other obligations, abandoning hobbies, or neglecting relationships with loved ones in order to spend more time using.
Stage 3: Increased Tolerance
As a person begins to use a substance on a regular basis, they start to require a higher dose to achieve the same intoxicating effects. This change is commonly seen in heavy drinkers. Someone who once felt buzzed after three drinks may soon need six or even 12 drinks to feel the same way.
Stage 4: Dependence
Dependence means that a person’s brain and body now require the substance to function normally. If the person is unable to use the substance, they will experience withdrawal symptoms.
Withdrawal symptoms depend on the substance being used but often include:
- Loss of appetite
- Heart palpitations
In most cases, withdrawal symptoms are uncomfortable and not physically dangerous. However, a person who has been using for many years at high doses faces an increased risk of complications. Withdrawal from alcohol, opioids, and benzos is most likely to cause potentially dangerous complications, which is why a medically managed detox is recommended as part of a comprehensive addiction treatment program. With a medically managed detox, the individual is provided 24/7 supervision, monitoring, and comfort care to make the withdrawal experience safe and effective.
In addition to the appearance of withdrawal symptoms when a person is unable to use, dependence is also characterized by cravings for the abused substance. These cravings can be quite powerful and make it difficult to concentrate on anything other than the next high.
Stage 5: Addiction
While tolerance and dependence are warning signs of addiction, a person is not considered to be suffering from a substance use disorder until they are continuing to use despite experiencing negative consequences in different areas of their life. For example:
- Diminished performance at work
- Job loss
- Estrangement from friends and/or romantic partners
- Financial problems due to the amount of money spent on substance abuse
- Legal problems such as an arrest for possession or drunk driving
- Health problems associated with substance abuse, such as cardiovascular issues related to stimulant use
At this stage, a person may realize they have a problem yet feel powerless to control their behavior. They may try to hide their addiction from others due to shame and fear, but it’s important to remember that there is always hope for recovery.
Here to Help
Addiction is a chronic illness with both biological and environmental triggers. To promote lasting sobriety, a person needs access to evidence-based care that is personalized to fit their specific needs. At Mountain Laurel Recovery Center, we are committed to helping men and women struggling with drug and alcohol addiction build the foundation for recovery with detox, counseling, medication-assisted treatment, holistic support, and aftercare services to ease the transition back to independent living. Our team of experienced addiction counselors, licensed therapists, nurses, and physicians works to provide each client with the tools necessary to live a productive life based on abstinence and wellness.