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Stages of Addiction

Drug addiction rarely, if ever, happens overnight. Most people who become addicts start out with casual, recreational use, which turns to addiction after advancing through a number of stages.

Addiction is result of a pathological progression that often ends in damage to your health, the destruction of personal relationships, financial ruin, legal problems, overdose or death. But according to the University of Rochester Medical Center, substance abuse can be treated at any phase in the process, from those first fun experiments to the last, demoralizing days.

How Many People Have Tried Illicit Drugs?

If statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are any indication, a lot of Americans experiment with drugs each year. According to a national survey of Americans ages 12 and older:

  • 8.7 person used an illicit drug in 2009
  • 6.6 percent used marijuana
  • 2.8 percent used a prescription medication for non-medical reasons
  • 51.9 percent reported using alcohol
  • 23.7 percent reported binge drinking (drinking at least four to five drinks in one or two hours)
  • 6.8 percent reported that they drank heavily

Experimenting With Drugs

Curiosity is a trait that most human beings share, especially when we’re young or we need to experience a change in our routine. New experiences and sensations can shake up our everyday lives, adding color and excitement to our world. Most addicts don’t set out to become physically and psychologically dependent on drugs. The process often starts with a desire to experience something new. You may be at a party when you’re offered cocaine for the first time, or on a date with a romantic partner when she suggests that you try acid. Regardless of your reasons for accepting the offer, you probably don’t have any plans to continue using drugs for months or years.

Experimenting with drugs isn’t always a matter of having fun. You may try marijuana to relieve the pain of a chronic injury, or borrow a couple of Vicodin from a friend to help with severe menstrual cramps. If the drug is effective, you may use it again when you experience the same symptoms. Drugs can be powerful tools for pain reduction when they’re prescribed by a doctor and taken under medical supervision, but when you take drugs to self-medicate, you’re vulnerable to dependence and addiction.

The experimentation stage is characterized by occasional use on a voluntary basis. At this point, you feel that you have complete control over your drug use. You can stop at any time, and you may go for days, weeks or months without using any drugs at all.

Regular Drug Use

Experimental use becomes regular drug use when the user starts to incorporate the drug into his or her usual routines. If you take Percocet without a prescription every time your old back injury flares up, or you take meth when you need to stay up late studying for an exam, you’ve developed a pattern of regular use. You aren’t yet reliant on the drug for your physical or psychological function, but you’re starting to train your brain to respond to the rewards of using the drug, such as:

  • Pain relief
  • Stress reduction
  • Weight loss
  • Relaxation in social situations
  • Satisfying sleep
  • A pleasurable high

In this phase, you still have control over your drug use. You could probably stop if you wanted to, but you’re satisfied with the effects of the drug, and you don’t really want to give it up. The drug doesn’t interfere with your life in any way; it just makes you feel better.

Risk-Taking Drug Use

At the risk-taking stage, non-problematic drug use becomes a problem. Your drug use may begin to affect your job performance, your grades, your relationships and your finances. Drugs begin to affect your judgment, prompting you to do things that you would never have considered in the past. You may start taking risks by driving under the influence, selling drugs in order to get money to buy them or having unprotected sex when you’re high. In the risk-taking stage, many people become aware that they have a problem when they’re arrested, when a partner breaks up with them or when they’re fired from a job because of their habit.

In teenagers, problem drug use may be a part of the risk-taking behavior of adolescence, according to the Journal of Mental Health.

Drug use may be part of a constellation of risky behaviors that includes binge drinking, unsafe sex and drunk driving. Many adolescents outgrow their drug use as they mature, develop a strong identity and take on adult responsibilities. But some teenagers don’t give up drugs — they keep progressing through the stages of addiction. While risky drug use may be a common aspect of teenage development, parents should never underestimate the addictive power of drugs.

Once drug use advances to the problem stage, quitting becomes more difficult. You may try to quit, but you can’t seem to fight the cravings. It’s hard to imagine living without the drug, even though your drug use is making your life feel more and more unmanageable.

Dependence on Drugs

Your brain is wired to respond positively to certain sensations, a system known as the reward pathway, according to the University of Utah. Dependence occurs when your brain becomes so accustomed to the sensations generated by methamphetamine, cocaine, alcohol, marijuana or opioid drugs that you need those drugs to function. You become tolerant to a drug when you find yourself needing higher doses to experience any noticeable effects. The dose you took when you were first starting out seems minimal now; you need a lot more of the drug to get high or relax.

Drug dependence can be physical or psychological, notes the Merck Manual. Some drugs, like opiates, benzodiazepines and alcohol, produce physical withdrawal symptoms if you try to stop. Depending on the drug, you may experience tremors, sweating, a rapid heart rate, seizures, nausea, muscle pain, bone pain or goose bumps. Psychological symptoms of drug withdrawal include anxiety, depression, lack of mental focus and forgetfulness.

Once you reach the dependence stage, quitting on your own isn’t usually an option. You’re probably aware of the harm that the drug is causing to your health, your career and your family, but you keep using anyway. Your body and mind rely on the drug — unless you go through detoxification and seek medication therapy or psychotherapy, you’ll probably continue to relapse if you attempt to get clean.

Addiction to Drugs

In the addiction stage, dependence takes on a compulsive quality. You need the drug to function, and you’ll do just about anything to get it. When you can’t get the drug, your cravings feel unbearable, and your whole life feels out of control. By this point, the drug is controlling you — not the other way around. At one time, addiction was considered to be a failure of willpower or a moral disorder. Today, the American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a chronic disease involving brain circuitry, rewards, motivation and memory. Genetic factors may be involved in addiction, making certain users more likely to advance to this stage than others. The effects of addiction may include:

  • Chronic relapses when you try to quit
  • A lack of awareness of the problems created by your drug use
  • A loss of normal emotional responses
  • Destruction of personal relationships
  • Injury and physical disability
  • Disease
  • Death

You don’t have to wait until you become addicted to put a stop to this process. Addiction experts are available to help you in any of these phases, from providing education and counseling in the experimental stage to helping you break your physical and psychological bond with drugs in the addiction stage.

If you have questions about the stages of drug addiction, or you’re ready to seek treatment, call us today. By dialing our toll-free number, you can find the resources you need to protect yourself against the devastating effects of addiction.