The Five Stages of Addiction

The general understanding of addiction is that there are five stages to addiction. These include experimentation, regular use, risky use, dependence, and substance use disorder. At first glance, they might seem easy to spot. Individually, most are considered normal or acceptable. 

In fact, there is no good level of using any mind-altering substance. With a deeper understanding of each stage, one can see that even the earliest abuse can indicate underlying trouble. A clearer understanding of each stage can permit one to act faster to address the issue. 

First Stage of Addiction: Experimentation

Here the individual wants to try it. It can be any substance like pot, cocaine, hard liquor, or even prescription medication. Here, we refer to recreational use often brought upon by peer pressure or curiosity. A close friend or work colleague already using drugs will talk of the fun they had when they took some drugs—enticing a person’s interest to try.

People may offer them a hit to mellow down for a party. Others may want to be part of a group or take the edge of the day, for example. There are countless ways a person can start illicit drugs or alcohol. The question that should be asked is: why would a person consider trying a mind-altering substance? Pot and alcohol are beginning substances; in Canada, below age teenagers start experimenting with mind-altering substances. Hollywood movies or parents sometimes contribute to making these substances the thing to do.

 Group of friends drinking beer

Second Stage: Regular Usage

Here the person is using regularly. It could be a couple of times a week or only on weekends, or only in social settings, etc. The key is that the person is often in a certain circumstance that causes them to seek to use some substance.

As an example, you take a guy who is very into sports. When at home alone, he may watch the game in complete sobriety. But put in a setting with three other buddies, and next thing you know, there is a case of 24 beers on the table.

Or the secretary, who normally does not use, will indulge in the use of cocaine when in the presence of other individuals.

The above examples are social triggers. Also, in our current society, it is now a tradition to drink at weddings and funerals.

The Next Stage: Risky Use

As with all illicit substances and alcohol, even some prescription medications, there is always a chance of physical dependence. Here, at this stage, the person’s consumption has taken on regular use; in addition, the person always wants more. You see this with alcoholics who may start with a couple of glasses of wine and tend to open a second and third bottle. The only safeguard is that they may stop for a week or two before it happens again. This category would include the ‘binge’ user. They may use cocaine for 2 or 3 days non-stop and suddenly, with no remaining funds, stop for many weeks, even months. But they always go back to using again. Here, the clean time in between becomes shorter as it progresses. This stage rapidly can move into the next one if not addressed.

Next Stage of Addiction: Dependence

All risk users will sooner or later slip into this stage if not addressed. Here a person who binges on cocaine or drinks on weekends will begin to sneak in a line on Wednesday or go for one drink on Tuesday. A good sign of dependence is when the person starts to break their pattern of use. What was being done a month ago or a few weeks past is now happening more often. Their use has increased in frequency.

But more importantly is the change in behaviour at this stage. The difference is whenever the person attempts to stop on their own, but they can’t. Or they may hold off for a few days but always return to using. When asked to stop, they find a reason not to do so. They will tell you they have control and could stop at any time. Or they may tell you they’ve stopped but hide their continued use from you. As it progresses, one will enter the final stage.

The Last Stage of Addiction: Substance Use Disorder

At this stage, the drug user is in denial. The person is disconnected and not dealing with the truth or life’s responsibilities. Many addicts will not admit they have lost control. No one likes to lose control of things in their lives. It weakens their self-worth. The only way out for them is to deny any problem. Many relatives, loved ones, and friends will tend to contact resources at this point. It is now evident that something is wrong. The person cannot stop on their own.

When the situation has gone on for some length of time and considering the substance abused, the individual can be labelled an addict or a person with SUD – substance use disorder. The latter is a term mainly in the medical field or in technical papers. Professional detox & addiction counselling is the only way to address this serious issue.

The Stages of Addiction & Taking Action

People use mind-altering substances as a solution to bring relief to an unwanted condition. It can be discomfort from an accident or as severe as an operation and given pain management medication. Boredom is another undesired situation that can push people into using drugs. Taking the edge off or shyness can also be culprits in addiction.

All substances can be subject to abuse. The moment to address the issue is when you notice the person has shifted their normal behaviour. This can include not showing up at family events, missing appointments, being frequently late to work, not paying bills, etc. The list goes on. The point is at whatever stages you notice it; you need to address the issues with the person. Help them seek professional help, or simply call a professional addiction referral & consultation counsellor. This can be done by calling our toll-free number

Contact our counsellors for guidance if you know someone in your environment needing help.  

Marc J. Bernard

Marc J. Bernard

Substance Use Disorder & Recovery Professional,
Referral & Consultation Counsellor

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1 888-488-8434
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