For the person who is experiencing it, the development of a substance use disorder can feel like a rapid descent—almost a free fall—from being a sober individual to being someone who has an addiction to drugs or alcohol. The reality is that a substance use disorder develops over a period of time and generally involves five identifiable stages.
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Let’s take a look at those five stages and learn how to recognize them.
Stage One: Initial Use and Creation of an Addiction Pattern
Of course, everything starts with that very first choice to try a drug or to have an alcoholic beverage. At the time—especially with legal substances or prescription medications—this probably seems like no big deal at all. And the truth is that for many people, it is, in fact, no big deal at all.
But for others, that first use leads to the development of a pattern of use. If that pattern of use deviates from a doctor’s instructions or involves dangerous quantities of a substance (whether legal or illicit), the user is headed for the next stage of addiction.
Stage Two: Ongoing Regular Use
At first, a person developing a habitual relationship to drugs or alcohol may not really notice what is happening. They might, for example, start by having a drink after work on Fridays with the gang. And then they might find themselves having a drink after work a couple times a week. And then every night after work. And then multiple drinks each night. And then through the weekend, too.
While we have noted that the journey from sober to addicted can feel like it happens very quickly, this development of habitual use can proceed quite gradually. But a person who is in this second stage might recognize signs of it, including an increased tendency to engage in risky behaviors ranging from driving under the influence to dangerous sexual choices to a willingness to add additional substances to the regular routine in an effort to achieve a more powerful high.
That last symptom is a pretty good indicator that an individual is about to enter the next stage of addiction.
Stage Three: The Development of Tolerance
After a while, a person using drugs or alcohol may start to notice that they need to take more and more to achieve the same sort of high or calming effect that the substance initially provided. This happens because the brain and body start to build up a tolerance for the substance in question—meaning lower levels of that substance are no longer able to provide the feelings a person hopes to feel.
These changes to the body and brain can lead to a range of negative side effects. So it is only natural that a person might start to feel as though it is time to stop using drugs or alcohol and fear and addiction. The trouble is that it is a very short step, indeed, to the next stage.
Stage Four: The Dangers of Dependence
Once your body is dependent and addicted to drugs or alcohol, things take another turn for the worse. Now, taking the drug has terrible side effects. But so does not taking the drug. You are now subject to withdrawal symptoms, which likely include intense cravings that make it nearly impossible to resist the temptation to keep taking the drug. These withdrawal symptoms can also have a variety of physical effects, some of which (depending on the substance in question) can actually be life-threatening.
So, now you are stuck between a rock and a hard place. You know you can’t keep taking the drug—and you know you can’t stop taking the drug. Which means we have arrived at stage five.
Stage Five: Full-fledged Substance Use Disorder
This stage, arguably, is what people mean when they talk about reaching “rock bottom.” You cannot function without your drug of choice. The consequences of your drug use start to become unmanageable—lost jobs, broken relationships, compromised health, financial issues. The list goes on and on. At this point, there is significant risk that some of the health outcomes of continued drug use will be permanent—even after you regain your sobriety. And that task—getting sober—might just seem impossible.
The good news is that it is not impossible. But you are going to need some help.
Every Stage Is the Right Stage for Getting Help
At Bel Aire Recovery Center, we offer personalized, compassionate care that is evidence-based and designed to help you regain and maintain your sobriety. And you don’t have to wait until you are decidedly into stage five before getting the help you need.
If you are struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction—no matter where you think you are among the stages we have outlined—the time to get help is always right now. Our medically supervised detox program and excellent rehab procedures can give you the confidence you need to start your recovery journey on the right foot. And our commitment to a continuum of care means that we will remain available to see you through the often-challenging early days of recovery.
When you are ready to get help putting drugs or alcohol behind you, we are ready and able to provide exceptional and non-judgmental care.