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THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY: The stages of addiction

Stages of Addiction

At first glance, addiction may seem like a many-headed beast, thrown together by some malevolent god with no rhyme or reason.

In reality, it follows a linear path with five distinct stages, regardless of the substances used. As a brain disorder, addiction can manifest in a number of different ways, but the overwhelming commonality is a continued use in spite of negative consequences. The insidious nature of addiction, however, is that those consequences often don’t manifest until the addict is in the latter stages of the disease.

The experimental stage

This stage is where all users of drugs, both legal and illicit, start off. For younger individuals – those whose brains have yet to fully develop, roughly around the age of 25 – the first drugs those individuals often experiment with are the ones most readily available: alcohol and nicotine. For older individuals, those substances usually come from legal drugs, both over-the-counter and prescription. The use is spontaneous and impulsive and is often done in a group setting: young people sneaking a bottle from the family liquor cabinet, for example, and sharing with friends. Some individuals never move beyond the experimental stage, but most people eventually move on to the …

Regular/responsible use stage

At this point, the use of drugs and alcohol is often planned out, for specific reasons: celebrating a 21st birthday, for example, with a night out at the bar, or sharing a joint at a concert. There is still some measure of control, and most of these individuals – even those who move on to other stages – claim that their use at this stage even enhances the enjoyment of various life experiences. Many individuals remain in this stage, but then there are those who graduate to the …

Transition stage

At this point, addiction has begun, and drug use is beginning to cause problems – but few people, either the budding addicts themselves or those who love them, associate it with the substances themselves. If Rick stops off at the bar on his way home from work, stays too late and makes it home after dinner, Rick’s wife isn’t upset that he drank too much; she’s angry over the fact that he missed a meal and wasn’t around to help with household duties. This stage can be long or short, but the length an addict spends in this stage seems to have more to do with the number of codependent individuals in an addict’s life. Eventually, however, the addict shifts into …

Early dependence

The problem is clearly evident to everyone in the addicts’ lives, but the addicts themselves often maintain a denial that a problem exists. They may blame their problems on external factors and individuals and often see themselves as the victim of unfair circumstances; their using takes on an urgency that drives them to find more effective and efficient means of consuming their particular drugs of choice. Loved ones often hope that the addict eventually recognizes that they themselves are the problem, but more often than not, denial pushes them onward to …

Full dependence

At this stage, addiction has begun to rob the addict of everything material and emotional. IV drug use is common in this stage, and using becomes a way to function. The ease and comfort of initial use have all but vanished, and a pervasive sense of helplessness and hopelessness are the day-to-day norm of those caught in its grips.


In recognizing these stages, however, know this: The journey can be interrupted at any point along the way. An addict need not complete all five, especially when the trained staff members of Cornerstone of Recovery can help the addict get off of that plummeting elevator before it crashes. There is hope, and there is a way out.

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