Today, over 40 million people in the United States older than 12 years of age are grappling with addiction to alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. With overdoses on the rise and a growing opioid epidemic affecting millions around the country, it’s more important than ever to be able to spot and treat substance abuse early on.
If you suspect that you or a loved one is suffering from a drug problem, it’s important you learn how to recognize the different stages of addiction and the ways to take proper action against them. Sadly, the path from drug experimentation to a full-blown addiction can easily be a downward spiral.
There are five major stages of drug addiction that manifest along this spiral. Below are some of the most common factors of each phase and recommendations on how to help users that are dealing with the five different stages of drug addiction.
Stage 1: Experimentation
People usually start experimenting with drugs during their teenage years. More than half of first time drug users start experimenting before they turn 18. They are often initiated or pressured into trying drugs by a friend and at this point still consider the experience to be fun and entertaining.
Over half of first-time drug users begin experimenting with marijuana first. Use of substances during this phase is not frequent and typically happens during social gatherings.
Experimental users don’t have cravings and feel like they are in total control of their drug use. They can choose to stop using drugs whenever they want and can go for long periods of time without them.
How to treat this stage:
For some, drug experimentation never leads to substance abuse problems later on. For others, it can be the first step towards establishing a long-term addiction. Monitoring the frequency of drug use early on is an important step towards preventing more routine use in the future.
A good approach early on in drug experimentation is to ask the person why they are experimenting in the first place. If they are using drugs to cope with pain or emotional issues, try offering other solutions to the problem such as counseling or therapy.
Stage 2: Regular Use
At this stage, substance use becomes part of a regular routine for users. It doesn’t necessarily mean drugs are used on a daily basis, but there is a repeated pattern of behavior such as using drugs every weekend or at every party. Users also may start using drugs repeatedly to help them cope with a particular situation such as when they are stressed out or have feelings depression.
Regular users no longer need to be in a social setting to do drugs and begin to use substances when they are alone, too. They may also start experiencing drug hangovers the day after doing drugs, which may cause them to occasionally miss work or school.
Regular users still appear to function normally but start displaying certain changes in behavior including defiance, depression, aggression, and anxiety.
How to treat this stage:
If a regular user has already tried counseling without positive results, it might be time to try going to an outpatient facility for treatment.
With outpatient care, users typically visit a clinic for regular, scheduled appointments with medical professionals that can last anywhere from one to eight hours. The treatment is similar to what a person would receive at an inpatient facility, but with the added benefit that they do not have to leave their homes.
Outpatient programs include cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, stress management, motivational incentives, group therapy, and individual and family therapy.
Outpatient care works best for users who are still in good health, have a stable living situation, and a strong network of supportive loved ones. “The strongest thing that is helpful is having a system of care that can surround the person,” says Dr. Kelly Clark, president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM).
Stage 3: Risk-Taking Use
During the risk-taking stage, users start to lose control of their drug use and start engaging in dangerous activities to fulfill their habit. Their drug use starts to negatively impact their job performance, grades, personal relationships, and financial well being.
At this hazardous stage it’s not unusual for users to:
- drive under the influence
- have unprotected sex
- get arrested
- lose their job
- spend irresponsible amounts of money on substances
- break up with partners and end friendships
- lie to loved ones
Physical symptoms in a risk-tasking user start to become more noticeable. Risky users often experience changes in weight, problems with memory, and poor coordination skills.
Users at this stage often realize they already have a substance abuse problem but might still refuse to get help or treatment, even though they are aware that their drug use is negatively affecting their lives.
Risk-taking drug users begin to experience intense cravings for drugs and the possibility of quitting seems much more difficult than it did in the past.
How to treat this stage:
For those in the risk-taking stage, inpatient rehabilitation might be a better option for treatment than therapy and/or outpatient facilities.
Users who have started engaging in reckless behavior can benefit from going to a short-term, inpatient program that will help remove them from situations where they are constantly tempted to do drugs. It can also help them avoid negative influences and people who have contributed to their addiction.
The length of stay for a user at a short-term inpatient facility can vary anywhere from a few days to up to 30 days.
At an inpatient rehab, users are provided with round-the-clock care including but not limited to: individual counseling sessions, family counseling, group therapy, medical care, and medication management.
Inpatient care is recommended for those who feel unable to stop their drug use without being in a safe, supervised, and drug-free environment. Once their inpatient treatment is over, users usually continue their recovery with outpatient care and counseling.
Stage 4: Dependence
Users at this stage have become physically dependent on drugs. Their brain’s chemistry has now become accustomed to regular drug use and is unable to function normally without it.
Dependent drug users suffer from constant cravings for substances as well as intense withdrawal symptoms that depend on their drug of choice and can include: nausea, shaking, sweating, muscle pain, rapid heart rate, and even seizures.
Dependent users have created a much higher tolerance for drugs and now need much higher doses of the substance than before in order to get high.
Dependent users are aware they are physically and psychologically dependent on drugs, but the possibility of stopping drug use can seem impossible without outside help.
Relapse often occurs for users who try to quit substance abuse on their own at this stage.
How to treat this stage:
Once a user has become physically dependent on substances, his or her body might need to go through drug detoxification first.
At a drug detox center, users go through the withdrawal process of drug addiction in a safe, monitored environment. They are also provided with medications to help ease withdrawal symptoms and minimize discomfort.
Going through detoxification first increases a user’s chance of staying sober. Those who detox safely from drug dependency are also more likely to seek treatment at inpatient and outpatient facilities immediately after detoxification.
Drug detox programs are recommended for users who have become physically dependent on substances and those who have been abusing drugs for long stretches of time.
Stage 5: Addiction
Users in the addiction stage of substance abuse have become completely and utterly dependent on drugs. Addicted users can’t imagine life without using drugs and will do almost anything to get their hands on them.
Cravings have become unbearable and it often feels like the only way to survive is to consume more substances. The search for more drugs dominates a user’s daily activities.
Users are compulsively dependent on their drug abuse and can suffer from chronic relapses when trying to quit their substance abuse.
The lives of stage five addicts are often chaotic and out of control.
How to treat this stage:
Different treatment options are available for people who have become completely addicted to drugs. A hospital inpatient treatment facility can provide several levels of care for addicts.
Users who are hospitalized first go through medically supervised detoxes, in which severe withdrawal symptoms are managed and eased. Medication to help manage their addiction, such as methadone and suboxone may also be provided.
Users are also required to attend individual counseling sessions to understand the root of their addiction and to help them avoid psychological relapses in the future.
Hospital inpatient facilities are beneficial to most substance users but are typically aimed towards users who are addicted to substances with severe withdrawal symptoms and long-term substance abusers.
There are also long-term residential drug treatment programs for those who feel like they need a lengthier, more dedicated type form of treatment. In this type of housing facility, users often stay in treatment for at least 90 days, regularly attending counseling, group therapy, and educational classes on drug abuse. Medication management is also available.
Addiction can seem like a tough battle to fight, but it’s important to know it is possible to overcome. As is the case with most diseases, the sooner an addiction is diagnosed and treated, the higher the chance of recovery. Drug addiction doesn’t have to become a lifelong struggle, with the right amount of support and proper course of treatment, addicts can regain control and live happy and fulfilling lives.