While it has been known to happen immediately, in most cases, addiction to a drug develops over time, and generally follows a specific chain of events. Here is an overview of the process of addiction:
No Use —-> Experimentation —-> Use —-> Abuse —-> Dependence.
“Experimentation” refers to the first few times that a person uses drugs/alcohol. They are exploring the sensations that result from use of the drug. Experimentation can evolve into “use”, meaning a deliberate use of a drug to produce an altered feeling. Use can be frequent or seldom. Think of the “social drinkers” you know. They use alcohol occasionally and socially, but they are not dependent or addicted to it. The term: abuse refers to use that results in negative consequences; in time the consequences are more frequent and severe. For example, if someone uses cocaine, and there are consequences – such as a car accident, an injury, or job loss, it can be considered cocaine abuse. Dependence on cocaine means that there is a strong need for a substance and a feeling that a person “needs it” to function properly.
For many people who have reached a point of dependence, the next logical step is recovery. People who have stopped using alcohol or other drugs are said to be in recovery. They are avoiding alcohol or other drugs and are involved in many recovery related activities including participating in leisure activities, self-care, counseling, and attending self-help groups. Recovery is a life-long effort, and most people need to be actively engaged in recovery to maintain it. Like the cancer patient who is in remission, there is always a chance for a recurrence. This is called relapse. Some people may never relapse. More commonly however, people in recovery relapse once, twice, even several times before achieving long-term sobriety. While as a family member you may see relapse as a sign of failure, relapse is the point when many substance abusers admit for the first time that they really have no control over the addiction and need to make some serious changes for recovery to be permanent. Relapse is also a signal to drug treatment counselors that the treatment plan needs to be changed or adjusted.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember while helping a loved one is commonly known as the “three C’s of addiction”:
You DIDN’T CAUSE it. Addiction is not something that one person can do to another. An unhappy childhood, an unhappy marriage do not cause a person to become a substance abuser. Even if you yourself had a substance abuse problem when your children were young, it is not your fault. While some people may be born with an inherited tendency toward addiction, and some life experiences may make it more or less likely, neither genes nor experiences alone cause addiction. Rather, the path to drug use, abuse, and addiction are actions that the substance abuser chooses.
You CAN’T CONTROL it. If an addict wants a drug, nothing and no one will stand in their way: pouring the wine down the sink, or flushing pills down the toilet won’t make a difference.
You CAN’T CURE it. Much as you may want a substance abuser to get help, you can’t make it happen. Love and understanding won’t do it, and neither will begging or threatening. Recovery will come when the substance abuser truly decides to seek another life. Just as the addiction was the result of bad choices by the substance abuser, recovery begins with some good choices made by the substance abuser.