June 23, 2016

Stages of Addiction: Are You Addicted?

In part two of this seven-part series on addiction, we walk you through the stages of addiction to help you determine if you or someone you know is experiencing an addiction and tips on how you or the person you know can get help.

Stage 1: "I Don't Have a Problem."

"We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable."
Such are the famous words of the first step in the twelve-step program Alcoholics Anonymous. The first part of only the first step on the incredibly difficult journey of recovering from alcohol addiction? Admit.

That can be a lot harder than it sounds. As we pointed out in the previous article, addictions aren't formed in a day. In fact, there's a great stigma attached to the very word “addiction,” and for good reason.

It's a serious problem that can have terrible consequences, including harm to your family, friends, work, and yourself. It's, therefore, no wonder that simply admitting an addiction is a big step making it one of the important stages of addiction we'll discuss here.

Are You in Denial?

In a sobering speech by Aaron Sorkin at the Syracuse University, he stated that "the problem with drugs is that they work, right up until the moment they decimate your life. Try cocaine, and you'll become addicted to it. Become addicted to cocaine, and you will either be dead, or you will wish you were dead."

It's frighteningly easy to lie to ourselves. Particularly when we become heavily addicted to illicit drugs like cocaine. True innocence is one thing. Denial—refusing to face the facts and the reality even when the evidence is right there in front of you—is another. Denial usually comes with the territory of addiction and is the first stage of addiction. In fact, if you don't exercise denial, chances of forming an addiction are slim.

Contrary to this, in the absence of denial, you would face the truth about your behaviors much earlier. Probably before it had become a true addiction—before it had worn its own (neural) pathways into your brain.

But, as previously mentioned, we are incredibly good at deceiving ourselves. We can be neck-deep in a problem and still be thoroughly convinced that we have no problem whatsoever. And no problem can be fixed until it has been admitted.

Stage 2: "I Might Have a Problem"

So how can we take that first step? What are the stages of addiction we can be watching for? As stage one is about denial, stage two is about acknowledging and admitting the addiction exists. What are the symptoms of an addictions existence?

PsychologyToday lists several symptoms. At the core, the most basic symptom is the inability to limit the use of a substance or activity. Attempts to stop may produce symptoms of withdrawal, such as irritability, nausea, anxiety, depression, and even shaking. And these symptoms are not just limited to substance abuse.
"Any major addiction, even if not to a chemical substance, has the ability to cause withdrawal symptoms."
One obvious sign is that there will be a craving or compulsion to use the substance or engage in the activity. But two big ones that may be less obvious but much more dangerous are the consequences of recurrent use.

First, such use must escalate to achieve the “high” that was once more easily produced. This is called tolerance. One drink is plenty the first time, but soon your body gets used to that amount of alcohol and will require more. A brief peek at pornography here and there soon escalates to longer sessions of more twisted content. For an addiction to form, the brain always needs more and more extreme to maintain its chemical levels.

Second, chronic use will eventually impair work, social life, and family responsibilities. Eventually, it will set back one's health, mood, and personality. It will demand time that should be spent on your loved ones, your career, or your hobbies.

Everything will eventually be sacrificed on the altar of the addiction, whatever it may be. Feelings of guilt and shame will prompt the addict to withdraw from everything, deeper into the addiction.

Be True to Yourself

If there's something in your life that you're depending on to keep you "high" ask yourself these things.
  • Have you tried to stop and failed?
  • When you tried to stop, did you feel anxious, depressed, or physically ill or uncomfortable?
  • Are you always craving this substance or behavior, even when you're doing other things?
  • Does your use or engagement in this behavior escalate over time?
  • Does it interfere with your normal life and duties?
If the answer to any of these questions is 'yes,' it's likely you have an addiction. Again, it's a hard, hard thing to admit—but admitting is the first battle won in the war against your struggle.

Stage 3: "I Need Help."

The second word of the Alcoholics Anonymous first step may be “admitted,” but did you notice the first word? “We.” This is not a journey that can be undertaken alone. It may be hard to admit to yourself you have an addiction, but it can be even harder to admit it to someone else.

Step five of the program states, “[we] admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” At this point, addiction has taken over, and the brain has been compromised. In your sober moments you may wish to be done with this damaging pattern once, and for all but, in the moment, you are wired to go right back there again.

You're Not Alone

Stage three is then about seeking help. It has been said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. While this quote (often attributed to Albert Einstein, but actually coined by southern author Rita Mae Brown) is, at best, a gross oversimplification, however, there is a grain of truth to it.
"When we do the same unhealthy action over and over and expect something to change, our minds are not functioning properly and we need help."
Whether that means reaching out to a trusted family member, friend, mentor, or joining a local anonymous branch or an organization such as Celebrate Recovery, stopping a destructive behavior without outside help is all but impossible.

There's no shame in asking someone to walk with you through the journey to remind you of your motivation when you're in the moment and don't feel like fighting. You need someone to tell you "no" to something your brain thinks you need. Someone to carry you when you can't walk through the struggle anymore.

Addictions don't have to be impossible to break. But you can't overcome something that you won't face head-on, with reinforcements standing by. There are many different types of addictions, and we'll go over some of the biggest ones in the next articles. But for now, take a step back, assess the situation, and if there is a problem—admit it and reach out for help. You'll be glad you did.

Other articles in this 7-part series:

  1. What is an Addiction and Addiction Formation
  2. (This article)
  3. Substance Abuse: The Catalyst for Drug Addiction
  4. Sexual Addictions: The Science and Psychology
  5. Food Addictions: It's Not Just About Food
  6. Entertainment Addiction: Are We Escaping Reality?
  7. Breaking an Addiction: How to Set Yourself Free