More than 22 million Americans are trapped in a cycle of drug and alcohol abuse. In order to get them treatment, we need to recognize how that cycle works.
Understanding the Cycle of Addiction
No one wants to be a drug addict. Sure, they might enjoy drinking alcohol or getting high. But the constant need to keep using is a heavy burden on the addict. It affects their physical, mental, and social health. It plagues them in every aspect. It threatens their safety and their life itself.
Non-users don’t always get it. Many people believe that the addict should just quit if they want to be clean. Some people think that drug addiction and alcoholism are just character flaws. They think that if the addict could simply build some character, they’d be able to kick their habit.
That’s not the case.
As the National Institute on Drug Abuse points out, drug addiction and alcoholism are diseases of the brain. And like other chronic illnesses, they can be very difficult to overcome.
“Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” – The National Institute on Drug Abuse
Most of us know that America’s addiction problem is serious. NIDA data shows us that more than 22 million Americans suffer from drug addiction or alcoholism. Even more alarming, only 2.5 million have received professional treatment. It’s clear that this needs to change. In order to bring an end to the crisis, we need to get more people the help they need.
We’ve outlined this guide to help folks understand the addiction cycle. It’s our goal to educate the public on how addiction works, what it looks like and what we can do to stop it.
Are you a drug addict or alcoholic? Take one of our free online quizzes to find out if you need treatment.
What is the Addiction Cycle?
The cycle of addiction is defined by six phases: early use, abuse, tolerance, dependence, addiction, and relapse. Some of these phases overlap. In some cases, they may be hard to distinguish from one another.
The timeline of the cycle looks different for every addict. Some go through the cycle rapidly. For others, it takes years. But if any addict can recognize the cycle while they’re in it, they can reach out to get the help they need.
Early Drug Use
A lot of people use drugs. They’re common in our culture. In most states, we can buy beer at the grocery store. And with the rise of legal marijuana, it’s easy to obtain that, too. Of course, not everyone who uses these drugs gets caught up in the cycle of addiction.
For addicts, initial use is considered the first phase of addiction. A few bumps of cocaine here and there, even if it’s just once in a while, is where their habit starts.
Scientists still don’t understand why some people become addicts. They have their suspicions, though. Mayo Clinic lists some risk factors that might make someone prone to addiction. These risk factors include:
Environment: People who spend time around addicts are more susceptible to addiction. Also, if the user’s family is absent, they tend to be prone to drug abuse. The more accountable someone is for their actions, the less likely they are to abuse alcohol and other substances.
Young drug use: Drugs can change our brain chemistry over time. Those who start using when they’re young can develop an addiction early on in their life.
Drug potency: Stronger drugs are more addictive. Heroin hooks its users much faster than marijuana. If someone abuses hard drugs, they’re more likely to become dependent on it.
Mental health: Mental health disorders can increase the likelihood of addiction. Conditions like anxiety, depression, PTSD, and ADHD are more susceptible to drug habits. If someone has an undiagnosed or untreated mental illness, they might use drugs and alcohol regularly to self-medicate.
From Drug Use to Drug Abuse
When the addict’s habit becomes a threat to their life, they are considered to be drug abusers. Of course, “threats” are relative to the circumstances. Using heroin one time is dangerous, but taking medications is not if the user was prescribed.
To figure out if someone is abusing drugs, look for these signs:
- They take more and more over time.
- They put a lot of effort into obtaining the drug.
- They get angry or anxious without the drug in their system.
- They risk their safety to use it (i.e drunk driving, etc).
- The do something illegal to get high or drunk (i.e stealing, etc).
- Their health is affected by their habit (i.e lack of sleep, getting sick, etc.)
Drug abuse is most recognizable when someone misuses prescription drugs. Someone who takes painkillers, for example, progresses from responsible use to misuse when they start taking too much, using after their prescription is up, and putting their safety at risk. When someone behaves in that way, it’s a sign that they’re getting caught up in the addiction cycle.
Building a Tolerance
Drug tolerance occurs when someone needs larger doses of a substance to feel its effects. If someone who used to get drunk off two beers needs to drink eight to feel the same way, it’s because they’ve built a tolerance.
Drugs get us high because we don’t use them all of the time. Each drug affects our body and brain in a different way. But, when we use that drug over and over, our bodies get used to having that drug in it. Our cells morph and change to accommodate the chemical.
As a drug abuser uses more and more of their drug of choice, their cells aren’t impacted in the same way. If they choose to keep using, they’ll find themselves taking much more as time goes on. Tolerance for drugs is a bad sign. The user should get help at this point.
“The initial decision to take drugs is mostly voluntary. However, when drug abuse takes over, a person’s ability to exert self-control can become seriously impaired.” – NIDA, The Science of Addiction
If an addict is powerless over drug use in the early stages of their habit, they become entirely powerless once they’re chemically dependent. At this point, they’ve essentially rewired their brain to need the drug.
Research shows that by the time a user becomes chemically dependent, their brain has been programmed to believe that the drug is necessary to keep them alive.
The authors of NIDA’s report, The Science of Addiction, write, “Brain imaging studies from drug-addicted individuals show physical changes in the area of the brain that are critical to judgment, decision-making, learning, memory and behavior control”.
During the dependency phase of the addiction cycle, the addict will begin to experience severe cravings due to their altered brain chemistry. They are also likely to lose inhibitions. They will start to act out of character in order to feed their cravings. It is nearly impossible to reduce cravings without detox.
Addiction: The Peak of the Cycle
It can be difficult to distinguish between drug abuse, chemical dependency and a full-blown addiction. By the time someone has reached this phase in the addiction cycle, it’s likely that their drug or alcohol habit has already affected their life.
However, the DSM-5 provides us the official definition of addiction disorder. As the leading source in the mental health industry, we use the DSM’s definition in our work.
They say that people must show at least two of the following symptoms to be deemed an addict:
- An inability to stop using a drug.
- Frequently using more of the drug than they’d planned to use.
- Using drugs despite negative effects on their personal relationships.
- Using drugs despite negative effects on their physical health.
- Spending excessive time and effort using the drug or recovering from its effects.
- Withdrawing from social life to use drugs.
- Becoming unable to meet obligations due to drug use.
- Experiencing strong cravings for the drug.
- Using the drug in life-threatening situations.
- Building a tolerance for the drug.
- Finding themselves unable to stop using it.
When someone displays a few of these characteristics, it’s crucial that they get help. If the addict is taking powerful drugs like cocaine or heroin, they could be at risk of overdosing.
We’re Still Addicts After We Get Clean
It’s important to note that addiction doesn’t end after we stop using. The addiction phase is one that carries on into our sobriety.
The members of AA are known to say, “Once an addict, always an addict.” They don’t mean this in a negative way. They use it to remind themselves that the fight against addiction is an ongoing one. In order to stay clean, we need to remind ourselves that we’re just one dose away from losing our sobriety.
Relapse: When the Cycle Comes Full-Circle
Relapse is when an addict returns to using after being sober for a while. Between 40% and 60% of all recovered addicts relapse at some point. While some addicts do get clean after several relapses, most of them get caught back up in the addiction cycle.
Relapses occur much like the initial addiction. They start with the sober person using a small amount of their drug of choice. They often think that, because they’ve been clean, they are strong enough to use without becoming addicted. However, this is likely to lead them back into chemical dependency.
It’s important not to view relapses as a failure. Just because someone relapses on their drug of choice doesn’t mean that their life is over. After returning to drugs, it’s important for the addict to get help and turn their focus back toward sobriety. With proper treatment, they’ll have a better chance of avoiding a relapse in the future.
The Children of Addicts Keep the Cycle Going
Passing on the habit is not an official phase in the addiction cycle. However, the cycle doesn’t always end with the addict themselves. It’s often passed on to their children. As the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism points out, the children of addicts are more likely to develop their own addictions
“Children of alcoholics (COA’s) are at increased risk for a wide range of behavioral and emotional problems, including addiction to alcohol and other drugs,” Ann W. Price and James G. Emshoff write in an article for NIAAA.
According to NCADD, children of addicts are 50% more likely to become addicts themselves. This is quite a scary statistic considering how many children currently live with addicted parents. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that roughly 1 in 8 children has lived with at least one addict parent.
In their National Survey on Drug Use, SAMHSA estimates that 7.5 million kids have lived with a parent who suffers from alcoholism. 2.1 million have lived with a parent who is addicted to drugs.
Worried that your parent has a substance abuse disorder? Take our free online quiz to get a clear answer.
Resources for the Children of Addicts
It can be tough for someone to recognize that their loved one has a problem. But the faster they do so, the quicker they can get help.
The NIAAA outlines some questions that we can ask ourselves to determine whether a family member is addicted. They refer to these questions as the Family CAGE Screening Test. The CAGE Test is named for the acronym that appears in the list of questions.
- Does your parent need to cut down on their drinking or drug use?
- Do they ever get annoyed if someone talks about their habit?
- Do they ever feel guilty about their drug use or drinking?
- Do they ever use drugs or drink early in their day?
If someone suspects that their loved one may have a substance abuse issue, they should reach out for help as quickly as possible. They may need to consult other family members to hold an intervention. The faster they can get their loved one into addiction treatment, the faster that person will start recovering.
When dealing with an addicted family member, it can help to have support. Al-Anon is an organization of people who’ve been affected by the addiction of a loved one. This organization is free. They meet regularly to discuss the struggle of loving an addict.
It’s Time for Us to Break the Addiction Cycle
Being caught in the cycle of addiction is painful and overwhelming. It’s not how any of us imagine our lives.
If you’re currently struggling with drug addiction or alcoholism, there’s help for you. There are people who want to lend a hand as you work toward getting sober. Give us a call. We can discuss your habit and point you toward treatment options.