A summary of the stages of Addiction

One morning as I ran, a caterpillar crossed my path. I noticed it because caterpillars are creepy looking to me. Plus, they’re sluggish and live with the sole purpose of gaining weight and I admit that I’m a bit jealous of that purpose. But they’re also kinda cool because, in time, they will form a cocoon and emerge from that cocoon as butterflies or moths and then fly all over the place. They’ll pollinate flowers and plants and reproduce and start the process all over again. Caterpillars, if allowed to follow their natural progression, are certain to become moths or butterflies and there is no doubt that their destiny is set.

Though many might argue with me, substance use, if allowed to follow its own natural progression, can become full-blown addiction. Like the caterpillar, substance use has distinct stages of progression that will eventually lead to a certain outcome. A person who sets out on the path of substance use is starting a path with a distinct and finite destiny. The stages of this path of substance use that leads to full-blown addiction are:

  •  Experimental: This is the first stage and here, people will use a substance out of curiosity or peer pressure or some form rite of passage. There is no change in behavior or emotional context; substance use is contained.
  • Social: If a person progresses to the social stage, he or she is likely to use as part of a social situation or for acceptance within a social context. Here, the person still feels normal and contains the substance use to just specific social settings.
  • Instrumental: During the instrumental stage, people will begin to abuse a substance. Examples of this abuse are when a substance is used for a specific purpose; such as, to numb an intense emotion, to cope with day to day challenges, or for any other specific purpose. As the use escalates, tolerance will develop and more of the substance will be needed to attain the desired result. As tolerance grows, dependence appears and a person’s social settings become limited to those where the substance use is the primary point of gathering. Also, when someone’s substance use hits the instrumental stage, that person’s emotional context becomes erratic: There’s mood swings and depression, anxiety, etc., become associated with the availability (or lack thereof) of the substance.
  • Compulsive: The compulsive stage is the stage of full-blown addiction. Here, a person’s main preoccupation in life is with substance and he or she will do anything to get it. Shame develops and a person will attempt to hide the substance. Social circumstances begin to fall apart, a cycle of loss emerges: Loss of friend, family, jobs, and all other stable and healthy social circumstances.

What’s key within the stages of addiction is that each can be redirected if the person is made aware of the escalation potential, if the substance use continues. I do have to say, though, that there are some substances so powerful that all it takes is one use for them to develop into an addiction. Heroin, for example, can grab a user right after the first shot dissipates. However, the majority of addiction is progressive and can be redirected.

I can’t help but think of the progression and stages of addiction when I see caterpillars. They’re too good of symbols for a staged developmental process. As is the case with most detrimental behaviors, the best practice is to not use a substance in the first place. But, if someone must use something, I really think it’s important that he or she knows and recognizes the potential of substances to walk him or her down a predictable path. As I’ve said before, untreated addiction leads to three (3) things: Prison, death, or both.