The Typical Timeline of Addiction

Young teenagers, aging seniors and every age group in between have been impacted by drug or alcohol addiction at some point, and those who are struggling with such substance abuse issues often find themselves inadvertently following a very common pattern that is marked with significant events throughout the course of dependence. The good news is that those who follow the typical timeline of addiction progression often land in treatment, where they rediscover a happy, healthy lifestyle.

Before addiction: Drug addiction does not necessarily begin immediately after a user takes drugs for the first time, despite the fact that brain changes occur whenever mind-altering substances are used. The early days of drug use are often marked with parties, friends and fun, making it appear as though drug use is a normal, acceptable thing to do. Future addicts often spend several years using drugs without their habit affecting their daily life or relationships in a negative way; while non-dependent drug use appears to be at least somewhat acceptable, convincing oneself that drug use can be managed responsibly is actually one of the most dangerous things that an individual can do.

Approaching Addiction: The length of time before addiction begins can vary significantly between users. Whether controlled, recreational drug use lasts for a day, a month or several years, each time users tell themselves that they “can handle it” makes it more likely that their habit will end with negative consequences. Whenever drugs are taken on even a semi-regular basis, the user develops a greater tolerance to the substance, regularly requiring more to achieve the same effects; as users increase the amount their drug of choice, the body begins to learn that it is expected to not only tolerate but crave whatever drug it has come to desire.


Entering Addiction: The onset of addiction is often difficult because users spend so much time trying to convince themselves that they are not addicted at all. However, anytime that drug use becomes habitual, impacts the substance abuser’s career, relationships or home life or leads to deception, it has reached a point far beyond experimentation or recreation. Users also tend to actually increase their use at this point for several reasons; for example, some individuals simply cannot ignore their cravings while others continue to use to escape the negative feelings that they are experiencing because of their drug use. While this seems unreasonable to those who have never faced substance abuse issues, an addicted mind rarely functions rationally.

Active Addiction: Drug users who come to realize that their substance abuse is a serious problem often feel shameful, guilty, depressed and anxious about their use; even in the face such negative feelings, the addict continues to use the drug of choice, despite the fact that they no longer even want to get high. Continuing to use drugs is no longer a choice in active addiction; it feels like a matter of survival to those who feel like cannot help themselves. Active drug addicts also frequently try to quit; while periods of abstinence may last a few days or weeks, they all too often get pushed to the back burner when the cravings become too strong. Once the drug user accepts that he or she has a problem, the individual may become more willing to seek treatment.

Entering Recovery: After working hard to quit on his or her own, unsuccessful addicts often seek treatment at a drug and alcohol rehab center or through a support group like Narcotics Anonymous. The early years of recovery may or may not involve periods of relapse; even if addicts slip and begin using drugs again for a short or long period of time, he or she generally realizes that life was better without abusing drugs and returns to recovery. Regardless of how many times a user relapses, those who keep trying to live a healthy, sober lifestyle are moving in the right direction. Once an addict has been free of drugs or alcohol for a period of five years or longer, the risk of another relapse drops to less than 15 percent.

Understanding the Recovery Process

Support people who are searching for answers to their questions about the process of addiction and recovery may also want to consider attending a support group that is designed for the loved ones of substance abusers. Through hard work, commitment and the support of people who care, many individuals who were once active addicts go on to lead normal, functional lives.

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