It’s Friday night and you’re bored. You’re brainstorming things to do and recall how much fun that party last week was, despite the wicked hangover afterwards. So, you decide to call your friends and invite them to the bar. Unfortunately, they’re busy and you’re disappointed. Due to lack of other options, you go on your own anyway and socialise with the crowd. You don’t know it, but this is how the addiction cycle starts for many people.
After a few drinks, you continue to order more and more, despite the fact that you’re already tipsy. Now, you’ve definitely had too much. That’s unfortunate because you were planning on going hiking on Saturday – oh well. The next day, you wake up with an even worse hangover and conclude that you probably should’ve stopped after a few drinks. Not only is the weekend completely ruined now, but you also realise you haven’t felt this bad in a while. “I’m never drinking again,” you think to yourself, and vow to get your life together.
…Until the next weekend, when the story repeats all over again. So much for never drinking again.
Sounds familiar? Quite a lot of people have been there. Although this is a common occurrence for many social drinkers, you’d be surprised how it correlates with the cycle of addiction.
What is the Addiction Cycle?
Whether a person develops an addiction or not, they can get caught up in this downward spiral. Simply explained, it’s like a roundabout where once you get on, you end up going around in circles between relapse and regret. Someone with an active addiction will often go through this cycle multiple times in their life.
Given that addiction is a chronic mental illness, this explains why recovery can be difficult for some people to sustain. Often, a person will end up going through the cycle multiple times before they admit they have a problem or decide to seek help.
Stages of Addiction
From the broader perspective, the addiction cycle is divided into six stages. These are:
Relapse or Recovery
All of these stages vary from person to person. Some can be short; some can be long. The stages can also happen simultaneously and may be hard to tell apart.
If a person is prone to addiction, one initial introduction may be enough to send them into the cycle of addiction. Other things that may affect how far the person goes down the rabbit hole include family history, environment, peer influence, mental health, and the drug itself.
This is when the person first gets introduced to the substance. It may be their first alcoholic drink, a puff of marijuana, or a line of cocaine. Depending on the substance, people may not pass beyond this stage.
The abuse stage is also the stage of experimentation. If a person had a good experience with their initial introduction, they’re likely to continue using (at least recreationally). This is quite a dangerous stage, as experimentation can quickly turn into abuse, which can even more quickly turn into addiction. When people engage in substance misuse, they may not know when they’ve crossed the line.
For example, after a person has their first drink, they may continue to drink regularly on the weekends. In time, they might end up overdoing it more and more, either by binge drinking or general overconsumption.
Some people will also discover that alcohol or drugs are a good source of self-medication, which is a dangerous road to go down. However, it is a commonly travelled path. Despite this, a lot of people won’t pass beyond this stage.
This is when the person starts to get caught up in the cycle. If they become a regular user, this is the absolute turning point where they’ll either go on to develop an addiction, or remain as a responsible, functional user. Of course, with illegal drugs, no amount of use is responsible, but with more socially acceptable substances like alcohol, it may be possible to sustain.
Nevertheless, a person can remain a regular and responsible user for a long time, but that doesn’t mean they won’t develop an addiction at some point. Continued use lowers one’s awareness and damages the body and brain. If your brain is constantly artificially stimulated or your body isn’t getting enough nutrition, you may not be able to think straight. With certain drugs, even legal ones, the side effects may have a similar impact.
Over time, a person may think, “Nothing bad has happened to me so far, why would things change now?” This kind of thinking may lead them to be less responsible in their use and go from a functional user to a dependent user.
After a period of constant use, a user is likely develop some sort of dependency and/or tolerance to the substance. This is when you start to see the symptoms of addiction becoming more obvious. With dependence, tolerance can build quickly, and the amount once acceptable for recreational use will not be enough over time.
Substance dependency is not the same as addiction, but it can be. People can become dependent on a substance but are ultimately able to take control and stop. However, for others, that dependency will become an ongoing issue.
Addiction or not, at the dependence stage, the drug takes over a person’s life. A user will become likely to experience cravings and spend more of their time fantasising about, acquiring, or using the substance. As a result, other responsibilities may get neglected. In time, the person will realise they can’t function properly without the substance and will struggle to quit.
The withdrawal phase is related to the hangover. This may happen as a result of a voluntary attempt to quit or an unexpected period of abstinence. However, whether a person is attempting to slow down or not,the withdrawal symptoms can be so overwhelming that they deter the person from maintaining sobriety.
The severity of withdrawal symptoms will vary from person to person. Factors such as personal health, the length of use, and the drug itself will determine what withdrawal experience one has.
Relapse or Recovery
If a person can’t handle the withdrawal symptoms or eventually succumbs to cravings, they relapse and begin the cycle again. Of course, it’s also possible for a person to go through withdrawal and maintain sobriety.
Relapse, if it does happen, is not the end and is not failure. After all, there is a reason why this is called the addiction cycle. In fact, relapse is quite common, with rates being around 40-60% for most patients and possibly even higher for alcoholics.
If the person is determined to remain abstinent and receives the appropriate treatment, they may maintain their recovery for a lifetime. However, it is important to remember that relapse is always a possibility.
The Secondary Cycle
While the cycle above describes the downward spiral into addiction that people can fall into, there is an equivalent cycle that an already-addicted person goes through on a regular basis. For some, it can happen multiple times a day. It can be summarised in the following steps:
Needing relief from pain/emotion/discomfort
Thinking about using
Engaging in use
Losing control and abusing the substance/taking too much
Regret, guilt, or shame about using or losing control
“Never again” promise or making a decision to quit
Except in many cases, that “never again” is quickly forgotten, and the cycle repeats, until the person truly wants to quit and takes the right steps toward treatment.
Escaping the Addiction Cycle
Although for an active user it may feel like there is no way out of the addiction cycle, it can be done. This is what recovery is all about. Unfortunately, every time a person goes through the cycle, it makes it more difficult to escape. This is why it’s always recommended to address addiction and substance abuse as soon as possible.
The more a person goes through the cycle and relapses, the more they will feel like a failure. Thus, each time they will be less and less inclined to quit. Long-term abusers may also have suffered consequences such as loss of friends, a job, or health problems, which make a person lose the motivation to fight.
The two most important steps that one needs to take to make the escape, are admitting that they have a problem and making the decision to quit. Motivation and determination will be necessary on this journey.
Although many people manage to quit simply with the help of support groups such as AA, the key for many is treatment, either outpatient or residential. Although there are many ways to approach treatment, ultimately, there needs to be a period of detox followed by extensive therapy and aftercare.
When people do relapse, they shouldn’t give up, but instead return to their treatment programme. It may take a few tries and failures before finding the right course of rehabilitation, but recovery is possible for everyone.
Last updated & clinically assessed 26 March, 2021