Substance dependency, like many other chronic, relapsing diseases, is highly progressive. This simply means that if left untreated, symptoms will progressively worsen – they will never get better on their own. The progressive nature of this particular disease is unique in the sense that even men and women who go into remission remain at risk of symptoms picking up right where they left off if they do undergo a relapse. For example, if a man enters into the chronic stage of alcoholism, his symptoms will never improve – even if he remains sober for 35 years, chronic alcoholism will be laying latent within him. If this man begins drinking after 35 years of sobriety, he will begin drinking at a chronic alcoholic level. In order to better understand how the disease of addiction progresses, we must first understand the disease itself.
Alcoholism – Defined
The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as:
Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.
Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.
The Four Stages of Alcoholism
The American Medical Association (AMA) also suggests that the progressive disease of alcoholism follows several stages. During each stage, the symptoms continue to progress, and as they do, related consequences become more and more severe.
Stage 1: The Social Drinker
Social drinkers experience very few issues with alcohol. Essentially, they can take it or leave it – they may enjoy drinking, but alcohol does not interfere even slightly with their day-to-day lives. The social drinker can successfully control his or her drinking, and does not drink in order to get drunk. In fact, drinking comes secondary to the event or circumstance which warrants it – such as a wedding, a party, or a fancy meal.
Stage 2: The Early Stage
An individual who is in the early stage of alcoholism will begin to experience issues relating directly to drinking. It is common for an individual in the early stage to begin feeling guilty about his or her alcohol consumption, and start sneaking drinks before and after social events. A preoccupation with alcohol will begin to develop, and the individual will seek out people and places that are more conducive to his or her drinking habits. Blacking out will likely become a common occurrence, and tolerance will steadily increase.
Stage 3: The Middle Stage
In this stage of alcoholism, the sufferer has likely experienced quite a few consequences as a direct result of his or her drinking. However, the alcoholic will still deny that a problem exists. During this stage, the individual will begin losing all control over his or her drinking. He or she will often drink far more than intended, and will begin drinking to evade uncomfortable emotions such as guilt, sadness, and resentment. The individual may begin drinking in the morning, initially to relieve the discomfort of a bad hangover. During this stage, the alcoholic may attempt to quit on his or her own with little success.
Stage 4: The Late Stage
During this stage of the disease, the life of the sufferer will be completely unmanageable. He or she will begin suffering from related heath conditions, such as cirrhosis of the liver and hepatitis. Depression, insomnia, and suicide all become common perils, as does irreparable brain damage. At this stage, the physical body itself has become addicted to alcohol, and an abrupt cessation of use will result in severe (sometimes fatal) withdrawal symptoms. It is exceedingly important for the alcoholic to seek outside help at this stage of the disease.
If you believe that you struggle with alcohol abuse in any stage, please feel free to contact us at Next Chapter Treatment today. Because addiction is such a highly progressive disease, seeking treatment early on – even when it may seem unnecessary – is always a wiser choice than waiting for severe and lasting consequences to begin unfolding.