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Experimentation to Dependency: The Stages of Use

When does occasional experimentation cross the line from use to abuse? Are you wondering if you have a tendency toward dependency? Here’s a breakdown of the stages so that you can determine if someone you know requires treatment of alcoholism or drug abuse.

Experimental Use

Some adults never pass beyond the stages of occasional beer drinking or pot smoking. They usually indulge only on weekends or vacation times, and they only do it with friends. It’s rare for an experimental user to get high when he’s alone.

People in the experimental stage of use have a low tolerance to whatever they’re using, and so it’s easy to get high. The thrill of doing it plus the associated risks excite them more than the actual effects of their substance of choice. Very few of them use anything beyond the occasional beer, wine, or marijuana.

Regular Use

The person who crosses the line from occasional social use to regular use is willing to suffer the consequences of hangovers. He parties hearty whatever the occasion, and he enjoys escalating to more intoxicating substances.

This user boasts that he can handle his alcohol or manage his high—he actually takes pride in his ability to tolerate whatever he’s using. He is becoming more apt to get high when he’s alone, and he begins occasional daytime use, smoking grass or tossing back a drink or three during the course of the regular work day.

In the late stages of regular use, he spends more money on his high. He misses an occasional day at work because he doesn’t feel well. If he’s using marijuana, he worries about what to do when his stash runs low.

Daily Preoccupation

The person’s use of harder drugs ratchets upward—if he can’t get his regular high, he is easily convinced to move on to something else. Unfortunately, those new options generally carry greater risks. The number of times he gets high during the course of a week increases, and the effect on the wallet is palpable.

Being high becomes a normal way of functioning. Social use is rare since the person is under the influence almost all the time.

The person at this point lies significantly to his family members about when and what he is using. He will steal increasing amounts of money from them to buy what he needs. He doesn’t share his stash with friends, because he only has enough for himself. Very few of his friends are straight. He fights more and more often with family members. At this point he may be arrested for driving under the influence. He swears he will quit using so much, but that resolution only lasts a few weeks.


The person who is dependent drinks or gets high regularly at work. He cannot face his regular workday without his high. Coworkers will be talking about him regularly, and he may face discipline from his employer, including mandatory rehabilitation.

His friends are losers. He doesn’t really trust any of them, however, any more than anybody trusts him.  

Physically, he deteriorates. He may be losing weight, and he pays little attention to hygiene. He becomes ill more often, and he suffers bouts of memory loss. He nevertheless insists that he does not have a problem and that he can quit at any time—if he wants to. He does feel guilt over what he’s doing, but he cannot resist his urges. He has lost control over his use.

Does This Apply to Someone You Know?

What stage of use are you in? Whether this is for yourself or a friend, you need to recognize when it’s time to get treatment for alcoholism or drug addiction. Very few people can quit without help, and your best option is to get assistance from a licensed, certified rehabilitation center.

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