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Article Summary

The Path to Addiction

While it has been known to happen immediately, in most cases, addiction to a drug develops over time, and generally follows a specific chain of events.


The first one or two times a person uses a drug is often called "experimentation" - that is, exploring the sensations that result from use of the drug.

Drug Use

Experimentation can evolve into "use". Use refers to use of a drug to produce an altered feeling. Use can be frequent or seldom. Think of the "social drinkers" you know. They use alcohol, but they are not dependent or addicted to it. They can legitimately say "I can stop any time I want to."


This refers to use that results in more serious consequences. For example, if someone occasionally uses cocaine, with no adverse effects, that can be considered use. Once there are consequences - such as a car accident, an injury, or job problems, it becomes abuse.


This is when the user cannot truthfully say "I can stop any time I want."


For many people, the path does not stop there. People who have stopped using alcohol or other drugs - either with help, or on their own - are said to be in recovery. They are "on the wagon" and are avoiding alcohol or other drugs. Recovery is a life-long effort, though. Like the cancer patient who is in remission, there is always a chance for a recurrence. This is called relapse.


For some people, recovery is a straightforward process, and they may never relapse. More commonly however, people in recovery relapse once, twice, even several times before achieving long-term sobriety. While as a family member you may see relapse as a sign of failure, relapse is the point when many substance abusers admit for the first time that they really have no control over the addiction and need to make some serious changes for recovery to be permanent. Relapse is also a signal to drug treatment counselors that the treatment plan needs to be adjusted to help the substance abuser stay off drugs.

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