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The Spiral of Addiction: How Addiction Happens

view from top of spiral staircase

The spiral down to addiction is something every addict goes through. Most drug use starts off small. Perhaps the person set out to just try something once. No one sets out to become an addict. Unfortunately some people do become fully addicted and need help to stop. The amount of time this takes will depend on the person and the drug or drugs they try. Those who are going through the spiral, are addicted, or who have a loved one who is addicted will want to understand the spiral of addiction and how it occurs.

All addicts experience the spiral of addiction

All addicts go through the spiral of addiction, though the speed at which they go through it may vary. How long it takes to spiral from first use to addiction depends greatly on the person and the substance they are abusing. Some people will become dependent incredibly quickly while others might still be successful at their job and able to hide their addiction for a very long time. Many people will deny they are in the spiral of addiction for as long as possible, especially if they’re able to hide the addiction well. They may think they have control over their addiction or that they can quit at will. Eventually, however, they’ll end up getting to the point where they can no longer hide their addiction or deny they’ve become addicted.


Alcohol or drug addiction nearly always starts with experimentation. Someone will try a drug once and see what effect it has on the way they feel. Most young people start drinking once in a while with friends. Depending on the person and the drug they try, they can go through this stage for quite a while before moving onto the next one. They might experiment with many different drugs to see which one they prefer.  Some may try the drug once in a while to escape from their daily life for a little bit. Different drugs each have their own impact on the brain and body. Some carry more risk of addiction than others. Human bodies, and personalities are unique and some people are more prone to problems with addiction. Some people may never progress past this phase, but unfortunately, no one knows in advance that they are at risk of progressing down the spiral to addiction.

Regular use

At some point, the person starts to use the drug more regularly. They might not realize they’re taking it more often, but they turn to it for any time they have stress or a problem. They use because they enjoy the effect it offers and the ability to forget about everything that’s going on. They’ll end up with more excuses to use the drug or to drink, leading to more frequent use. The amount of alcohol or drugs they use rises and they may use more than one substance. Most of the time, this is when other people in their life will start to see what’s happening, though there some high-functioning addicts that can still hide it at this point.


Drugs and alcohol are expensive. To keep up with their drug use, the person might start engaging in high-risk behaviors to have the money they need to continue drug use or to keep drinking. They start to focus on obtaining the drug and allow other areas of their life to falter such as their health or well being. They neglect their health, their job, and their relationships. The brain, at the same time is changing too, increasing the physical and psychological cravings for the drug. Thinking is impaired and the quality of the decisions they make drops. This stage is incredibly dangerous because of everything that can go wrong, but many people are still in denial that they have an issue at this point. They might start lying to people they know, lose their job, or get arrested. At some point, they might start to get past the denial. Many addicts try to refuse treatment because they aren’t aware of just how this is impacting their life, the life of their loved ones, or the depth of their problem.

Tolerance and dependence

The more someone takes a drug, the more reliant they become. They cannot stop taking the drug because their brain has adjusted to where they need the drug to function. They start building a tolerance, needing more of the drug at one time to get the same effect they had in the past and they become dependent on it, needing it to get through the day each day. This increases the risky behaviors they exhibit, and the person will not be able to quit on their own by the time they reach this state. Some drugs are very dangerous to quit cold turkey even if the person thinks they can do it alone. A medically managed detox may be required. Once the person has detoxified from alcohol or substance abuse, they must relearn how to be sober. Addiction treatment is required to support physical and mental healing. A quality addiction treatment program teaches new coping and life skills and provides needed support as the addict works to lead a sober life. Relapse is extremely common but the risk of relapse can be greatly reduced with a plan for success. A long-term plan for support greatly improves success rates for long-term sobriety.  Our treatment team will work with each individual to establish a plan to help aid in their continued sobriety after completing treatment.

Helping those struggling with addiction

Understanding the spiral of addiction helps those who are starting to go through the spiral to better comprehend the dangerous path they are traveling on. It can also help those who have a loved one they have discovered is struggling with an addiction. While it does get harder to quit as the person moves further down the spiral, it is not hopeless. Everyone can get help and have the chance to live their life without addiction. Getting sober, and more importantly, staying sober, requires a significant amount of work on behalf of the addict. Recovery usually requires assistance from an addiction rehabilitation facility. The good news is that escape from the spiral of addiction is possible at any point in the journey. If you, or someone you love, is spiraling into addiction, please pick up the phone and talk with one of our admissions specialists. We’re here to help. References