Alcoholism is a disease, and like most diseases, it progresses with gradually worsening symptoms. Fortunately, alcoholism does not have to run its course. Seeking treatment can reverse many of the complications of the disease and help you successfully manage addiction.
Stage One: Early Alcoholism or Heavy Drinking?
Early stage alcoholism begins with recreational drinking and an increased tolerance for alcohol. For many, this stage starts in college, where social drinking is often seen as the norm. Early stage alcoholism causes physical changes as the body adapts to alcohol consumption, but the only one most people notice is an increased tolerance for alcohol.
Early stage alcoholism is difficult to spot, as the alcoholic’s behavior isn’t very different from a non-alcoholic who drinks heavily. People often view the ability to “hold your liquor” as a positive trait, and most alcoholics at this stage have little reason to think they have a drinking problem.
Stage Two: Pain Replaces Pleasure
By the second stage of alcoholism, physical dependency and withdrawal symptoms develop. You’re no longer drinking to feel good — you’re drinking increasingly larger amounts to avoid feeling bad. Tolerance continues to grow, while strong cravings for alcohol develop.
At this point you start drinking outside of socially acceptable situations, and drinking begins to negatively impact your social relationships and work performance. You may experience blackouts: periods of time when your brain cannot store memories, even though you were conscious.
Stage 3: Physical and Mental Deterioration
By the third stage of alcoholism, a host of mental and physical complications develop. The physical effects of chronic alcohol abuse include heart failure, malnutrition, pancreatitis, fatty liver, cirrhosis of the liver, and serious respiratory illness. Brain damage can occur, and the kidneys and liver may eventually shut down.
Much of this damage is reversible with treatments for alcoholism, but mental health complications such as depression could prevent you from seeking help. You might experience confusion, delusions, and cognitive impairment. A guiding hand from family, employers, or legal authorities may be required to seek the help you need.
Without alcoholism treatment, stage three is the final stage of alcoholism.
Stage 4: Alcohol Rehab
Stage four — treatment for alcoholism — can occur at any point between stages one and three. While a small percentage of alcoholics manage to quit drinking alone, most need help. Remember, alcoholism is a disease, just like cancer or pneumonia, and requires professional medical care.
Alcohol rehab offers the best treatment for alcoholism. In rehab you can detox in a safe place, with medical assistance to alleviate withdrawal symptoms. Rehab offers therapy to help you identify the causes of your addiction and teach you new lifestyle habits, while treating and stabilizing alcohol-related health complications.
Relapse: a Possible Stage
I hesitate to call relapse Stage 5, because not all alcoholics relapse after treatment. Relapse is, however, a possibility you should prepare for. Slipping back into old habits can happen quickly, especially if you don’t continue therapy or support groups after rehab.
Relapse is a temporary obstacle to sobriety, not a sign treatment failed. To improve your odds of successful, long-term sobriety, seek help as soon as possible if you start drinking again.
Sobriety: the Final Stage
Treating alcoholism takes time. The road isn’t always easy, but sobriety waits at the end of your journey. Take the first steps towards reclaiming your life. Reach out to someone and ask for help — a family member, a friend, a medical professional. Don’t let your journey end at Stage 3.