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Why People Use Drugs and Alcohol

Understanding the Stages of Addiction

“I just can’t understand why he keeps doing this to himself. It’s like no matter what happens or what we do, he keeps drinking and using. I’d swear he was sincere the last time he promised to quit. I know that he’s promised before, but this time seemed different. But there he was again…drunk. Why does he keep drinking? What’s wrong with him?”

Substance abusers; why they drink or use despite the consequences?

It seems sometimes that their behavior is so baffling.  Sometimes we wonder if they don’t have deep-seated emotional problems, or maybe something happened to them as a child, or maybe they’re just crazy.  Intervention Services, as a part of our service, tries to help you to understand your loved one in a way that you haven’t before.  Understanding why people use drugs and alcohol can help to empower a family trapped in confusion.  We have intervened on thousands of substance abusers at different points in their life and at different stages in their addiction.  Understanding the stage your loved one is at can help you to understand specifically why they continue to do what they do.

Why People Use Drugs: Avoiding Discomfort

Throughout our website, Intervention Services makes mention of the fact that the primary problem with most substance abusers is that, more than drugs or alcohol, what they are really becoming addicted to is avoiding uncomfortable feelings, things, and situations.  That this is the underlying operating basis of a substance abuser.  However, without understanding the entirety of the S.M.A.R.T. Model, this might give someone the impression that we are saying all substance abusers are somewhat identical at every stage of their life, and that it is the only reason why people use drugs or alcohol.  That’s not what we are saying at all.

Understand, however, that “avoiding discomfort” is the primary cause for why most substance abusers use alcohol or drugs, but not all substance abusers and not at all times.  There are different stages of addiction.  Only two of the stages of addiction are really about “avoiding discomfort”, however, these encompass over 90% of all that we intervene on.  We believe that almost all substance abusers fall primarily in one of Four Primary Stages of Addiction.

The Four Stages of Addiction

Intervention Services uses the S.M.A.R.T. Model of Interventions, which helps empower families by looking at substance abuse, addiction, and recovery in a different way, but in a way, they can understand.  Listed below, but not in extensive detail, we are going to explain what we have witnessed as the Four Stages of Addiction in those we have intervened on.

Stage One (Pre-addiction): Pleasure-seeking

In the beginning stages of addiction, some substance abusers are primarily about seeking pleasure only. Initially experimenting with gambling, sex, drugs or alcohol brings excitement and the desire to experience this excitement again and again. A substance abuser at this stage is generally about pleasure seeking only.

Stage Two: Begins to Avoid Discomfort

Over time, as negative consequences begin to build, this “pleasure seeking” will start to change. Instead of simply trying to experience pleasure, he is now starting to use substances to make negative consequences go away more and more frequently. A substance abuser at this stage is partially about seeking pleasure but is now beginning to become primarily about avoiding discomfort.


Prescription pill addicts often don’t begin using drugs in Stage One of Addiction or only to “seek pleasure”. If there is a pre-existing uncomfortable medical condition, injury, or anxiety, the abuser actually begins at Stage Two of Addiction as they are focusing on making uncomfortable feelings go away.

Stage Three: Primarily Avoiding Discomfort

In this later stage of addiction, drugs or alcohol no longer have the same pleasurable effect as was in the past. Drugs now serve a primary purpose…to make uncomfortable feelings, things, situations and consequences temporarily “go away”. In this stage, the substance abuser is primarily about avoiding discomfort. Whether it’s emotional or mental discomfort (feelings on the inside), physical discomfort, or external stress, it is a diminished ability to confront these things that dictates almost every move an alcoholic or addict makes in this stage, including their substance abuse. A substance abuser at this stage is now making major changes in their lives and the lives in those around them to slowly build a protective “bubble” around themselves to avoid emotional discomfort at all costs.  Again, a substance abuser in this stage is primarily about avoiding discomfort only.  The three areas of a substance abusers life that they begin to focus on, besides their substance abuse, in this stage to avoid discomfort includes:

  • Adopting a Guilt-Free Belief System…that allows the substance abuser to continue using, drinking, lying, etc without too much internal recourse.
  • Changing Environment….including friends, jobs, school etc to accommodate the most comfortable alcohol and drug-based lifestyle.
  • Training Others to Enable…in such a way so that they believe it is their idea, that they are “helping” the substance abuser to improve.

Stage Four: Seeks Destruction

Many people mistakenly think that their loved one is at this stage.  A substance abuser actively and acutely using substances most often is not actively seeking their own destruction, regardless of how their actions might appear.  They might state that they are, but more often than not those words are usually manipulations in the third stage to evoke guilt or sympathy in someone.  In actuality, Stage Four of Addiction is a very rare stage.  This stage occurs when a substance abuser, through major negative consequences occurring over and over as a result of their substance abuse, is becoming “conditioned” to associate positive feelings with negative consequences or stimuli.  In other words, imagine every time a drug user got high and he was fired…if it happened enough he would begin to subconsciously associate getting fired with a euphoric high.  Eventually, the two would become connected. Stage Four isn’t someone who is using drugs and losing their jobs…it is now someone who is intentionally losing jobs even while sober because of the unhealthy association of “feeling better” with destroying parts of their life.  This is an extremely complex situation. A Stage Four Addiction is also an extremely hard intervention.  For, if we attempt to implement “tough love” on someone who associates negative consequences with a euphoric high…well, you can only imagine what happens.  Losing everything is a blessing for them, in a strange way. It is almost impossible for a Stage Four Addict to reach a bottom.  It is critical that an intervention occurs before someone ends up at “the point of no return”.

These stages are not “age-specific”. It is not uncommon for an adolescent who is using hard drugs to be in the later stages of addiction before reaching adulthood. In the case of most interventions, the family has waited until their loved one is in the Second or Third  Stages of Addiction.  Very rarely do we intervene on the experimental drug user (Stage One) before it actually becomes an addiction.  It is also very rare that we intervene on the true Stage Four Addict. More often than not, a legal, psychiatric or medical intervention has already taken place on a Stage Four Addiction before we even have a chance to intervene.

Although this is not a complete description, we would now like to give you some insight into the development of a classic alcoholic or addict.  In addition, we will try and use the Four Stages of Addiction as a model to help you to see how these changes occur over time.

A Description of an Addict using the Four Stages of Addiction Model

What would someone be like if the Four Stages of Addiction is an accurate model?  In the beginning, or Stage One, he would look a bit like you or I.  He might be normal in every way, but there is a slight focus on pleasure causing activities.  Maybe a little more focus than average.  It can be a focus on sports, video games, sexual behaviors, thrill seeking, internet use, television, gambling, reading, and of course, even drug or alcohol use. Everything goes fine for a while, until…

He can’t spend his whole life focusing entirely on “what can I do to feel better right now”.  Sooner or later, life itself starts to intervene a bit.  Since he has ignored work or school in pursuit of other things, his performance starts to drop and he is confronted.  Sometimes by our family, sometimes by our authority figures.  As these uncomfortable events begin to pile up, we begin to shift our attitudes and behaviors towards handling these.  We are now at Stage Two.  Our substance abuser is beginning to focus more and more on avoiding discomfort.  In addition to the Substance Abuse, he is forming other behaviors that make these things go away. Postponing paying his bills, failing to take any blame for anything, dishonesty, “I’ll quit tomorrow”, watching more and more television.  These are all things that start to crop up as our person begins to focus more and more on avoiding discomfort.

What would happen if a person became focused entirely on not feeling bad or uncomfortable? What would his life be like? What would he be like as a person? Well, over time he would learn, practice and become quite good at making uncomfortable feelings, stressors, life situations, and confrontations go away. In Stage Three he is not a novice at manipulation to avoid uncomfortable feelings, things and situations…he is becoming an expert.  He might change his careers, his marriage or even move to another state because things here “aren’t working out”.  He would change his friends and only associate with those who “agree” with his lifestyle…or eventually lose all his friends.  He would begin to adopt ideas and beliefs that would allow him to continue to his lifestyle relatively guilt-free. “I could quit if I wanted to”.

However, in addition to these activities, we must think of how he learns to handle situations and people around him that might make him uncomfortable. If his operating basis in life is shifting into being primarily about “not being uncomfortable”, then he will quickly learn methods or manipulations that will prevent people around him from making him uncomfortable. In other words, he becomes an expert at teaching or “training” people around him not to make him feel bad, not to confront him, not to ask him to leave…not to intervene. Because substance abuse is primarily about emotions and feelings, he is not only becoming an expert at manipulating his own emotions (drugs, alcohol, denial, grandiose thinking) but also yours.  This is where most enabling behaviors are learned.

If you don’t understand your loved one, it is almost impossible to effectively intervene as a family member

Intervention Services includes as a service an education that allows the family to look at their loved one in a different light, in a way that actually empowers them to make a change.  Most of the manipulations we are going to cover with you involve the use of emotions to “train” family members not to make him uncomfortable, confront him, or even intervene. We use the word “train” because there is no better word. A substance abuser, using emotional manipulations, actually does train those around him not to intervene.

A professional interventionist is critical when conducting an intervention because, quite frankly, we are not in your family system.  We have not been affected (yet) by the emotional training that a substance abuser can use on those that are closest to him or her.  Trained in the S.M.A.R.T. Model,  allow Intervention Services to teach your family about your loved one in a way you haven’t thought about…a way that can change their life.

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