Reaching Bottom: The Process of Addiction

The beginning of addiction often seems innocent: a couple of drinks after work to decompress, an extra pain pill to take the edge off, trying a narcotic just once to see how it feels. Once you have hit rock bottom, you may ask yourself how on earth you got there. If you are the loved one watching someone get to the bottom of the downward spiral of addiction, clarity may also be elusive. Denial is not restricted to the addict. It can be difficult for onlookers to see the process of addiction occurring as well. To help you better understand the disease in yourself or someone else, take a look at how addiction begins, progresses, and reaches the bottom.

The Motivation

Before an addict uses a substance for the first time, there is some type of motivation to do so. In very rare cases, addiction may come from simple experimentation out of nothing more than curiosity. More often, there is an underlying cause. This may be peer pressure or the desire to be accepted socially, common in young people, but more often the first use of a substance results from the desire to suppress or relieve painful emotions or physical pain.

When someone uses a substance to feel better without direction from a doctor, this is called self-medicating. In terms of alcohol and illegal drugs, this is often done to relive the pain associated with mental illness or some type of trauma. For instance, after a death you may feel like drinking or using drugs to numb the pain of grief. Whatever it is, there is almost always a root cause or a motivation for using substances.


The motivation, such as emotional pain, often leads to experimentation in self-medication. It is important to note that not everyone with a motivation to use actually does so. Many people deal with trauma, mental illness, pain, or other difficult situations in ways that are healthy and beneficial; those who do not may try substances in order to feel better.

The experimentation stage of addiction often feels harmless to users and to anyone observing them. What’s wrong, after all, with a little relief from the pain? Someone who just lost their spouse surely deserves to get drunk now and then if it makes him feel better, right? Unfortunately, this type of behavior has the potential to lead to a very bad situation.

Regular Use

As the experimenter begins to use a substance regularly because it makes her feel better, perhaps two or three times a week, chemical changes begin to occur in her brain. When individuals use a mind-altering substance regularly, they develop a tolerance to it. The pathways in the brain that give the user a high begin to change and she will need more and more of the substance to get the pleasant feeling it imparts.

Habitual Use and Abuse

Regular use of a substance becomes habitual when the user can no longer seem to get through the week without it. At this point, he uses more and more just to get the same high. He may begin to neglect responsibilities in order to use, such as those at work and at home with family. A pattern begins to emerge with habitual substance use, almost always with negative consequences. The user may feel shame, but has difficulty stopping in spite of it.

When use of a substance has become habitual and when the user keeps going back to the drug of his choice in spite of legal troubles, getting fired from work, suffering relationships, and other very serious life issues, experts call this substance abuse.


From abuse to dependence, another word for addiction, there is a small step. All of the same behaviors described as abuse continue, but they worsen when someone has become addicted. Additionally, the user now feels real and serious physical symptoms of withdrawal when she cannot get her substance of choice. Depending on the drug, or alcohol, withdrawal can be painful and even dangerous. Once someone is dependent on a substance, her brain is telling her to get more, no matter what. It is extremely difficult to stop using at this point.

Recovery and Relapse

In spite of how challenging it is, anyone can enter recovery and get clean from an addiction. It takes a tremendous amount of work, will power, and support from others to do so. Even when someone does get sober, the odds of relapse are very high. In fact, many people will relapse and recover several times before finally bringing the cycle of addiction to an end.