The Addiction Spectrum

August 1, 2021

‘Addict’ is a loaded word. Telling someone they are an addict is like asking them to adopt an identity surrounded by a negative social stigma. Naturally, the word is often met with resistance. We often feel pressure to adopt the stigmatized identity or act as though the problem doesn’t exist at all. Seeing addiction as a choice between addict and non-addict limits our ability to understand the issue.

Binary Choice

Describing the experience of addiction in a way that allows more choice provides an opportunity for us to identify with the problem in a way that fits. Viewing addiction along a spectrum is a popular alternative often used in contemporary addictions counselling. Although there are many ways of viewing addiction – and no one way is the right way – I find this spectrum to be useful in practice.

Graphic of the Addiction Spectrum

Recreational Use

We all start on the left at no use. Then we may begin experimenting with certain behaviours such as drinking alcohol, using drugs or gambling, for example. Whatever we find enjoyable may become recreational. Up to this point, we say that addiction is nothing more than a slight potential as anyone can get into trouble with certain substances or behaviours.

Next, some of us may reach the dashed line. This represents an approximate point where certain behaviours start to become a way of coping with stress, painful emotions like shame or anger, grief or anything else that most people struggle to deal with. When the motivation begins to shift from fun to coping, the probability of becoming addicted increases.

Habitual or Regular Use

The next stage is the habitual or regular stage in which the behaviour has become an important part of life. We may rely on them as the main coping mechanism for managing stress or difficult emotions such as anger. We may have a drink or use a drug to get to sleep at night, we may gamble or look at pornography to forget. Self-control diminishes, negative consequences occur, and we might start to wonder, perhaps for the first time, do I have an addiction?

The Dependent State

If we continue moving along the spectrum, the motivation keeps shifting from socializing and having fun to coping and avoiding. Negative consequences start to pile up and the behaviour starts to feel like an obsession. We may experience withdrawal symptoms if we stop as the dependent stage nears.

We can turn back at any time, most people don’t go through the spectrum in a straight line. There may be periods of time when we reached the habitual stage and then pulled back to recreational usage or no-use by making important changes in life. It does get harder to pull back the further we go.

I ask every client where they see themselves on this spectrum. Usually this is a very empowering moment in therapy. Instead of being labelled by others, they now get to choose for themselves where they are. The result is that we start talking about how to move forward and what work we need to do. Before you know it, we are crafting a recovery journey that fits and neither of us have used the label ‘addict’.

I hope this has helped you find yourself (or a loved one).

~ Omar

Categories: Addiction 101 Assessment