The Three Stages of Alcoholism – And How To Recognize Them

When does using alcohol become abusing alcohol?  The progression from social drinking or an occasional binge to becoming dependent on alcohol can be a gradual one – or, for many people, it may not happen at all.  But knowing the stages of alcoholism can make it easier to spot the points at which alcohol use turns to abuse – and addiction.

Social Drinking, Heavy Drinking, or Alcohol Abuse?

For many people, alcohol simply makes social gatherings and time spent with friends more enjoyable. It’s a way to celebrate and relax.  For these individuals, “social” drinking rarely becomes anything more.

For others, though, a drink or two at a party isn’t enough. Heavy drinking – identified as having more than three drinks a day if you’re a woman, and four a day if you’re a man – begins to affect a drinker’s life.  So can binge drinking, which means consuming more than seven drinks a week for women or fourteen for men.

At this point, many drinkers experience some consequences of alcohol abuse. They might have a run-in with the law, or get into a risky or dangerous situation. More fights or other problems in relationships may happen. Heavy drinking may be the first step toward early stage alcoholism.

Early Stage Alcoholism

Stages of Alcoholism

Withdrawal symptoms are experienced during early stage alcoholism.

Heavy drinkers who continue to drink may find that in ways large and small, drinking has become a central part of their lives. If they continue to drink, the signs of alcohol addiction begin to appear:

Cravings

Drinkers become preoccupied with alcohol – thinking about it and planning how to get it dominates their thoughts.

Tolerance

As the body and brain adapt to alcohol, alcohol abusers can drink far more than they used to, and show few if any outward signs of being impaired. These drinkers must drink more and more to get the same feelings from drinking alcohol that they used to experience.

Withdrawal

When the brain and body start to become dependent on alcohol, the drinker doesn’t feel well when not drinking.  Anxiety and depression appear, and hangovers become harder to recover from.  At this point, the drinker needs to take a drink just to feel “normal” again.

Mid-Stage Alcoholism

At this point, the drinker is addicted to alcohol.  Drinking isn’t a matter of getting drunk or feeling good, it’s a matter of getting through the day.  Drinking gets harder to hide from family, friends and employers,  and work and relationships begin to suffer.

For mid-stage alcoholics, alcohol becomes an all-consuming addiction.  These drinkers prefer to spend time alone or with other alcoholics.  They rarely venture far from places where alcohol is available, and going without a drink causes clear withdrawal symptoms.

This middle stage is often a point when someone abusing alcohol does get help, either because it becomes clear that life is spinning out of control, or because of a severe negative consequence such as losing a job or getting arrested for alcohol-related reasons.   Family members may stage interventions to force the drinker to face the damage drinking is causing.

Understanding the Stages of Alcoholism

Late Stage Alcoholism

There’s no timetable for alcoholism, and it’s possible to become a late stage alcoholic over a period of months – or years. In late stage alcoholism, the mind and body begin to deteriorate due to the effects of alcohol on the system. By this stage, a drinker is likely to be experiencing some liver and kidney problems, as well as memory issues and behavioral changes. Symptoms of alcohol-induced dementia may appear.

For these drinkers, the goal is mainly to stave off withdrawal symptoms. They may have lost jobs, homes and income.  Some symptoms of alcohol toxicity may be reversible, but others may lead to permanent deficits. The liver may fail entirely.  For late stage alcoholics, the road to recovery is long and daunting – but it can be found.  Intensive treatment for detox and rehab can help even late stage alcoholics reclaim their lives.

Are you concerned about your drinking patterns – and what they mean for your future? We have the answers you need right now.  Contact us at 800-839-1686Who Answers? to find the solution that’s right for you.

How the helpline works

For those seeking addiction treatment for themselves or a loved one, the AlcoholicsAnonymous.com helpline is a private and convenient solution.

Calls to any general helpline (non-facility specific 1-8XX numbers) for your visit will be answered by American Addiction Centers (AAC), a paid advertiser on AlcoholicsAnonymous.com.

AAC representatives are standing by 24/7 to discuss your treatment options. These representatives work solely for AAC and will discuss whether an AAC facility may be an option for you. This helpline is offered at no cost to you and with no obligation to enter into treatment. Neither AlcoholicsAnonymous.com nor AAC receives any commission or other fee that is dependent upon which treatment provider a visitor may ultimately choose.

For more information on AAC’s commitment to ethical marketing and treatment practices, or to learn more about how to select a treatment provider, visit AmericanAddictionCenters.org. If you wish to explore additional treatment options or connect with a specific rehab center, you can browse top-rated listings or visit SAMHSA.