Is My Addiction Bad Enough To Get Treatment?

For those struggling with an alcohol use disorder (AUD), admitting a need for help is often the first and most difficult step towards treatment. Addiction changes the way the brain functions which can cloud judgement and cause many to question if their addiction is “bad enough” for treatment. It is important to note that when the term “bad enough” is used throughout this article, it is not intended to reduce the severity of substance abuse or misuse. If someone meets the criteria for an addiction, they need help. Individuals with AUD may use alcohol as a coping tool to deal with a deeper issue. If someone feels alcohol protects them from a deeper problem, despite the consequences, their brain will begin to develop cognitive defense mechanisms to protect the alcohol use. Common defense mechanisms include denial, justification, minimization, and rationalization.

The stigma surrounding alcohol addiction does not make it any easier to be cognizant of one’s need for help. It is not uncommon for individuals to think their addiction is not bad enough when compared to the intensity of someone else’s struggles. By evaluating the signs, progressive nature, and long term effects of an AUD, a person struggling with an AUD can attempt to gauge if their addiction is bad enough and if they are ready for treatment.

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Warning Signs That An Addiction Is “Bad Enough”

There are several self-reflective questions one can ask themselves to better assess their drinking habits. A few questions include, do you turn to drugs or alcohol when you’re feeling stressed? Can you go one day without drinking? Are you secretive about your drinking? An AUD is often the result of using alcohol to self-medicate and get relief from separate, unrelated problems. Long-term alcohol abuse can lead to serious social, occupational, and health consequences. Warning signs for an AUD include:

  • Drinking more or longer than intended.
  • Wanting to stop drinking but cannot.
  • Spending a lot of time drinking and recovering from drinking.
  • Craving alcohol.
  • Struggling to manage responsibilities because of drinking.
  • Continuing to drink when relationships, work, or school are suffering.
  • Drinking even when it puts the individual in danger.
  • Having withdrawal symptoms when not drinking.
  • Being secretive about drinking behavior.

The more warning signs one has experienced, the higher risk of developing an AUD. These warning signs are used to bring awareness to one’s drinking habits. Only a licensed mental health professional can formally diagnose someone with an AUD.

It can also be helpful to understand the difference between a habit and an addiction. Habits are regular behaviors that are part of a routine, such as brushing teeth in the morning. An addiction features an intense focus on alcohol which can cause a person to make sacrifices in other areas of their life to keep drinking. The biggest distinction between a habit and an addiction is the concept of choice. With habit-forming behaviors, choice is still possible unlike an addiction.

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The Progressive Nature Of Addiction

Addiction is a progressive illness. A tolerance gradually develops after a period of regularly drinking alcohol. One may experience a tolerance quicker if they consume larger quantities of alcohol at a time. When a tolerance develops, it is because a person’s body and brain begin to adapt to the presence of chemicals found in alcohol, requiring more alcohol to achieve the same desired effects. An AUD will not diminish over time because it is a disease. The consequences of use will only worsen over time and can lead to death if left untreated. 88,000 people in US die from alcohol-related causes every year. While an individual believes that their AUD is not bad enough to seek treatment, it is possible that their addiction could one day reach that level of severity.

In the 1940s, American physiologist Elvin M. Jellinek was one of the first people to study the science of alcohol addictions and the disease theory. Jellinek’s research led him to defining the progressive phases of addition which he called the Jellinek Curve. The phases of this curve are:

Pre-Alcoholic

An individual with an AUD may drink cope with negative aspects of their lives. Some turn to alcohol to feel more comfortable is social situations, lessen anxiety, or diminish pain caused by traumatic events. Identifying this stage can be very difficult as drinking is socially acceptable in the US. Self reflecting and admitting there is a problem present are not easy tasks for most. Despite this, pre-alcoholic drinking behaviors will get worse without help.

Prodromal (Early Alcoholic)

The second phase, or prodromal, is classified by drinking to the point of blacking out. Individuals who’s AUD has progressed to this phase drink frequently, although not necessarily every day. Drinking large quantities in a short amount of time, or binge drinking, can also occur for those in the prodromal phase.  Signs to look for during this stage can include: lying or joking about drinking habits, thinking obsessively about alcohol, swearing off drinking, or enjoying the feeling of rapid consumption.

Crucial Phase (Middle Alcoholic)

Signs that an individual’s AUD has reached the crucial phase of an addiction are often evident to friends and family and act as warning sign that they need help. In this stage, the negative effects of unhealthy drinking behaviors have an impact on other areas of an individual’s life such as relationships, school, work, or other responsibilities. Additionally, those struggling with an AUD tend to make unsafe decisions to maintain drinking like driving under the influence, drinking while at work, or consuming alcohol while taking care of children. Physical signs, such as weight gain/loss and memory, loss are also noticeable at this stage. Because the effects on an individual’s health have not yet reached an irreversible point, seeking treatment during this stage is imperative to preventing further progression.

Chronic Phase (Late Alcoholic)

By the chronic phase, consuming alcohol becomes the most important thing to an individual struggling with an AUD. Those who progress to this stage continue to drink despite the negative outcomes caused by their AUD. This can involve: losing their job, damaging their family relationships, and serious health issues. If an individual does not seek treatment at this stage, the results of their AUD can be fatal. Detoxification will be the first stage to the treatment process. Because the side effects can be dangerous, especially at the chronic stage, detox should be completed in a facility with medical assistance.

Recovery

Once an individual has detoxed alcohol from their body, they should enter into a rehabilitation program. This is true for any individual with an AUD, no mater what stage they begin treatment. Detox, alone, does not treat an addiction. It is important to recognize that recovery can be a long-term process that might include relapses and multiple treatment attempts.

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Today Jellinek’s contributions should not be used to completely determine if an individual’s addiction is bad enough for treatment but instead as an educational and motivational tool.

Long Term Health Problems

As an AUD progresses, there is a higher probability that negative outcomes will occur. Alcohol travels from the stomach through the bloodstream which limits the liver’s ability to process alcohol. This directly affects the brain’s neurons which can cause long-term health problems. There are at least 60 different health issues linked to the overconsumption of alcohol.

Several types of cancer are associated with alcohol abuse. In fact, The Department of Health And Human services lists alcoholic beverages as a known human carcinogen. The risk of getting mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, or breast cancer increases the more a person drinks. Other long term health problems include brain damage, cardiovascular disease, and pancreatitis.

The Myth Of Rock Bottom

It is commonly believed that a person’s AUD is not bad enough for treatment until they have “hit rock bottom.” This concept perpetuates the idea that reaching one’s lowest point is the only way to motivate recovery. For some, this is true but using it as an across-the-board indicator is tricky because rock bottom looks different for everyone.

Even though the pure desperation that comes with rock bottom can help some, waiting to be at an all-time-low is generally not recommended. Things do not have to get worse before they get better and treating an AUD is much easier in the early stages of an addiction. Many of those struggling with an AUD use the concept of rock bottom as an excuse to delay treatment which can cause more harmful consequences in the long run. Consequences, such as long-term health problems, deterioration of relationships, alcohol-related injuries, and even loss of life are more likely to occur the longer a person abuses alcohol.

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Determining The Severity Of An Addiction

There is no true method for establishing if a person’s addiction is bad enough for treatment. The only way to know if an addiction is bad enough for treatment is by evaluating the control alcohol has over an individual’s life and if they are ready to admit that they need help. Treatment is possible for anyone with an addiction regardless of the severity of their use or consequences. There may be more barriers to recovery if a person has been in active addiction for a longer period of time, but it is still very possible. Alcohol is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the US. Fatal outcomes can be prevented at any stage of an addiction. It is not necessary to wait to seek treatment until an addiction is bad enough because there is always an opportunity for hope and change.

If you would like more information on addiction and the treatment process, contact a treatment provider today.

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