Stages of Alcoholism - Scottsdale - Pinnacle Peak Recovery

Is it possible for a person to be somewhat alcoholic? It sounds strange when you ask the question out loud, but, like many things in life, alcoholism is not simply a black and white issue. Individuals and families of loved ones struggling with addiction often ask themselves if they are “an alcoholic.” The reality is that there is no clear line between social drinking, problematic drinking, and alcoholism. Instead, alcoholism is more about stages related to use.

In 1960 a biostatistician and physiologist by the name of E. Morton Jellinek published work that named various stages of alcoholism. As we have worked to understand addiction and the treatments that are valuable today Jellinek’s idea that stages exist within Alcohol Use Disorder continues to be helpful today.

Here Are the Four Main Stages of Alcoholism

1. The Pre-Alcoholic Stage

A person in the pre-alcoholic stage might have just started drinking, or recently increased their drinking. It’s possible that someone in this stage is in the midst of a stressful situation such as a new job or the loss of a loved one. It is also possible that they have noticed that a few drinks can take the edge off at the end of a difficult day. Possibly the person struggles with the anxiety of social situations and has realized that alcohol calms their nerves and makes them smile more and laugh more easily.

Regardless, a person in the pre alcoholic stage would not be diagnosed with Alcohol Use Disorder, but they are starting down a path that may lead to more dependency. It is possible that someone in the pre-alcoholic stage might recognize that they need to cut back and be able to make appropriate adjustments to their drinking habits but they are in danger of progressing to the next stage if they do not course correct.

Imagine that Eric is 27 years old and has just moved to a new city for a new employment opportunity.  Eric is naturally shy, which leads to difficulty making friends in a new place. Eric is also lonely, so, to overcome his social anxiety, he starts attending social gatherings where he will have the opportunity to drink. Eric notices that his struggles to introduce himself to new people seem to melt away after a few drinks and he starts to use alcohol as a tool to help him make new connections.

2. Early-Stage Alcoholism

A person who has entered early-stage alcoholism has progressed past using alcohol for anxiety management and is starting to exhibit behaviors that many would consider problematic. For example, a person might start drinking enough that they black out regularly. Another sign might be that a person could participate in binge drinking, which is the consumption of large amounts of alcohol in a short amount of time.

Someone in this early stage has discovered that they enjoy the feeling of becoming intoxicated as quickly as possible. In this stage, a person is still probably getting to work on time and participating in important family activities, but their free time is increasingly taken up with drinking and their general energy level or mood might be affected by their alcohol use.

Someone in the early stage might be like Sue, a college senior who is excited to experience all that life has to offer. Sue usually attends every class and gets good grades, but, on the weekends, Sue is spending every night drinking to a blackout level.  She still makes it to that 9:00 AM Monday morning class, but she participates significantly less than at other classes during the week.

3. The Middle Alcoholic Stage

If you have ever known someone who is drinking while they are at work, they were in the middle stage of Alcohol Use Disorder. The middle stage is characterized by alcohol use that starts to seriously affect a person’s daily life.

Because we are all individuals and it is difficult to place us into neat categories, there might be variation on how much family and friends notice, but typically in this stage a person’s loved ones do start to realize that there is an alcohol related problem.

Along with affecting a person’s day–to-day life, the middle stage is where health problems such as weight gain, bloating, memory loss, or shaking start to develop.  At this stage, it is crucial that a person struggling with alcohol dependence receives the help that they desperately need.

Larry is a middle aged man who’s moderate drinking has increased lately due to the stress of dealing with the death of his mother. To dull the pain of recent events Larry stops by the bar every night after work. After last call, he continues to drink at home until he passes out.  Larry is often late to work and his job performance has decreased noticeably. He often forgets to return phone calls from family and friends who are checking in on him. He also recently forgot to reach out to his daughter on her birthday during her first semester of college.

4. End-Stage Alcoholism

End-Stage Alcoholism is characterized by a person putting alcohol consumption above all else. It is likely that, at this stage, a person will drink all day long. Many individuals who reach the end stage have tried and failed to quit on multiple occasions and simply have not been able to overcome Alcohol Use Disorder on their own. Someone at this stage will have great difficulty keeping a job or family due to their heavy alcohol use.

Phil is our example for someone in the end stage. Phil was recently fired from his job because his boss smelled liquor on his breath. Phil is also having some health problems that he refuses to get checked out. Phil often forgets to eat and spends most of his day at home alone drinking.  When Phil’s loved ones check in on him he is short with them and often won’t even answer their telephone calls.


What Are Some Signs of Problem Drinking

Are you wondering if you or a loved one is in one of these stages of Alcohol Use Disorder? Due to the stigma around excessive alcohol use, it can be difficult to overcome bias around the drinking habits of ourselves and those we care about. Justifying drinking behavior can be easy for a person to do because of the emotions we might feel about the drinking. Sometimes we need to make an unbiased assessment of the alcohol consumption of ourselves or of a loved one. A few signs of problem drinking include the following:

  • Wanting to drink so much that you find it difficult to think of anything else
  • Prioritizing drinking over your relationships and important responsibilities
  • Experiencing the physical symptoms of excessive drinking, such as hangovers, on a regular basis
  • Finding yourself in situations where drinking causes you to be in dangerous situations, such as drunk driving
  • Alcohol Withdrawal symptoms such as shakiness, trouble sleeping, nausea, sweating, high heart rate, seizure, or seeing and hearing things that are not really there
  • Drinking more than you want to for longer periods of time

If you experience these or other symptoms it is time to take steps to address the ways in which you are using alcohol.

Should Your Drinking Concern You?

95,000 people die a year of Alcohol related deaths in the United States. This statistic underscores the reality that our drinking habits should be of concern to all of us. It is important that we take an honest and unbiased look at our behaviors and symptoms so that we can assess our need for assistance as we seek to live healthy and meaningful lives.

If you find yourself in the midst of any of the stages above, it is something serious that needs to be addressed, but with the right support system in place recovery is not only possible, it is likely.

Strategies for Dealing with A Loved One’s Drinking

Supporting a loved one with Alcohol Use Disorder can be a stressful experience. It may be tempting to reduce them to their problematic behaviors during this time of hardship in your relationship, but the truth is that a person struggling with alcohol use is still a person worthy of love and respect.

Do your best to be a non judgmental presence in their life when you speak to them about their drinking. It may be tempting, and even factual,  to say something like “Your drinking is ruining our marriage!” but a less judgmental way to communicate the same feeling is “I feel like the way you have been prioritizing drinking over our relationship is causing a lot of harm in our relationship.” This is an example of an “I Statement” which is a useful tool for having difficult discussions. As you talk through these issues with your loved one, remember that it is important that you be both honest and kind.

Another aspect to remember is that you will also need care and support as you attempt to be a helpful presence in the life of your loved one with Alcohol Use Disorder. Making time to go to a support group, finding a therapist who can help you process your feelings, or even spending time with a trusted friend can give you the support you need to support your loved one as they recover from Alcohol Use Disorder. The Scottsdale Arizona area has many support meetings that are specifically designed for those who have been affected by a loved one’s Alcohol Use Disorder

Get Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder

The topic of the stages of alcoholism might seem like a depressing topic, but, for us, it is hopeful because we know that treatment works! It is our goal to connect you to good information so that you can make informed decisions about the treatment of alcoholism that is right for you or your loved one. At Pinnacle Peak Recovery we offer nationally recognized evidence based treatment options to residents of the Scottsdale, Arizona area. If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol use disorder it might be time to learn more about the kinds of treatment that Pinnacle Peak Recovery offers.  To discuss treatment options please call us at 866-377-4761.


What is the correct order of the stages of alcoholism?

The stages of Alcoholism have changed slightly ever since E. Morton Jellinek first created the concept. Jellinek used Greek letters to name his stages and even had an additional stage. As this concept has developed, the stages evolved to the current model presented in this blog: the pre alcoholic stage, the early stage, the middle stage, and the end stage.

What are three stages on the path to alcoholism?

The pre alcoholic stage, early alcoholic stage, and middle alcoholic stage could be considered steps on the path to Alcohol Use Disorder. During these stages many people are able to attend to their relationships and responsibilities, but those who are on this path will become increasingly unable to live happy and fulfilling lives.

What are the signs of end of life for an alcoholic?

As alcoholism continues to damage a person’s body, many physical conditions can manifest as a person’s health deteriorates and they move toward the end of their life. Someone in this end stage might experience things like heart failure, liver failure, dementia, pancreatitis, anemia, and near constant fatigue. If you or a loved one are struggling with a harmful drinking habit it is important to reach out for support as soon as possible to avoid these conditions.

What is the first stage in the development of alcoholism?

The first stage is called the pre alcoholic stage and this is a stage where a person starts or expands the amount that they drink. This likely occurs due to some kind of stressful life event.  It is important to remember that people at this stage are not drinking with the goal of developing Alcohol Use Disorder.  Likely they are in search of some relief from one of the many stressors of life.  During this stage a person starts to realize that the alcohol does offer some temporary relief from the stress that they are feeling and they start to become drawn to the good feelings that alcohol creates.

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