The Difference Between Drug Abuse and Addiction

Addiction affects millions of people daily, but, no one has the same backstory about how they reached that point. It’s one of the many reasons why rehab centers like ours create customized treatment plans for each person and don’t just have one cookie-cutter recovery plan in place. That’s why it’s important to know the difference between drug abuse and addiction.

Some people might have addiction run in their families. Some might suffer from a mental health condition that leads them down the path of abusing drugs and alcohol. Some, however, find themselves suffering from addiction simply because they experimented with drugs when they were younger. This is especially true when it comes to adolescent drug experimentation.

While experimenting with drugs and/or alcohol might seem innocent enough, and might even be considered socially acceptable, especially in college, it can have significant consequences. One of those consequences is developing a substance abuse issue or even addiction.

In this blog, we will take a look at how something as innocent as experimenting with substances, even if it is just one time, can lead to addiction. We will also take a look at the different stages of substance abuse and how you or a loved one can get help with substance abuse or addiction.

What Is Drug Experimenting and Why Does It Occur?

Drug experimenting is the voluntary use of an illicit substance without experiencing any social or legal consequences. Essentially, it means trying a drug that wasn’t prescribed to the user or alcohol for the first time. Experimenting with drugs and alcohol is largely viewed as a part of life, especially when it comes to young adults in college.

People who experiment with drugs will never go into it assuming they are going to get addicted. It’s often considered a one-time thing, at least to begin with. What might begin as trying something once can often lead to continued or regular use and even abuse.


Who Is Most Likely To Experiment With Drugs?

Experimenting with drugs and alcohol “recreationally” is far too common amongst adolescents, especially during their high school and college years. Some might even consider it a right of passage. Between the natural curiosity of wondering what certain substances are like, and the fact that young adults are on their own for the first time, it’s the perfect combination for experimenting with illicit substances. Kick in peer pressure and wanting to fit in with the crowd and it’s no wonder that adolescents and young adults are the targets demographic when it comes to experimentation with substances of abuse. This can be particularly dangerous because adolescents don’t have fully developed brains yet. As a result, they are at a much higher risk of developing a substance abuse issue or addiction as a result of their experimenting.

Substance Abuse And AddictionAdolescents aren’t the only ones who are likely to experiment with drugs though. Experimenting with drugs and alcohol can also happen in adults. Being an adult comes with its unique stressors. Some people find themselves turning to drugs or alcohol later in life to deal with those stressors as a way of self-medicating, even if they didn’t experiment with those substances in their younger years.

What Are Some of the Signs That Someone Might Be Experimenting With Drugs?

With drug and alcohol experimentation being so prevalent in adolescent and college-aged people, sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between someone just having a good time and someone having an actual problem with drug and alcohol abuse or addiction. That’s why it’s so important to know the warning signs that someone might be struggling with their drug and/or alcohol use.

Here are some of the common signs that someone might be using or abusing illicit substances:

  • Odd changes in behavior
  • Pulling away from friends or family
  • Losing interest in activities or hobbies
  • Poor performance in school or at work
  • Missing pill bottles or pills
  • Finding drug paraphernalia hidden
  • Financial troubles
  • Bloodshot or glassy eyes
  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
  • Appearing “out of it” or tired all the time

If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the above warning signs, it might indicate a substance abuse problem.

What Are the Differences Between Drug Abuse and Addiction?

When it comes to the different stages of drug addiction, there are four main phases to focus on: experimentation, recreational or social use, abuse, and dependency/addiction.

Stages of Drug Addiction


We talked about it earlier, but experimentation is the first stage of drug use and addiction. While experimenting with illegal substances isn’t guaranteed that addiction will later develop, it is still considered the first stage. During the experimentation phase, there very rarely is even the faintest of thought that anything bad can come from it.

Experimentation is common amongst college students and can often happen at parties or social functions as a way to fit in with the group. However, as we talked about earlier as well, it is not unheard of for adults to experiment in their later years as well.

During this phase, cravings don’t usually occur. However, after trying something for the first time, a person may find themselves anticipating the next time that they might be able to try it again. If the outcome of them trying a substance for the first time was viewed as successful to them that can also increase the chances that they will do it again.

Recreational or Social Use

The recreational or social use stage is where things get interesting. During this stage, things can go one of two ways. Either the person will essentially remain in this stage or this stage will continue to lead them down the path to abuse and addiction. While in this stage people do tend to become more conscious of their usage and how it is affecting them, they still don’t typically think that what they are doing could lead to bigger issues.

Recreational use can have a variety of different meanings. Some people use drugs and alcohol recreationally only in social settings like at a party or social gathering, or even out at the bar after a tough day at the office. Others prefer to do it only in the privacy and comfort of their own home to unwind or even help them get to sleep. Regardless of when and where it is at this point that the person using has decided that they like the way that the substance or substances that they are using make them feel and want to continue using.


The transition from recreational use to abuse can oftentimes be quick and might not even be noticeable to the person using and now abusing illicit substances. It is also at this point that their drug or alcohol use can officially be considered to be a problem. When a person enters the abuse phase they have started making their substance use a priority over other things in their life such as work, school, and other commitments. They also start to experience both physical and psychological cravings. Other signs that they might have entered into this phase also include feelings of depression, irritability, and fatigue, especially when they are withdrawing from substances.

During the abuse phase, the brain will also become more and more dependent on the substances and will start needing more and more of them to reach their desired effects. This, in turn, will increase the tolerance level which will ultimately lead to the next and final stage.


The final stage of the addiction process is dependency/addiction. This stage is reached when the brain thinks that it can no longer function properly without the substances of abuse being in the system. At this point, the person who is now suffering from addiction is doing so knowing full well that they are dealing with a substance abuse issue and are either unwilling or unable to stop. It is at this point where if an attempt hasn’t already been made to seek treatment that it needs to be done.

How Can I Get Help Treating My Addiction?

Regardless of the phase that you or a loved one might be in, it is never too late to get help. Before treatment can begin, you first must detox off the substances you are abusing so that the body and brain can begin to heal. Detoxing should only be done under the care and supervision of trained medical professionals at either a local medical facility, a dedicated detox center, or a treatment facility that also provides detox services. Attempting to self-detox can be incredibly dangerous and even life-threatening.

After detox has been completed then treatment can begin. At Little Creek Recovery, we offer the following treatment programs:

Want To Know More About the Stages of Substance Abuse?

At Little Creek Recovery we know that addiction doesn’t discriminate based on age, gender, or anything else. That’s why we offer a variety of treatment programs. To learn more about our programs and to learn more about how we can get either you or a loved one the help that they need, contact us today.

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