The addiction and recovery process tends to follow a relatively predictable pattern. The Jellinek Curve is a U-shaped visual representation of the stages many individuals go through when they struggle with a substance use problem. While the Jellinek Curve was initially devised to explain alcoholism’s trajectory, the visual arc has been altered and applied to many forms of addiction.
In the early stages of a substance use disorder, it may not be apparent that a person is experiencing a drug or alcohol problem. But as an individual progresses further into the throes of addiction, the disease often develops and advances predictably.
In a nutshell, the Jellinek Curve is a helpful, visual way to determine where a person is at in their journey and, in doing so, may help healthcare providers decide what treatment would be most prudent.
Jellinek Curve Origins
As the name would imply, the Jellinek Curve is primarily based on the work and findings of Elvin Morton Jellinek, a physiologist from Yale University. During the 1940s, as part of his work, Jellinek surveyed thousands of alcoholics about their personal experiences. When he interpreted the results, he noticed several trends and patterns—including progressive changes that revealed distinctive behavior patterns.
He used this data to delineate four phases of alcohol addiction. These phases, and the ever-worsening variety of physical and mental traits that accompany them, constitute the left, downward part of the U-shaped curve. He was also convinced that alcoholism was a disease, not a moral shortcoming, and helped revolutionize how alcoholism would be approached and treated in the future.
Years later, Max Glatt, another leader in the field of alcohol addiction, noticed that recovering alcoholics also had everyday experiences as they progressed throughout their journey. He added his findings to Jellinek’s, and these consist of the right, uphill slope of the U-shaped curve.
In the pre-alcoholism phase, the person drinks not just as a social activity but also because it helps relieve psychological distress, anxiety, and tension. This is sometimes also referred to as early relief drinking. At this stage, the affected individual may not experience or perceive any adverse effects of their drinking.
Eventually, however, tolerance begins to develop due to repeated alcohol exposure, and the person will need to drink more than before to experience the sought-after effects.
Other problematic signs and symptoms eventually surface as the persons reach the prodromal stage. Levels of alcohol or drug use continue to escalate, and he or she may even chug or gulp their first couple of drinks to expedite feelings of a buzz.
At this point, the individual may become obsessed with drinking, and blackouts may accompany severe drinking episodes. However, the extent of a person’s drinking problem might not be obvious to others. Many feel ashamed and guilty about their behavior at this stage and will go to great lengths to conceal their drinking patterns. They may undergo a series of attempts to quit drinking and fail and may end up losing interest in family, hobbies, and social activities they once enjoyed in the process.
A physical and emotional decline will continue. The person will probably be entirely physically dependent on alcohol or their drug(s) of choice and may begin drinking in the morning to have a “hair of the dog.” Poor nutrition is not uncommon, and the person may end up in the hospital due to health issues or excessive drinking.
In the chronic phase, the person is actively engaging in extended drinking episodes or “benders.” The physical and mental deterioration continues, and the person may experience impaired cognition or psychotic episodes. Reverse tolerance can occur at this time, and smaller amounts of alcohol can result in intoxication.
And now, the person generally no longer experiences emotional relief from drinking, but their physical dependence level is so high that they can’t merely stop. In fact, stopping at this point would result in severe and life-threatening withdrawal symptoms and requires a medical detox for safety reasons.
Jellinek didn’t specifically include a fifth stage among his progressive phases. Still, the U-curved chart’s bottom is generally accepted as the final terminal stage when the person hits “rock bottom.”
Unfortunately, some people never break free from this cycle and continue to spiral endlessly around the bottom of the curve until they die. For others, hitting rock bottom may provide an incentive to seek professional help and get started on the road to recovery. But rock bottom may be a bit different for each individual, and instead of death, may include severe consequences, such as landing in jail, losing a job, becoming homeless, or losing a romantic partner.
According to Jellinek’s curve, the road to recovery begins with an “honest desire for help.” Early in the rehab process, an individual will learn that addiction is a treatable disease and also begin the critical task of discontinuing substance abuse.
As the person continues to progress uphill, they’ll encounter others who’ve successfully recovered and improved their lives. Eventually, when the foggy thinking associated with drug and alcohol abuse subsides, normal, healthy thinking will return.
The individual will then perform a self-assessment of their life and their character. In Alcoholics Anonymous, this is Step 4. This sort of inner reflection can be very challenging, but confronting one’s failures and shortcomings is an absolutely vital step for those wishing to break out of old, unhealthy patterns and foster a new life for themselves.
As the individual moves from rehab into recovery, more positive physical and emotional changes will likely occur. The individual’s self-esteem will begin to return, and he or she will start to appreciate their new way of life. Eventually, the desire to escape through substance abuse will diminish, and they’ll soon be finding contentment in sobriety.
While the recovery curve goes uphill, individuals occasionally do slip backward. However, it’s crucial to remember that addiction is a long-lasting disease, and relapse does not automatically mean failure. If someone does encounter a relapse, it is often just a temporary setback and doesn’t mean the path has failed entirely. There is always another chance to succeed.
The Jellinek Curve is not a one-size-fits-all precise depiction of everyone’s experience. Instead, it’s more of a guide to help those suffering from addiction and struggling with recovery. The Jellinek Curve is a robust educational tool that can help individuals better understand the disease they’re battling and recognize that recovery is indeed possible.
Getting Help for Drug and Alcohol Addiction
Alcoholism, like all addictions, has the potential to be severe and wreak havoc on the lives of those who suffer. Fortunately, alcohol addiction is very treatable. Just Believe Recovery center offers customized, integrated treatment programs that includes several forms of therapy and other services, such as psychotherapy, counseling, group support, art and music therapy, aftercare planning, and more!