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A Guide to The Jellinek Curve & Alcohol Addiction

jellinek curve

The Jellinek curve is an outline of addiction that shows the common way addiction progresses. It first regresses from habit into a destructive problem, then veers upwards again when the person can progress towards a healthy, sober life. It is meant to show how the disease is progressive and can worsen as time goes on while also indicating the possibility for successful recovery, which is also a gradual process.

The Jellinek curve was initially built around the various stages of alcohol addiction and recovery. Still, it has been adapted to fit all kinds of addictions, whether that be various drugs, porn, gambling, etc. This tool is used by a variety of different types of treatment centres, as understanding addiction is a key part of recovery.

A person needs to understand how their addiction developed in the first place, what steps they can take to recover, and how they can maintain sobriety and avoid relapse before they can really start the treatment process.

The curve is made up of two halves, the first side curves down to show a person’s decline as they sink further and further into addiction, and the second side curves up to show the recovery process and eventually sobriety.

It is not meant to be a diagnostic tool, but rather an educational and motivational one. It is also important to remember that not every person will experience each phase exactly how it is described. Some people may even skip some phases entirely. [1]

History Behind the Jellinek Curve

Doctor E.M Jellinek created the Jellinek Curve. He is not necessarily a universally recognized name, but he did contribute significantly to the fields of alcoholism, addiction, and mental health. During his study of addiction, which started in the 1930s, he noticed patterns in the progressive development of the addiction. He came up with four distinct phases that were quickly adopted by treatment centres and programs.

Around the same time, another doctor known as Dr. Max M. Glatt was studying the recovery process at a treatment centre in England and noticed that there were also distinct patterns during the progressive process of recovery. He categorized these phases and added them to the curve. When combined, they created a tool that is still used in many different addiction treatment centres today. [2]

What Are the Main Stages of the Jellinek Curve?

Dr Jellinek’s model revolves around four stages, each with their own issues and symptoms. These are: [3]

1. Pre-Alcoholic

The pre-alcoholic phase is the very beginning stage of alcohol addiction. During this phase, a person often starts to drink to cope with life, emotions, stress, etc. They may also find themselves drinking more and more often by themselves. As a person drinks more and more often to cope, they will begin to build a tolerance; the effects will diminish, so they will probably end up drinking more often and larger amounts.

2. Early

This is when the cyclical pattern of alcohol abuse develops. During this stage, the user will begin to experience additional problems associated with/due to their drinking. They may start to have relationship problems, health problems, begin to neglect work or school, etc. These problems, caused by drinking, often cause a person to drink more to cope with the new issues, hence the cyclical pattern.

3. Middle

During this stage, a person’s drinking becomes more and more frequent even at odd times of the day, such as first thing in the morning. As these habits form, a person may begin to feel guilt that causes them to make specific changes such as changing the type of alcohol they drink or even abstaining for a period of time.

The guilt also can cause a person to rationalize or experience denial. They may also work to hide the drinking from loved ones, which can further damage relationships.

4. Late

Jellinek considers this to be the stage when a person loses all control. He theorized that during the first three stages, a person could choose whether or not to have the first drink, but they cannot control how much they drink after said first drink.

Contrastingly, at this stage, the user must drink. It is also during this stage that the worst and most dangerous physical and psychological effects occur. If the person stops drinking without medical help, they will experience uncomfortable, dangerous, and possibly deadly withdrawal symptoms.

How is the Jellinek Curve Used in Recovery?

There are two main ways that the Jellinek model can be used during recovery.

First of all, it gives a patient the knowledge that their experience is not strange and that they are not alone. Second, it is a visual representation of both what could happen if they do not get help and how they could recover.

The model can also be helpful in therapy or 12-step programs as the curve can be used as a frame to help a person remember their past actions and events. This can help a person better understand their emotions, triggers, choices, etc.

Stages of Addiction Recovery

Recovery is not as straight forward as the addiction curve as it is typically a slow process that is not generally sequential. People may deal with relapse and start back over at an early stage of recovery. But there is a general outline of steps that a person is going to go through which are: [4]

  1. Rock bottom: This is the first stage of recovery. It is when a person feels so hopeless and are desperate for a way out. After this, a person may feel a strong desire to get help and then will do so
  2. The person stops drinking alcohol
  3. Physical addiction and problems are dealt with
  4. Thinking patterns are changed, self-esteem is built, and relationships are mended
  5. New sober interests and relationships are built
  6. Continued therapy and support

Is The Jellinek Curve A Realistic Guide To Recovery?

One of the best things about the Jellinek Curve is that it provides a visual and accurate picture of recovery. This can help provide people with motivation and hope when recovery becomes difficult, which it inevitably will. One of the most motivating factors of the curve is the fact that it never levels out.

It can show someone with an addiction that there is lots of good ahead of them and what they have to lose if they relapse or regress. This is a motivating factor for many people to avoid relapse. The curve acts as a roadmap that shows addicts where they have been and where they are going, which is what makes it such an excellent tool for recovery.

What Are the Other Names for the Stages in Jellinek’s Model?

The stages listed above are what is now commonly used when talking about the model, but they are not the original terms that Jellinek used. Below you will find an explanation of the initial curve: [5]

1. The first stage was alpha alcoholism. This is when drinking is purely used as a coping method to deal with pain, whether that be physical or mental. During this stage, a person may develop a psychological dependency. During this stage, though they may feel temptation or pressure to drink, they have not yet lost control.

2. The second stage is beta alcoholism. This is when a person is a heavy drinker who frequently drinks, possibly even every day, but they do not yet have a physical addiction.

3. The third stage is gamma alcoholism. This is when a person develops a physical dependence and therefore is out of control when they drink. This person does have the disease known as alcoholism.

4. The fourth stage is delta alcoholism, which is when a person can no longer abstain from alcohol and has lost all control. Before this stage, while a person may have been unable to control their drinking once they started, the first drink was a choice. Now, it is not.

5. The fifth and final stage is called epsilon alcoholism. This is the most severe or advanced stage when a person experiences dipsomania. This is usually the stage where someone hits rock bottom and turns towards recovery.

How to Work Through the Jellinek Curve

One way that people may use the Jellinek Curve is by making lists that help them recall, describe, and process their actions during certain stages. A person may find it difficult to remember what they were feeling at specific points during their addiction, but this guide will give them a frame of reference to jump off of.

These lists take a lot of self-reflection but can really help a person deal with what led to the addiction developing in the first place and reach long-lasting sobriety. Often people will keep these lists and even carry it around with them as a reminder of why they are sober and what could happen if they relapse.

Any time they are feeling particularly strong temptation, they can pull out the list for motivation. It works as the perfect picture for what they have to lose if they start drinking again, and it also shows them exactly what they are working for and could achieve if they choose to remain sober.

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