Addiction is a Rollercoaster: The Jellinek Curve

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Having a full understanding of how addiction progresses can open the door to insights on how to ultimately break the cycle.

The recovery and rehabilitation community has long been on the search to understand the dynamics and root cause of substance abuse. Throughout the decades, one of the most widely known theories to explain substance abuse and how it progresses is represented in a visual arc known as the Jellinek Curve.

Infographic courtesy of www.watershed.com.
Infographic courtesy of http://www.watershed.com.

Developed by biostatistician, physiologist, and alcoholism researcher Elvin Morton jellinek, the Jellinek Curve has been used by many in addiction science and even as a tool in the process of recovery.

The Jellinek Curve’s History

The Jellinek Curve is actually a study conducted by Jellinek in an attempt to define the role of science in relation to society and how society sees and uses alcohol. During those times, alcohol science is still emerging, and the Curve that we know today took over a decade of iterations and developments.

On his 1946 paper. hases in the Drinking History of Alcoholics: Analysis of a Survey Conducted by the Official Organ of Alcoholics Anonymous. Published in the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol,, he postulated a theory on the progression or trajectory of alcoholism. His theory was based on his 36-question survey, which he published on the front page of Grapevine, a journal affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous.

In his study, he was able to form a series of phases experienced by an alcoholic, starting with the Basic Phase when a person first drinks, to the Intermediate Phase where he may start engaging in “benders.” This then turns to a Terminal Phase wherein the person becomes an alcoholic and experiences significant loses as a result of his drinking habits.

The Jellinek Curve Today

The Jellinek Curve we know today takes on a “U” shape, with the inclusion of the Recovery Phase. In this new model, the U-curve shows how alcoholism (and addiction, in general) starts at the left side with occasional, even social, drinking until the person experiences the consequences of his growing alcohol dependence. Once the alcoholic (or addict) reaches or gets help, they reach an upturn that leads them up the curve towards sobriety and lasting recovery.

Recovery and the Jellinek Curve

While many in the addiction and recovery communities have different opinions, philosophies, and experiences, the Jellinek Curve serves as a unifying learning tool that anyone can relate to.

It is a hope-filled learning visual that illustrated the progressing losses of addiction and the gains that can be received once people find recovery. It is not only for those who experience or treat addiction, but also for those who are “in the outside looking in” so that they will have a better understanding of what happens to people who are struggling with addiction and how recovery is possible.


Yes, recovery IS possible. If you or someone dear to you is struggling and is on a downward spiral due to addiction, know that there is help and hope.

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