Experimentation – Abuse – Addiction.  What is the Difference?

Posted on November 7, 2022 View all news

Intro: The Every Brain Matters community understands how difficult and painful it is when you have a child or loved one with destructive behaviors such as using marijuana or any drug. We also know that each family navigates recovery and healing in different ways, applying valuable tools from many types of effective support systems. The information given here is taken from one of these reliable systems.

We are grateful that the Cornerstone Team Counseling community addresses these tough recovery questions and is allowing us to share their insight with you. Since it is beneficial to hear different perspectives, the following answers are from clinical staff, teens in recovery, and parents.

To learn more, please visit The Every Brain Matters Support Section or click under the meeting tab to find more information on our support meetings for parents and families.

Experimentation – Abuse – Addiction.  What is the Difference?

Perspective from Clinical Staff:  Differences are the length of use, function level (grades, family relationships, values), and genetic predisposition. All this information needs to be considered by the parents and professionals for a proper assessment.

Information is the crux; most parents do not have enough information upon entering recovery/treatment because of the nature of this illness – denial, dishonesty, minimizing, and manipulation.

In my experience, it is important to treat someone with an abuse problem the exact same way as someone that has an addiction problem. Once a teen has crossed the line and entered the abuse category (affecting their functioning) without intervention it will almost inevitably lead to addiction.

Is experimenting ok? Should it be accepted as a rite of passage? No, not in my opinion. Experimentation cannot be controlled and can easily lead down a slippery slope for families.

Perspective from a Parent: All are trouble! 

Experimentation: One tries a substance to see what it is like or because someone offers and they do not want to be different or stand out.  

Abuse: They already know about the substance and its effect and choose to use it anyway, usually on a regular or semi-regular basis. This is particularly seen in the weekend user. 

Addiction is a whole different ballgame. Once the person enters a true addictive state there is no choice. They will have the desire to stay high continually. The entire mission of the brain becomes focused on how to stay high. The only choice the addict has is not to use and to keep all the supports in place to reinforce that choice constantly. Once the addict uses again, the terrorist in the brain (the addiction) is in charge again. 

  • Experimentation = curiosity
  • Abuse = choice
  • Addiction = no longer in charge of choices

It is important to remember that experimentation is the first step on a really rotten path. The first step is the way back to sanity and serenity

Perspective from a Teen:  I think that there’s a thin line between abuse and addiction. I think that people who are just experimenting aren’t willing to put up with the consequences. They can put it down. If they get in trouble or get caught or get a bad grade on a test, they stop. I think the same with abuse, but maybe after worse consequences are they willing to stop.

See the parent story for more experience, strength, and hope.


I’ll never forget 5 years ago when I got a phone call from a new acquaintance who invited me to attend a meeting with her.  Their family was active in a program called Cornerstone.  My family was not.  We met during family visitations at Sundown Ranch where both of our sons were involved with their drug treatment program.  My husband, 14-year-old son, and I were seeing a family therapist for several years.  My husband and I had become hopeless and at a loss as to what to do with our son’s continual bad behavior at school and home, and alarming increase in marijuana use.  Our therapist recommended Sundown  Ranch.  I did not expect to see another family from our part of town in Canton,  Texas.  I knew of no one from our neighborhood with a family situation like ours.   Of course, in my mind, our family was the only family I knew that had such severe problems.  That one phone call changed my life and my family’s.  I shall always hold a dear spot in my heart for her because of her caring, non-threatening, and encouraging invitation to attend a Cornerstone meeting.  At the time of that phone call, I was extremely lost.  I was totally defeated and ashamed.  My family was dysfunctional and reeling out of control.  The embarrassment had paralyzed me.   My joy and purpose in life had vanished. I was alone, by my choosing.  No longer did I find enjoyment with friends.  My 27-year marriage, at that time, had become a struggle filled with frustration, anger, disappointment, and disconnect. I  believed I failed at the most important job of my life… motherhood.  I did not like my life, my family, or myself!  As she invited me to join her at the Cornerstone meeting, I had to think twice because my immediate response would be to decline, because that meant I would have been announcing, in public, we had family issues. I was SO miserable. I thought, you have got to do something different!  I don’t know what happened, but like a bolt of lightning, I became willing and accepted her invitation.  I couldn’t turn back! 

I attended my first meeting without my husband.  He was out of town working.   Our son was in treatment.  I was just going to check it out and relay my findings to my husband.  I remember being very nervous and embarrassed. I was so ashamed of our home life situation.  I walked up and was immediately greeted by a big smile and a warm welcome.  I was taken aback by that interaction because I had become socially numb and did not expect warmth and levity from anyone.  The room was filled with parents smiling, talking, laughing, and even hugging!  Wow,  how could this be if their family situations were anything like mine? A couple had walked up to me and asked me what my story was.  I didn’t know where to begin.   Their gentle questions, listening ear, and demeanor allowed me to “spill the beans” about my situation.  I will NEVER forget the words they said to me as I was  eeking out my family’s history, “You didn’t CAUSE it, you can’t CURE it, and you can’t CONTROL it!”  Tears immediately welled up in my eyes.  How did they know  I was carrying the burden of CAUSE?  At that moment, I felt a rush of relief.  They understood me and were not judging me.  During the meeting, I listened to parents share their experiences and thoughts.  I was moved by their honesty and courage to speak the truth.  I wanted what they had.  I reported to my husband that Cornerstone was a place for us and an answer to our prayers. 

We were asked if we were willing to do whatever it took to change our situation.   We were!  We jumped into the program immediately.  For two months my husband and I attended Cornerstone without even our son participating.  He was still at Sundown Ranch.  During that time, we attended the Thursday meetings,  Saturday meetings, Climbers, and a crazy softball tournament!  At the newcomer’s meeting, the hosting family had a son in the program and we found out that their son was adopted.  Our son was adopted too.  I felt a strong connection to them.  I was given the advice to take advantage of this time “while your son is in treatment” and begin working on yourself.   The first step, get a  sponsor.  I asked the newcomer’s hosting mom to be my sponsor.  She became one of the many blessings I have received in Cornerstone.  She told me we would be working the Twelve Steps.  All I knew about the Twelve Steps were that people in Alcoholics Anonymous talked about them.  I learned profound things about myself by working the steps with my sponsor.  I was loaded with self-pity, anger,  and huge resentment toward my addict son and what he brought to our family table.  Her wisdom, experience, strength, and hope supplied me with the support,  courage, and fellowship necessary for me to change my thinking, attitudes, and actions to heal my family AND me!  

I learned that I played a part in the family disease of addiction.  I was codependent.  I thought it was my job to make my family members happy, fix their problems whether they wanted me to or not, and tell them exactly what they needed to do to make their lives better, all according to me!  In addition, if they didn’t appreciate all that I was doing for them, I became a martyr. When I  realized that was not my job, and shouldn’t be my job, I began to detach from what was clearly not my business, feel a sense of freedom, and saw joy return to my life.  I was no longer responsible for their burdens or choices in their life. 

As I continued to plug into my program by attending meetings, participating in the family functions, working with my sponsor, and hosting Cornerstone kids in our home, something amazing was happening to me.  Shame, embarrassment,  loneliness, self-pity, and feelings of failure were vanishing.  They were being replaced with feelings of self-respect, dignity, gratitude, and strength.  My self-esteem was returning little by little.  What a feeling!  The fellowship and love of the parent group energized me to continue to grow and want to be of service to the Cornerstone group.  I was finding purpose in my life again.  I wanted to give back the love and support I received when I was just a shell of a parent when I  attended my first meeting.   I knew I wanted to be one of those parents greeting newcomers with sincere compassion, love, and support by offering a nonjudgmental hand to join the road to recovery from addiction.  I realized that my story was no different than any others and that we were in this journey together.  I will be forever grateful for the lifelong relationships I have developed over these five years.   They saved my life!  How comforting and powerful it is to know that you can rely on the support from a group of people today, tomorrow, and in the future! 

I haven’t spoken much about our son.  While my tenure in Cornerstone has been  5 years, my son’s accumulated time in Cornerstone has been about 1 ½ years.  My son’s story is one of chronic relapses and several treatment centers.  The good news is that he continues to return to recovery after relapse and my husband and  I are there for him when he chooses sobriety.  Recovery has also taught me how to get my power back in parenting an addicted son.  I have learned how imperative it is to have strong boundaries and stick to the rules of my house.  My husband and I have had to implement really “tough” love with our son’s addiction.  We have stories of jail, probation, self-harm, mental illness, and homelessness.   Before recovery, these stories would have had me in complete despair, deep depression, total isolation, hopelessness, loss of faith, and possible divorce.   Today, I can say I have none of those situations. That is my miracle!  Total credit goes to my willingness, openness, and honesty to work a twelve-step program with a strong parent group for support.  I wouldn’t be honest, if I didn’t say that my son’s journey has not brought about some sadness, disappointment, and fear for his life.  That being so, I have learned that his path is not mine, I have faith that my higher power is taking care of both of us, and my son’s choices have their own natural consequences.   

My life today is not the life I was living when I was invited to attend my first  Cornerstone meeting.  I have been renewed in faith, hope, and joy.  My cup is half  FULL again!  I love “being a part of” and not alone.    I have purpose and worth.  This journey has made my marriage stronger. Daily, I review what I am grateful for.  Our road ahead is uncertain, but I do know that I have the solid foundation necessary to move forward and the tools available to me to keep me on a path of recovery.  I want recovery…I’ve been found!

Glossary of terms:

Addict: An old term used to describe a person with a substance use disorder that is not currently socially accepted anymore.

Al-Anon: A twelve-step organization that provides support and hope for families affected by another person’s marijuana use.

Awakening: A term used after Completion of the 12 steps and the requirements of the Cornerstone community. Like a graduation but it’s viewed as a “spiritual awakening”

Climbers: an interactive educational group for family members to bring issues, questions or concerns, and receive direct feedback from a counselor and other family members. As well as learn tools of recovery to help you and your family. The Every Brain Matters community offers a Climbers meeting every Wednesday.

Destructive Behaviors: Self-destructive behavior is when you do something that’s sure to cause self-harm, whether it’s emotional or physical. Some self-destructive behavior is more obvious, such as: attempting suicide. binge eating. compulsive activities like gambling, using harmful drugs, gaming, or shopping.

IOP (Intensive Outpatient Therapy): treatment programs used to address addictions, depression, eating disorders, or other dependencies that do not require detoxification or round-the-clock supervision.

Mar-Anon Family Groups: A twelve-step organization that provides support and hope for families affected by another person’s marijuana use.

Parent-Driven Recovery: Tools that Work is a must-read for parents of substance-abusing teens. You’ll learn how to maneuver through the chaos to create a harmonious family life. Even if your teen is not ready or willing to change, there is help and hope.

Recovery: A return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength. A healing process.

Shots: A term used in the recovery community called Couerstone Team Counseling. It’s a customized list of rules and consequences each family makes for their homes. To learn more, attend the Every Brain Matters Climbers meeting on Wednesday evenings at 7 pm Central time. A list of our meetings is at this link.

SO: Stands for Significant Others, a term sometimes used when graduating from an IOP (Intensive Outpatient Program) after making amends to our “significant others”, or people we have harmed.


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