A reader writes in and asks:
“Is there a time limit that an addict passes in recovery, after which they are not likely to relapse?”
Short answer: no.
Long answer: No, there is no such thing as “being clean and sober long enough to insure future sobriety.” In fact, my sponsor in recovery once pointed out to me that the rate of relapse remains the same across the board, regardless of how long you’ve been clean. He said that they did a study that showed that about 5 percent would make it to 5 years clean and sober, then out of all those people who make it to 5 years sobriety, only 5 percent of those people would make it to ten years. And so on, in five year increments.
I told him I disagreed with this idea, and figured that once you made it to a certain point (like 5 years sober, or 10 years sober) that you were sort of “good to go” as far as not relapsing was concerned. He told me “Yep, that is what everyone believes. It is natural to think that way. But the data proves otherwise.”
Now I don’t know for sure how accurate that study was, but I now know from experience that the idea behind it is basically a valid one: people with many years of sobriety do end up relapsing. I am in a unique position in that I work in a treatment center, so I occasionally will see examples where this has happened. I have seen several people with 5, 10, and 15 years of sobriety come back into detox because they have suddenly relapsed.
It is difficult to see how these numbers work because so few people make it to 10 or 15 years of sobriety. So it is extremely rare to see someone with that kind of clean time relapse, simply because there are so few people with that kind of clean time (compared to the larger pool of all recovering addicts and alcoholics).
In other words, think about how many people that are in recovery who are working on their first 30 days of sobriety. There are far, far more of those newcomers than there are people with, say, 10 years sober. So naturally, we are going to see far more of the newcomers relapse then from a group of those who have many years sober.
You can also get a rough idea regarding this question if you look at the attrition rate for Alcoholics Anonymous attendance. Now this is not the same thing as sobriety, as some who keep coming to AA will relapse, and some who leave AA will in fact stay sober, but it still gives a rough idea. Alcoholics Anonymous did a survey and explained that:
* About one third of their members leave the program after one month.
* Of those remaining, half of them leave by the 90 day mark.
* Of those still remaining, another half leave by the 1 year mark.
* After 1 year, attrition slows down (to probably around 5% or so, as my sponsor had indicated with his example).
So, if you look at 100 people who are brand new starting out in AA, about 17 of them will be left at the one year mark. This is not the exact same thing as the percentage who will remain sober, but it gives us a rough estimate. In fact, the percentage who stay sober that long will be a bit less than the percentage that remain in AA.
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees with recovery. However, I would suggest that to you that certain characteristics can help indicate a strong recovery. I would look for the following patterns in order to feel more confident about someone’s stability in recovery:
1) They work with others in recovery on a regular basis.
2) They have achieved a balanced lifestyle in their recovery.
3) Always in learning mode, never given to arrogance.
4) Driven to personal growth and deliberately working on self.
But even with these criteria you cannot predict sobriety 100 percent.
I hope this analysis has not been too dismal for anyone, because people can and do stay sober for long periods of time. It is not all doom and gloom! People can and do recover every day.