What if Rehab Does Not Work for the Addict or Alcoholic, and...

What if Rehab Does Not Work for the Addict or Alcoholic, and they End Up Relapsing?


You might be wondering about the results of addiction treatment for the addict or alcoholic in your life. What if they end up relapsing after they leave treatment?

How can we insure continuous sobriety and clean time after an addict leaves rehab? Is that even possible? Can we essentially “cure” addiction if an addict takes the proper steps in treatment?

The short answer to these questions is generally “no,” there is not a bullet proof treatment for addiction that will insure continuous sobriety forever.

There will always be a risk of relapse with any recovering addict or alcoholic

It is impossible to insure that no addict or alcoholic will ever relapse again. There is always going to be a risk.

Sometimes we like to think that a person has truly left their old life behind, and that there is no way that they could ever return to their drug of choice, but countless examples have proven this false.

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In some cases we might think that a person has changed enough, such that even if they used their drug of choice, it surely would not have the same effect that it used to have on them. Again, this has been proven false over and over again.

Relapse is a serious threat and it will always be present, there is no escaping it.

But this does not mean that the addict or alcoholic must live in constant fear of relapse, or that they should assume that they will never be able to stay clean and sober forever.

Successful recovery is based on what we could think of as “daily maintenance.” In long term recovery, our protection against relapse comes from our daily actions.

What are we doing each day in order to insure that we do not relapse on drugs or alcohol?

The people who relapse after years of recovery are the folks who have stopped taking action, they have stopped working hard on their recovery program and they are no longer taking daily action in order to prevent relapse.

For example, take the person who has multiple years of sobriety and they attend meetings every day and continue to work with other recovering alcoholics and addicts on a regular basis. Chances are very slim that they would relapse while they are heavily engaged in helping others to recover.

And this of course is one of the great keys to successful treatment and rehab: Does it produce action in the recovering addict? Does the person follow through with their aftercare? Do they build a new life for themselves in recovery, one in which they are working with others in addiction and helping them to recover? If so, then their chances of preventing relapse increase a great deal.

Unfortunately there are no absolutes in recovery, and there are no guarantees. We can never be 100 percent confident that a person will never relapse again. But we can be confident that we are taking the right actions today in order to help us to prevent relapse. It’s about getting involved, doing the work, living the life of recovery and trying to help others to do the same. If we end up teaching recovery to others then that is a very good sign that we will continue to learn about the recovery process ourselves.

There can never be a complete guarantee that someone will never relapse, but that does not invalidate recovery. Nor should it discourage anyone from seeking treatment. We can still recover. We just cannot be cured forever.

Treatment is part of a process, it is not an event

This has been mentioned before but it bears repeating:

Treatment is a process. Rehab is a process. Getting clean and sober is a process.

It is a learning process, one that can take place over months, years, or even decades in some cases.

Getting clean and sober is not a one-off event that happens overnight. If it was, then we would call it a “cure.” But there is no cure, and no one can just suddenly transform overnight from a hopeless drug addict or alcoholic into a perfect model of sobriety and recovery, with absolutely no effort and no growing pains.

The transformation from “struggling addict or alcoholic” to “successful person in recovery” might actually take some time.

Let me give you an example. I was personally struggling with drug and alcohol addiction for many years, and the people in my life were encouraging me to get clean and sober. I had been to counseling and the therapists there were always encouraging me to attend rehab or attend 12 step meetings or to do both. For the most part, I was not really ready to change my life at the time, and had no intention of quitting just yet, so I did not follow through with those actions.

Later on I became more desperate due to my drinking and so I went to a rehab and checked in. I was still quite early in my addiction and I was still very early in the learning process about recovery. I learned some things in that rehab and so I decided that alcohol was my real problem, but marijuana was still OK for me (or so I thought). So I left rehab and attempted to quit drinking while still smoking weed every day.

Any addict who has been through the wringer a few times will know that this never works–the idea of exchanging one drug for another. But I was young and naive at the time and I was still in the learning process. I had to try these sorts of things on my own and fail at them in order to really learn anything.

Perhaps addicts and alcoholics tend to be stubborn that way–we do not tend to learn things the easy way. We don’t just take your word for it when you try to teach us about cross-addiction and how it works, or how substituting one drug for another will always end in disaster. We don’t just take your word for it, we have to find out for ourselves instead.

And so when I left my first treatment center I proceeded to do this experiment. I gave up alcohol, which was my drug of choice, and I attempted to simply self medicate with marijuana instead. This worked for about a month or two. At some point though I realized that there was not enough marijuana in the world to truly medicate my feelings and transport me to that magical place where all of my problems were gone and I was properly medicated into oblivion. The weed was just not doing it for me. So I drank.

Lesson learned.

But just take a moment and think about what all I went through in order to learn this one lesson.

The next time I attended treatment, I knew that success would mean “total abstinence from all mood and mind altering chemicals.” I knew this to be the case because I had tested it out for myself, and learned my lesson the hard way. But now that I had learned it for myself through experimentation, I was not going to forget it. I knew that I could not successfully switch drugs, but that it was going to be all or nothing for me. Either total abstinence, or use any and every drug that I wanted. No in between.

Addicts and alcoholics tend to be stubborn, and I think we learn things the hard way. So it might take time, it might take more than one trip to rehab, it might take months, years, or decades for certain lessons to really sink in. That’s just how it goes.

Therefore, when someone relapses, they are learning something. They are learning what does NOT work in trying to stay clean and sober. Because whatever they did, whatever their plan was in recovery, it obviously did not work.

We do not have to discuss anything further after they relapse and put that first drink or drug back into their body, because the results speak very clearly for themselves. They failed. They used. Whatever their strategy for recovery was, it was flawed. Whatever they had tried to do in order to stay clean and sober was flat out wrong, and they need to try something else the next time that they attempt to sober up.

In almost all cases it is not a question of the methods, but rather a failure in execution. In other words, it is not because the addict was working the wrong treatment program, or that they were seeing the wrong therapist, or that they were following the wrong recovery plan, or that their aftercare recommendation was not perfect for them, or any of these things. None of that stuff is ever the true problem, or the true cause of relapse. Instead, it is almost always a lack of follow through on the part of the individual. The programs don’t fail us, we fail to follow the program.

Abstinence based recovery is pretty straightforward, really. If you screw it up and relapse, then clearly you violated the fundamental principle of the program, which is that you never put a drink or a drug into your body, ever.

We don’t go to rehab and get cured. We attend treatment and learn something about ourselves and about how to recover.

But then it is our job to leave the treatment center and start practicing our recovery in the real world. It is up to us to implement recovery concepts into our lives. This is the process of recovery, and it is a learning process. For some people, relapse will become a part of that learning process, and for others, they may not need to fully relapse in order to learn something. But every addict and alcoholic in recovery is going to be in this continuous learning process for the rest of their life.

Failed treatment can be the catalyst that causes a person to take recovery seriously

In the early days of our addiction, we full believe that we are still in total control over our drug of choice.

We believe that we are simply enjoying our drug or alcohol use, and that we are still in control, and that we could stop at any time if we really wanted too. But of course we are addicted and we are still enjoying the drug and we are still having fun, and so we have no desire to stop using at that time, and so we slowly become addicted and lulled into this false sense that we are actually in control.

Later on we start to experience some consequences due to our drug of choice. Maybe we get arrested for drunk driving, or maybe we realize that we cannot stop using our drug of choice even when we run out of money to do so, and that our tolerance has increased to the point that it is now really expensive to stay medicated.

And so we might make some partial attempts to cut down or to cut back in order to minimize these consequences. But as we do this, we maintain the idea that we are still in control of the drug, and that if we really, really wanted too, we could certainly overcome this dependence and go completely without our drug of choice. If we wanted too.

Later on in our disease this becomes harder and harder to convince ourselves of. It becomes tougher and tougher to maintain the idea that we are in control, because we are now going to extremes in order to keep using our drug of choice. We are making great sacrifices in order to keep using. Maybe we eventually lose our homes, our families, our jobs, our car, and so on. It gets tougher and tougher to maintain our denial.

And so at some point we agree to go to rehab. We agree to check into rehab, even though we are still hanging on to most of our denial, even though we are still hanging on to the idea that we could probably stop on our own if we really, really wanted to do so.

Only part of us wants to stop using our drug of choice and to change. Only part of us wants to be clean and sober. There is still a fairly big part of us that really wants to keep using our drug of choice, and to never let it go. There is still a large part of us that resists the idea of sobriety. That fears it.

So maybe we attend rehab in this state of mind, where we are sort of half torn between recovery and addiction, where half of our mind wishes for the peace and serenity of recovery, and the other half of our mind is still screaming for our drug of choice. So we might attend rehab in this state of “half surrender” and you can imagine what the outcome is going to be.

We relapse. Except it is not even really a relapse because we were never fully committed to recovery at that point anyway. Instead, we were just sort of half along for the ride, and we were not really fully surrendered yet. We were not fully sick and tired of our drug of choice.

And so we learn something, we learn what level of surrender will NOT work for recovery.

So then the next part of the cycle comes along. We have been back at it, using our drug of choice, and we still have this idea in our head that we never really wanted to get clean and sober anyway, so that last failed rehab episode does not really count.

But then something happens. We get really miserable, or we experience some extreme consequence from our addiction, and we find ourselves actually wanting to be free from our drug of choice. We are actually sick and tired of being sick and tired this time. We have finally surrendered to our disease, and we actually want our freedom back.

So we go to rehab. Now here is the critical part:

If we happen to relapse after this treatment episode, then we have finally learned the full lesson. If we happen to leave treatment and relapse after fully surrendering to our disease, then we have truly learned something.

Because now we cannot deny our need for help. Now we must face the fact that we failed to stay clean and sober even when we WANTED to be clean and sober.

Now we have to acknowledge the true power of our addiction, because we had asked for help and attended rehab after full surrender, after finally admitting that we were sick and tired and that we genuinely wanted to be free from our addiction, and we failed. We failed and we relapsed and we went back to our drug of choice anyway.

If that does not teach us a critical lesson, then nothing will.

And what is the lesson that relapse teaches in this case?

It teaches us the power of our addiction. It teaches us the true power of the disease.

It teaches us that our will power is NOT enough to overcome our addiction by itself, and that we need help, that we need other people in order to overcome our addiction.

It teaches us just what level of effort is going to be needed to finally overcome our problem. This level of effort is beyond anything that we have ever had to push ourselves at before. Nothing we have ever attempted in life has been this challenging, this difficult. And this should not be discouraging, instead it should be liberating. Now you know what you have to do. Now you learn what is required in order to get clean and sober. You have to try harder than you have ever tried anything in your life. You must commit to this more fully than anything you have ever committed to in your life before.

It might sound challenging and tough, but this actually makes it really simple (not easy, simple!). It is simple because now you know exactly how hard you have to try, and how fully you must commit.

In that sense, relapse after treatment can become the ultimate learning experience. It can show you that, yes–you were on the right path. But no, you did not try hard enough, did not commit fully enough.

Try harder. Do it again, and really commit this time.

That is the lesson that relapse teaches.

What can I do if my loved one has relapsed after leaving treatment?

You can go back to the basics, and do more of the following:

* Realize that this is part of the process. Of course we never hope for relapse, we never want that to be part of the learning process, but sometimes that is what is required. This line of thinking should never justify a relapse, but it can help to explain one nonetheless. People who relapse are learning lessons that they missed on their initial journey into recovery.

* Get support for yourself. Take the focus off of the struggling addict or alcoholic in your life and go take care of yourself first. Go to an Al-anon meeting and share. Go see a therapist or a counselor yourself and get the help and support that YOU need in order to be strong. You still play an important role even if you cannot directly force a person to get clean and sober. There are still actions that you need to take in order to do your part.

* Set boundaries, set limits, and make sure that you are not enabling the addict or alcoholic. If they have relapsed after treatment, they may have given up on the idea, or they might use the excuse that “rehab does not work for them.” This is just an excuse, and rehab will work for anyone who is willing to work hard on their recovery. Some of us are just not ready yet, or we still have things to learn before we can finally “get it.” Don’t give up on the idea of treatment. Ultimately it is all we have. When the timing is right, treatment will work. Find out more about how the timing will affect success right here.

Never give up hope, and always encourage treatment. This is ultimately the approach that led to my own sobriety.


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