How Often do Alcoholics Relapse?

How Often do Alcoholics Relapse?


A reader writes in and asks: “How often do alcoholics relapse?”  It’s a fair question.

I am not going to go pull up any data and quote it here because there are a lot of conflicting figures out there, depending on what you are reading.  The fact is that if you really think about how a survey is set up in order to determine sobriety success rates, you are going to have a lot of holes and quite a bit of inaccurate data.  It is really hard to get good numbers and good data on this sort of thing because pretty much anyone can lie about their recent drinking, and many people will due to shame.  So any numbers you see really need to be taken with a grain of salt.

Creative Commons License photo credit: JaroFuro

One estimate that seems to be pretty reasonable to me and also seems to correlate with the experience that I have in watching the alcoholics around me is that about 5 percent will stay clean for the first year.  Now that is still a pretty vague number because you have to ask yourself: five percent of which group of people?  The answer to that is: 5 percent of everyone who makes a genuine effort to get sober.  About 95 percent of that group will end up drinking again over the course of the next year.

Now there are other estimates out there regarding success rates and they vary quite a bit.  Some put the number lower at around 3 percent.  Some are more optimistic and they discard a lot of those who relapse and say that “they did not really want sobriety” and therefore they say that 50 percent stay sober or some such thing.  But if you look at all of these different alcohol treatment centers and look at all of their data from follow up surveys, then the 5 percent estimate seems pretty reasonable. Certainly, if you really believe that half of all alcoholics who try to get sober find success in sobriety, then that is pretty easy to disprove and you can glance at just a few surveys and see that this is a wildly optimistic figure.  We might not be able to pin down an exact percentage for a success rate, but it is pretty obvious that success in recovery is somewhat rare.

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Go to a large AA meeting and count the number of people with over 20 years sober.  Now count the number of people with less than a year in sobriety.  Should be an eye opening experience to say the least…..

Someone once pointed out that the average number of years sober for an AA member was 8 years or something.  Not an unreasonable number, but consider the idea that most people who relapse in the first year end up leaving and never coming back, so that skews the data quite a bit.  Often what happens with these statistics is that we are only counting the “winners” and not those who relapse and thus disappear, never to be counted.


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