Why Does an Alcoholic or Drug Addict Keep Relapsing?

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What is it that makes a drug addict or an alcoholic continuously relapse, while others seem to finally “get it” and start living a successful life of recovery?

This topic is discussed at great lengths in recovery circles. Here are some of the possible reasons for a relapse that you’ll hear being thrown around when an addict inexplicably relapses:

They’re not ready yet. Obvious. And not very useful, either. Unfortunately, this statement is probably the most accurate. Anyone who relapses or fails to take any interest in getting clean and sober in the first place fits this criteria. Of course they weren’t ready yet. But why not? We can look deeper than this, and hopefully extract something more useful.

They are trapped by their environment….they need to change the people, places, and things in their lives. Conventional recovery wisdom goes against this idea, saying that a change in environment–such as moving to a new city in order to get a “fresh start” and quit drinking–doesn’t really work. On the other hand, the program advocates changing some of the negative influences in our lives if we are to remain clean and sober.

They’re not getting the spiritual side of the program. Anyone who is working with recovering addicts and alcoholics will tell you that the people who do not relapse are the ones who have really connected to the spiritual side of the program. This “connection” is characterized by a relationship with a higher power, the pursuit of personal growth, and a shift in personality away from self-centeredness. It is almost universally agreed upon that addicts who are on this path of spiritual growth do not relapse.

They haven’t had enough pain yet. This is basically the same as “They’re not ready yet.” All the same, it seems that some addicts and alcoholics just have a higher tolerance for abusing themselves, and have to keep going back out there and trying it out again. They have another saying that goes along with this one, referring to relapse: “It never gets any better.”

Action Items – What you can do:

1) Only invest time in helping an addict in proportion to their willingness. In other words, don’t waste all of your time and energy trying to help a chronic relapser who is not really willing to put any effort into recovery.

2) Give them space to fail. Part of the journey involves pain. Everyone who gets sober only does so after enduring much pain.

3) Learn the basics - of how you can help addicts.


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  • Emilio

    My fiance after 9 month of beeing clean
    from using crack last night she had a argument with me and went back to using.
    i don’t understand why and im so hurt for her actions. even tho i still love her i don’t know what to do if she decied to return to me . please help me understand why she is doings this .

  • Patrick

    Hi there Emilio

    I wish I had some profound wisdom for you, but some people are just not ready to get clean and sober.

    I can tell you this: it’s not because she doesn’t love you. Chances are real good that she loves you very much. But love is not enough to conquer addiction. I know this because I used to be trapped in addiction myself and it was not love that brought me through it (unless perhaps it was God’s love….)

  • nadine

    my baby always go out with his friends and leave me hanging waitng for him. . . .he likes drinking more with his friends than going out with me. . .

  • michael l.

    I am 62 years and have lived a very good life until my 37 year. that is when my woderfulfriends demonstrated meth on me. it has been worse than any dillusion that normal/real day life situation would dare peak over my fence to give even me smile of relief. I have brother , sister, daughter and a son that I have worn out there hopes and mine to. Please tell me who,what or how can I get AWAY FROM ALL THE DARKNESS. M.L.

  • Cristina

    Only the love of God can help you.

  • Elizabeth

    My brother is an alcoholic and was clean for 2 years and then boom right before our first Vacation to Disneyworld with him he started drinking again. I just dont understand it. He puts himself and us through all this pain and suffering. I can not make him get help and its so frustrating. Shame on my family for thinking everything was okay and he would not relapse. Understanding the Addict is very hard for me. Does anyone know some good books to help me? I want to help my brother and the way I am doing it…its not working. Letting him go as my parents say just doesnt seem right. I am not giving up hope even though some days it would seem easier.

  • Amanda


    Do not give up hope. My father was an alcoholic for over 20 years and nobody/nothing could get through to him. He drank to the point of hallucination. It was bad. He now is over 7 years sober and opened up his own company and is doing great. You just have to let your brother realize his problem on his own. He has to hit rock bottom to understand that he needs to be clean. He will not stop until he is ready to stop. All you can do is just tell him that what he is doing is wrong and suggest treatment everytime you see him. Tell him he is not alone and that you will always be there for him.

    I, on the other hand, have become an addict myself. My DOC is opiates, and after being 6 months clean, I have relapsed. It is much easier to give advice then to take it. I know I don’t want to be a drug addict, but all I think about on a regular everyday basis is drugs. I am in college and on the deans list. What I try to do now everyday is read forums everyday, such as this one, and also read success stories of ex addicts and how they had a successful recovery. I am also looking for NA meetings not far from my house. It’s hard, but I know I do not want to be doing drugs for the rest of my life.

    Do not lose hope and just try to get through to your brother, but by no means ruin your life just to get through to him. When he will be ready to stop is when he will stop.

    Just don’t lose hope.

    I doubt anybody will read this because I am answering a year later, but maybe someone new will see this and it may help them.

  • Brian Hardy

    might be time to move on, LIFE IS SHORT! YOU NEED TO LIVE YOUR LIFE. It is hard but better in the long run!