A lot of people have asked me over the years (because I worked in a drug and alcohol treatment center) exactly how many people are actually cured by going to rehab.
The answer to this is notoriously difficult to pin down, for several reasons.
The first of which is the assumption from the general public that an alcoholic or a drug addict might go to treatment and then come out “cured.” So let’s take a look at that idea first.
The myth of being “cured” from addiction or alcoholism
It is a myth that you can cure addiction or alcoholism.
There are a couple of people out there (and one treatment center in particular) that claims that they can actually cure alcoholics and drug addicts. The rehab that claims to be able to do this stands on pretty shaky ground in my book. Many alcoholics that have attended that particular rehab and have followed through with all of their program, all of their aftercare, and they still manage to relapse anyway. When asked how this is possible if the person is really cured, the rehab responds by saying something to the effect of “they were simply not finished with all of their required therapy.” Hmmm. Seems a bit fishy to me.
The truth is that any rehab that claims to be able to cure alcoholics is simply fishing too hard to get more business in their doors. There is no such thing as a cure. Every recovering alcoholic is just one drink away from being off on a massive bender. The insanity starts all over again with one tiny sip. This has proven over and over again by tens of thousands of individuals. It happens every single day. No one is cured, and no one is completely immune to the threat of relapse. All it takes is one slip up. In some cases, it can even just take one drug (such as an addictive medication that was not really needed) to send someone off to the races.
Part of this myth from the general public is based on the idea that maybe if you have access to the absolute best alcohol treatment in the world, that you could send an alcoholic there and they could somehow convince that alcoholic to want to stop drinking. Obviously this is not how it works. Yet this mindset persists among the general population. They sometimes believe that if you can afford the very best treatment available, then you can get better results and you can even find a rehab that will help to sway the mind of the alcoholic who may be “sitting on the fence” when it comes to quitting drinking. Unfortunately it does not work like that. There is no rehab in the world that helps people to want to quit drinking for themselves. If there was then we could safely apply the “cure” label to addiction. But that magic does not exist yet and therefore the disease of addiction is not yet cured. You can’t make someone want to stop drinking, and more than you can make them want to do anything else.
Long story short, nobody is truly “cured” of alcoholism or drug addiction. What can happen is that they can surrender, decide that they want to change their life, and then work on recovery every single day in order to remain sober. Could a person doing this possibly stay clean and sober until they day that they die? Sure. But they are not cured. The person who dies clean and sober was not “cured” any more than the alcoholic who relapses after twenty days being dry. Neither person was cured. The one who stayed sober until they died simply kept doing everything that they could in order to avoid drinking.
One. Day. At. A. Time.
I am sure you have heard that phrase before, yes?
No one is cured. All we have is a daily reprieve from addiction. Take one sip and the madness starts all over again. As if it never even ended.
Here is why wild discrepancies in success rates are the norm
So you want to know how many people are successful after leaving rehab?
It is a difficult number to pin down. If you do a bit of research you will come up with all sorts of different figures and facts.
For example, some rehab centers may boast as much as 60% or even higher success rates. Other statistics that you see around the Internet may talk about 5% success rates.
What is going on? How can the numbers vary so wildly?
Let me give you an example to explain. It depends a great deal on exactly what you are measuring, and also how you go about measuring.
Sample A are recovering alcoholics who went through a detox and residential program 30 days ago. They are called back via phone and asked how they were doing in their recovery. They were also asked if they attended all of their recommended aftercare or not. Did they go to meetings? Get a sponsor? Go to outpatient therapy? And so on. Maybe they call several of these people at the 30 day point and they find that 65 out of 100 say that they are still clean and sober.
But wait! Out of the 35 who relapsed, how many of them actually followed directions? How many of those 35 actually followed through with all of the aftercare?
Turns out that 20 of them did, while 15 did not follow through. So we throw out the 15 who say that they did not follow through with aftercare, and we do NOT count those people towards our success rate. After all, they did not follow through with all of the treatment, right?
So now it looks pretty decent. Only 20 relapsed out of 85 total (it would have been 100 total but we disregard those who did not follow through with aftercare).
Second of all, we are only calling these people up on the phone and asking for their honesty.
Do you think that shame would cause an alcoholic to possibly lie about their recovery?
I can answer that one for you. Shame definitely skews the results because people are ashamed that they have relapsed. So a phone interview like this can produce some pretty wildly optimistic results.
How do we know that?
One, because I am an alcoholic myself, and I have lied before!
Two, because they have done other studies that have the participants come in and be tested for the follow up survey, so then they know what the REAL data looks like. You can’t lie when you are being drug tested or breathalyzed.
Why am I telling you all of this? Simply trying to help you understand why the success rates in recovery can vary so wildly. If you do some casual research yourself, you will probably find that you can find wild swings of over 50% difference in success rates for recovering alcoholics without even trying.
The optimistic and skewed studies (that have an agenda or profit motive) may place the success rate as high as 60 or even 80 percent. But people who study this stuff for a living (think government data, etc.) know that they real success rates are more in the 5 to 30 percent range (with 30 percent being awfully optimistic, unfortunately).
Also, what is your definition of “success” for someone who has left rehab?
It might be:
* Total and complete abstinence from all drugs and alcohol for 30 days.
* Total and complete abstinence from all drugs and alcohol for a year or more.
* Sobriety for alcoholics, but not necessarily abstinence from all addictive drugs?
* Staying clean for drug addicts, but allowing them to drink casually at times?
And so on. There is no absolute standard for measuring success after treatment. If we wanted to make a standard, it might be “total and complete abstinence from all mood and mind altering substances,” but even that can be more difficult to measure than what it sounds like.
You may believe that it would be easy to decide on a standard measure of success, and a way of measuring that success. You would be wrong. Just imagine trying to contact the last 100 drug addicts and alcoholics that have left a random treatment center. In many cases some of the people are homeless, no phone, and so on. This is not always an easy group to follow up with, depending on the circumstances.
The “real” success rates of rehab are probably fairly low to modest
Even though there is no such thing as a real “cure” for alcoholism or addiction, we can still agree that any form of success would probably have to start with abstinence.
You might then try to find out how many recovering alcoholics and drug addicts stay abstinent for various lengths of time.
One way to get an idea is to go to a large NA (Narcotics Anonymous) group and find out how many key tags they have to order on a regular basis. There are one day chips (for those people who are just starting out with one day clean and sober) and there are 30 day, 60 day, 90 day, six month, and one year tags. Also 18 months and “multiple years clean” tags. So if you look at how many they have to order you can get an idea of what the “drop off rate is” (I believe the more scientific term is the recidivism rate).
It can be rather scary. The last time I saw numbers referencing this, it showed data that supported like 80 percent of newcomers dropping off within the first year. Of course, they may have just stopped getting their clean tags, or they went elsewhere to get support for recovery, but you get the idea. The data can be discouraging.
My sponsor in early recovery told me once that out of 100 people, about 5 will make it to one year sober. “But,” he continued. “If you take 100 people who make it to one year sober, only 5 of those will make it to 5 years sober.” That made me stop and think. “Really?” I thought. That many people who make it to one year sober still end up relapsing over the next four years? I am not sure how accurate his statistic was but even if it is close then it sort of boggles the mind. I would hope (assume?) that more people who can make it to the one year mark would have it licked for good. Apparently the data does not support that.
What does all of this negativity mean to you?
I don’t mean to be negative, or to sound negative, or to try to scare you with numbers. That is not my intention.
The fact is, the data is not real hopeful or inspiring. But that doesn’t mean that it has to discourage you, or that you should obsess over it. Certainly if someone says that a rehab has an 80 percent success rate, you need to realize that they have their head up in the clouds. That is not even close to reality. Anyone who believes such a claim needs to go WORK at the detox of such a rehab for 5+ years.
In fact, I did exactly that. I worked for a little over 5 years in the detox center where I myself once got sober at. This is what caused me to see the truth, that many people struggle with addiction and alcoholism and very few make it. I am not even sure what I mean by “make it,” but I guess I know it when I see it. One year and then relapse is not making it, obviously.
I don’t want you to get the idea that you will not “make it” if you try to get sober. In fact, you can make it just as much as anyone else who is successful in recovery. You just have to decide that you are going to do it, that you are going to change your life, no matter what.
Really, you are not a statistic. You can beat this thing if you really want to.
In spite of the numbers.
Why you are not a statistic
I used to obsess over the statistics. Because I have found in my life that they are generally pretty accurate, when people who seem smart give me data and figures, I generally accept what they are telling me. Why shouldn’t I, right? They are the experts.
So when I had 60 days sober, I was a nervous wreck about it. When was I going to relapse?
When I had 4 years sober I was still nervous about it. A part of me was waiting for the other shoe to drop. I was still scared of the relapse boogeyman.
Somewhere around the 5 to 7 year point I stopped worrying about it completely. Now I am at 12+ years and I still do not worry about it. But you can bet that I take action every day to help fight off complacency.
I have people in my life today that do still relapse. And perhaps that is enough of a reminder so that I know what I don’t want to go back to. I try not to get too close to such people. On the other hand I do try to help them at times. It is never an easy balance, I can promise you that. It is so hard to know when you are helping an alcoholic and when you are enabling them. I will be the first to admit that.
You are not a statistic though. I am certainly not one either. I got sober over 12 years ago and I have stopped looking back now. I am finally free. I am convinced that any alcoholic can do the same if they are willing to really surrender. Fully and completely. You can’t hold on to anything and expect to change your life. You must let it all go. All of it.
If those words don’t mean anything to you yet then you probably not quite done drinking. I don’t know how to get you there any quicker, other than to suggest that you get honest with yourself. Really look at your life and what it has become. Ask yourself every day if you are truly happy. If you are drinking or taking drugs on a regular basis then the answer is undoubtedly going to be “no.”
But you still have to summon the courage to ask the question. Most of us don’t do that. Most of us stick our heads in the sand, and try to get one more high. One more drunk. One more drink. One more anything. Anything but face the misery that our life has become. Anything but to face the fear of living our life without our drug of choice. Without the crutch of alcohol. Without the drugs or pills or weed or painkillers.
You don’t have to be a statistic. Maybe you read somewhere that 90 percent (or more) who try to get clean and sober will ultimately fail in the long run. So what? Does that percentage really apply directly to you and your life?
I am telling you right now that it doesn’t. You can have sobriety if you really want it. You can have a new life in recovery if you are willing to get serious about it.
And when I say “get serious about it” what I really mean is: Take it more seriously than anything else you have ever tried to do. Because quite honestly, that is the level of effort that it takes to succeed in recovery.
Don’t expect for it to be easy, because it just isn’t. It really is tough. Probably tougher than anything you have ever done. It certainly was for me.
But you have no excuses, either. Because some of the most hopeless people have turned their lives around. They did not possess any special magic that you are lacking. All they did was to ask for help.
They asked for help, then they followed directions.
Yes, it really can be that simple. But it’s not easy.
If you decide that you are going to sober no matter what, then the statistics no longer apply to you.
After full surrender, your sobriety is all but assured. Kill your ego, ask for help, and be willing to do anything.
The statistics can’t hurt you now.