Helping Addicts


How to Get Over those Dismal Relapse Rates

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The relapse rates for recovery from drug and alcohol addiction are depressing. How can you get over them and focus on being positive?

Forget about the Numbers

Have you ever heard people quote statistics regarding sobriety and recovery and relapse rates? They are absolutely terrible. For example: “less than 5 percent of people in recovery will stay clean and sober for 1 year,” or “less than 1 percent of recovering addicts will stay clean and sober for 5 years.” Sometimes you will hear figures that differ from these a bit, because it is very difficult to obtain accurate data. But regardless of these small discrepancies, the overall statistics that you hear about paint a very bleak picture of recovery. Regardless of whose stats you believe, it all adds up to the same thing: very few people manage to stay clean and sober.

When I was first getting clean and sober, I had a really hard time dealing with these statistics. My experience in the past regarding statistics and data has led me to put a lot of faith in numbers. So when I heard that the odds were stacked so heavily against me in recovery, I found it to be quite depressing. I asked my sponsor and other recovering addicts: why even try to stay clean, if the odds are so crummy? These people tried to assure me that it was still worth trying, and that many people do achieve long periods of meaningful sobriety. But I was never really satisfied with these answers. Even though they were reassuring answers, they didn’t help to explain how the statistics could be so lousy. So I wanted to figure out the dismal recovery statistics and how I could manage to stay clean in spite of the overwhelming odds against me. In addition, I determined that if 95 percent of people relapse in the first year, then there must be a common thread among their experiences, and surely I can learn something from that and avoid a similar fate.

Those dismal recovery statistics first started getting me down almost 7 years ago, yet I have been clean and sober ever since then. Through it all I have lived in recovery and watched and learned from others…both from people’s success in recovery as well as those who failed. And what have I learned? Well, the statistics all are all true, probably, but not necessarily in the way that you think.

Here are 3 reasons why those miserable relapse rates don’t really apply to you:

1) You are self motivated – a lot of those terrible relapse rates are derived from a large pool of people, many of which are not really interested in recovery for their own self. There are lots of people in “recovery” who are there for the judge, or the courts, or because of an angry spouse. They aren’t really there to recover for themselves (yet), so they essentially have a zero chance of maintaining any kind of long term sobriety. Unfortunately, these people get lumped in with the rest of us and make the relapse rates look that much worse.

2) We tend to put too much faith in numbers
– We get so much information thrown at us these days. Newspapers are filled with statistics and survey results and percentages about all sorts of different topics. Sometimes we just take for granted that everything is accurate and has been thoroughly fact-checked. Of course, even when the numbers are accurate, they can still misleading, which brings us to our next point…

3) Statistics can be misleading – As the saying goes, “There are lies, there are damn lies, and there are statistics.” Because of the reasons mentioned above, the statistics regarding relapse rates are particularly misleading. There can be 20 people in your AA meeting, and someone might say something like “statistically, only 1 of us will still be sober in 5 years.” This is probably true if you just take 20 people who quit drinking today and look at where they are at in 5 years. But that statistic is based on everyone who quits drinking–many of whom won’t even attend AA or seek any help at all. Even if the statistic is quoting relapse rates in AA, remember that many people are basically going to AA at the whim of the courts, and thus don’t really want to be there. So remember that these statistics are made up of a very large and diverse group of people.

So if you happen to hear someone quoting the dismal relapse rates of recovering addicts and alcoholics, just nod your head and agree. Technically, they are right, and there is little point in arguing. Just know that if you are self-motivated and truly want recovery for yourself, then those statistics simply do not apply to you. Consider yourself one of the “chosen” ones!

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  • jeanette

    I love a man who I believe is an alcoholic, he drinks everyday hides alcohol in his car and in the house how can I help him? How do I reach him without preaching, or oushing him away?

  • Patrick

    I would encourage you to get to an Al-Anon meeting, Jeanette. Going to one of their meetings is the single biggest step you can take for yourself. They will be able to help you and advise you on how to deal with this man. Good luck to you Jeanette.

  • Jon Whitley

    The problem with ignoring legitimate research, or pretending it’s not true, is that it undermines finding a cure. An actual cure, not a placebo. We all know that AA has a poor success rate at best. Wouldn’t it be nice to have higher sobriety rates? or are you afraid of being proven wrong?
    nb. I mean no disrespect to you personally, but do you honestly believe that misleading people about their disease is ethical? You leave your readers with the impression that the statistics might be questionable. Are you saying that the Oxford School of Medicine or The American Journal of Medicine (Amongst many others) would publish shoddy research, yet you offer no examples. Lying by omission is still lying. Shame on you.

  • Patrick

    I’m not sure if you’re comment is aimed at the original article or at Dick B’s comment. Either way, I would encourage you to offer some evidence of your own, Jon Whitley. You seem incredulous that the Oxford school of medicine could publish shoddy research, but I point out that all such research is broken and necessarily shoddy to begin with, due to the very nature of addiction. It’s hard to get good numbers in this game, period. Of course the statistics are questionable! That’s the point of the article. The newcomer hears people quoting miserable stats, and I’m telling them that there is some hope out there because the stats are not all that accurate. Is that really so shameful?

    The rest of the website is dedicated to unearthing a more empowering model of treatment, take a look around, why don’tcha?

  • Michael

    This is an old thread, but I feel inclined to comment. I have been sober (and HAPPY, most importantly) for two years after a major struggle with alcoholism. I have recovered from the disease, and although certainly not cured I no longer *suffer* from it. The word “recovered” is written right on the title page of the Big Book, and it is a promise that has come true for me and countless others.

    Now, the people who I associate with in A.A. are all ‘in the Book’ — that is to say practicing the ideas and principles of the program as originally outlined in the Big Book. As a group, we have a success rate of nearly 100%. I certainly can not say that about those who are not in this for themselves but instead court-ordered, etc. etc. — Those groups of people have less than 1 percent success of staying sober for even 90 days. Ever wonder why most interventions don’t work? But I digress…

    This is from my experience, and it is fact. THAT is what the medical community is missing. The people who are introduced to and apply themselves to the program of action succeed. Those who aren’t…well, don’t.

    Let me reiterate in a different way: Out of the 36 people in my home group only 1 has relapsed in the past two years I have been sober. Most of the individuals in the group are many more years sober than that, ranging from 2 months to 23 years. The only difference is that they were able to maintain a connection with a God of their understanding and apply the principles of the ORIGINAL program in their lives.

    There is an example, Mr. Whitley. It is my experience, and it is a fact. It is also the experience of my sponsor, my sponsor’s sponsor, and so on.

  • paul

    Allthis talk of cure. If I were cured id go straight out & celebrate with a drink. Cure for what?

  • Patrick

    Hi there Paul

    Yeah, Dick B likes to talk about the cure…I think he is all about the old school AA way.

    No, I agree that you can’t fix an addict. Best you can do is contain the beast within. But the beast will always be there.

  • jd miller

    That was an interesting article. I am an addict who has relapsed off and on for years. I have been involved with the 12 step community all of that time. I am in the ” program ” for myself. That I must make clear. According to the 12 step program there is a spiritual.
    solution. I, by myself, am powerless over my addiction. So self motivation is necessary from the standpoint that we must take responsibility for our addictions. But the miserable success rate of the 12 step programs tends to send me in the direction of harm reduction. Abstinence is the ultimate goal, but if I relapse because of an “insane” obsession and compulsion to use, I just pick myself up, dust myself off and try again. Only a spiritual intervention can relieve my obsession. At least that is what I’ve been taught.

  • Patrick

    Hi there JD

    I think I agree with your thoughts on this. 12 step programs are not perfect and there might be some benefit to some people of going the harm reduction route instead. I personally am doing great by following a path of total abstinence rather than reduction though.

    I believe it is more than a spiritual solution, however. That is too small of a box to put recovery in. But we have abused the word “spiritual” and it has lost some meaning.

    The solution, more than anything else, is massive action.

  • mickey

    Patrick said:
    The newcomer hears people quoting miserable stats, and I’m telling them that there is some hope out there because the stats are not all that accurate. Is that really so shameful? The rest of the website is dedicated to unearthing a more empowering model of treatment…
    Your 3 reasons why those miserable relapse rates don’t really apply are bogus. You say the numbers are skewed because there are many there for the judge, or the courts; then A.A. needs to stop signing their check sheet. If these skew the numbers then stop doing it, its A.A.s own fault, so don’t blame the surveys; put the blame where it belongs, on A.A.
    We tend to put too much faith in numbers, Of course, even when the numbers are accurate, they can still misleading.
    This is strange and misleading because: AA’s success rate is dismal and even George Valliant (AA trustee) found AA to be no better or worse than no treatment at all. So does that mean A.A. skews its finding too? I mean George Valliant was an A.A. trustee and totally believes in A.A., so how could his own longitudinal research be so misleading?
    Statistics can be misleading.
    Because of the reasons mentioned above your statements are misleading.
    But that statistic is based on everyone who quits drinking–many of whom won’t even attend AA or seek any help at all.
    According to George Valliant AA is no better or worse than no treatment at all. Furthermore, A.A. is the major treatment paradigm in the majority of treatment centers, so where else are they going to get statistics from? Take A.A. treatment out of the treatment system and then we can get some real numbers to work with. I bet A.A. would become even worse statistic wise if that ever happens.
    As far as these statistics are made up of a very large and diverse group of people, you are correct. Unfortunately, the vast majority of those very large and diverse group of people don’t want anything to do with A.A. However, A.A. is the major method of treatment so they are just plain screwed and A.A. could give a darn less about them because they don’t want some mystical, magical cure that dictates a life long bogus disease and lifetime membership in A.A. to stay sober.
    The only misleading information here is what you are presenting; the A.A. analogy that everybody or everything that contradicts A.A. is wrong and the program is perfect. The truth is that the exact opposite is true.

  • http://asabove Erica

    I had a relapse yesterday, started going to aa in July last year. Stayed sober for 3 months would have been 4 months on the 28th. These statistics doesn’t help me much!! Don’t know what went wrong. Was irritated and hurt.

  • http://americancanceradvocates bret peirce

    My personal experience on recovery supports the figures that are being cited herein. What I found while working in corrections and psychiatric community is that many of these professionals have not resolved all of their personal issues themselves. Dealing with the most extreme behaviors, self mutilation, sexual assualt I found that many counselors are poorly equipt and do not understand what is needed to completely help these individuals. Many get diagnosed as bi polar, many get diagnosed as ADHD, personality disorder. They bounce around from medication to medication. When they disclose a private and extremely sensative issue like rape, incest many counselor have no idea how to make sense out of these situations. I have heard counselors tell their clients many things that I would never recommend anyone tell victims or perpetrators.
    Opening a can of worms is one thing, understanding and closing that can of worms is very challenging. What I can say for certain. That as long as people feel like rejects, like they deserve to be punished, no 12 step program nor medication can reverse those beliefs. Understanding one’s own acting out is paramount to overcoming these self defeating feelings. That kind of help can only come from the most insiteful of counselors.