Why Leaving Treatment Early is Always a Mistake

Why Leaving Treatment Early is Always a Mistake


Leaving an addiction treatment center or drug rehab early is always a mistake.

This is an idea that has grown more powerful over time as I continue to learn more and more about addiction and recovery.

In my early days of recovery, I could see that bailing out of treatment early could be potentially bad for people, but I did not realize just how important the concept was.

Looking back after several years, I can firmly say that this concept is very important, and the idea of leaving rehab early is very important. In every single example from my past experience, no one (including myself) who has left treatment early has done well. Nearly everyone regrets leaving treatment early. It is just such a consistent outcome that I believe everyone should be warned about it, rather than to experience it first hand.

The bottom line is that if you go to treatment, follow through with it. Leaving early is always a disaster.

My personal experience with leaving rehab early

I have been to rehab three times. The first time I went I was nowhere near the point of surrender and I just went through a very short term program. The second time I went to a place and they wanted me to go long term treatment and I was not willing to do that, so I bailed out early.

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There was a bit of a power struggle going on for me at this time. The counselors and therapists at the treatment center knew that I was in really bad shape and that I was going to go right back into a very dangerous environment when I left treatment. It was not just that I needed more treatment, but it was also that I needed a way to break away from an unhealthy situation.

So the therapists were looking to find a solution that would best allow me to stay clean and sober. I was not really concerned with their logic, and was instead very intent with getting “back to living my life.” For some reason I was intent on having my freedom, living my life, and doing my own thing without being “stuck in treatment” as I put it.

At the time, I could not see that my “freedom” that I was demanding was a bit of a trap–I was just going to go back to my addiction. The counselors knew this full well, because they understood my situation, so they were advising me to stay for long term care.

Thus this power struggle occurred and I became very defensive. I was not in jail and I was not facing any charges or anything and I was demanding “my freedom.” Staying in rehab for a week seemed like a chore to me. Staying for 28 days was downright unreasonable. And staying even longer for long term care was just unthinkable. My logic was “if you are going to stay that long, why not just go to prison?” Obviously I had the wrong attitude at the time and was desperate for help or change in my life.

But at the same time, I had fooled myself into believing that I would try to stay clean and sober on my own. I was outraged that the therapists had recommended long term treatment for me, and I thought that I could stay clean and sober without going to that extreme. So I became defensive and I left rehab against their advice and I relapsed immediately.

By the time I had relapsed, my mind had convinced me that they were all out to get me anyway. I felt cheated, I had turned myself into the victim somehow, because all of these people wanted to keep me tucked away in rehab for months and months. In my own mind I was equating it with “jail” or “prison.” Obviously, all of these people were only trying to help me, and they knew that I needed more treatment. I could not see this at the time because I was still stuck in denial and–deep down–wanted to continue to self medicate.

Living in long term treatment and observing relapse rates

The third time that I went to drug rehab was different. This time, I knew that I needed long term treatment, and I had fully surrendered to my disease. I was scared. I was completely beat down from my addiction. I was tired of chasing after imaginary happiness.

So I went to a short term treatment center and I asked them if they could find me placement in a long term facility. They did exactly that, and I immediately moved into a long term treatment center where I lived for 20 months.

Living in this long term treatment center taught me a lot more about addiction and recovery. Not only did I get the experience of learning how to stay clean and sober for myself, but I got to watch and observe eleven other people who lived with me in the rehab who were also trying to recover.

Because people came and went over time, I ended up living with about forty different people in recovery. The long term rehab housed twelve of us altogether.

So I lived in this rehab for almost two years while watching about forty people come and go. What did I learn from this?

Again, leaving rehab early is always a mistake!

The program was actually a six month commitment. The long term rehab asked each person to commit to staying for at least six months. Each person had to fully understand that this was what was expected of them.

I would say that over half of those 40 people that I lived with did not last the full six months. Many of them left early from the rehab for various reasons.

They had all sorts of reasons for bailing out early:

* Relationship issues outside of the rehab center.
* Got a job offer that they felt they could not pass up and it conflicted with the rehab program schedule.
* Just plain wanted to go relapse.
* Felt good and confident and so they argued they were wasting their time in rehab.

And so on.

So of this group of people who had left rehab early for various reasons, how many of them were successful in staying clean and sober?

Not one. Not a single person who left rehab early ever made it work in the long run. I can not remember a single example of someone who left before the six month point and made it work out well.

This is startling to most people who are not familiar with recovery because they have not seen the repeat cycle of addiction up close. They do not often realize how people will cycle in and out of rehabs, sometimes several times, before they actually “get it” and learn to stay clean and sober for good.

So living in long term treatment was another learning experience for me as I watched dozens of people who thought that they could beat the odds go out, leave treatment early, and get caught up in their addiction again.

Working at a treatment center and making observations

Later on I moved out of long term rehab myself and I definitely had not left early. I was moving slowly and carefully in my life and I took my time and found a good roommate with which to live “in the real world.” I later got a job at the treatment center and so I worked in the rehab for about four years during my recovery.

Again, this was a huge learning experience, and this time I was working in a short term facility that housed about thirty people or so. But because they only stayed in rehab for about two weeks at a time, I got to see thousands of individual struggling addicts and alcoholics make their way through a treatment process.

This had a huge impact on me, and by the end of the first year on this job I was already seeing a very strong pattern. By the end of four years, combined with my past and my own personal experiences, it was very clear to me indeed what it took to stay clean and sober when going through addiction treatment.

People who left the short term rehab early almost always came back at a later date for MORE treatment. Think about that carefully for a second.

The amount of repeat visits at this short term rehab where I worked was rather staggering. I could not believe how often people would come back through treatment after having left just a few months prior. It was a cycle. They would come to rehab, sober up, go out into the world, and then come back for more treatment at some point.

Many of these people who were caught in this cycle had a habit of NOT staying for the full rehab program. They did not follow through. They did not complete their full program, and thus did not follow up with their aftercare recommendations.

Remember when I said that I had once refused to go to long term treatment, and this caused me to relapse? Everyone knew that I needed long term care, but I could not see it at the time, and so my denial kept me stuck in my addiction. I was not willing to stay in treatment longer and do what was required of me to make it work, so I relapsed.

This is the same sort of idea that I watched play out over and over again while working at a short term rehab center. People would check in and get approved for a very short stay of maybe 14 days total. Unbelievably, many people would argue that they could not stay for the full time frame, and come up with all sorts of excuses as to why they had to leave early. The truth is that many of these people realized that they were just not ready to stop using, and that they wanted to go out and self medicate some more.

Again, the evidence was overwhelming while watching people cycle in and out of rehab:

Those who left early always relapsed. Every single time.

If you check into rehab, there is a reason for it. If you find yourself in addiction treatment, there is a reason for being there. The reason is that you have an addiction and that you need to learn a new way of life. By leaving treatment early, you are declaring that you have nothing new to learn, that you know fully how to control your addiction, and that you no longer need any help.

Every addict or alcoholic who finds themselves arguing that they “know it all” is about to get a huge dose of reality. Every addict and alcoholic who thinks that they have it all figured out, and that they can stay clean and sober on their own is about to learn how tough and cruel their addiction really is.

In all my years of working at the rehab, I never heard a success story from someone who left rehab early. Not once.

Taking back self will

What is happening when a person in rehab makes a snap decision, and they decide that they are leaving treatment right now, this very minute, and nothing is going to stop them?

They are doing exactly that–making a snap decision, without really realizing it.

Something inside their mind has snapped, and they are convinced that they need to leave rehab. They have put blinders on. I have watched this happen over and over again, and it is so sad to see it unfold.

Many times when it happens, the therapists will try to talk to the person and get them to stay. This never works. In all my years of working in the rehab, I don’t think I can remember a time when we were really able to convince someone to stay after they had “snapped.”

This is taking back of self will. The person had been attempting to follow direction, to take advice, to do the right thing and get help by being in treatment. For the religiously oriented, the person was–up until this point–trying to “do God’s will.”

But after they snap, something changes. They are no longer taking advice and following direction. They have decided that doing so is foolish, or that they must suddenly take back all control for themselves, and figure out to recover on their own.

They have taken back self will.

Now it is all up to them, they have decided that they do not need outside help; that they can recover on their own just fine and that they now know exactly what they need to do.

Of course, this attitude is ridiculous, given their situation. Anyone who is in rehab or treatment is not in a position to walk out and suddenly know how to overcome addiction all at once and rebuild this amazing new life without any more help at all. This is not realistic and no one who has built a new life for themselves in recovery can say that it was this easy, that they could just snap one day in treatment and say:

“You know, I don’t really need any more help, I have heard what the 12 steps are, I know what I need to do, and I will just go out there into the world and not use drugs or alcohol any more, and I will be just fine, and I will build a new life for myself, thanks for all your help, goodbye now!”

And then the person leaves rehab, never to need any more help again, and they stay clean and sober forever. NOT.

This is not realistic, and anyone who has lived through tough times in addiction and recovery can look at a situation like this and realize that people are just kidding themselves. You cannot just walk away from the treatment process and expect to live happily ever after. If you are in rehab then you are there for a reason and you need serious help. Walking away from that help is a decision to relapse, a decision to go back to your drug of choice.

How people who abandon treatment fool themselves

Because I have tried to persuade people to stay in treatment when they wanted to leave early, I got quite an idea of exactly what most of these people are thinking, and how they are fooling themselves.

Most of them really are just fooling themselves. They are in complete denial and cannot see how they are sabotaging their own recovery effort.

The most typical response has to do with their intentions.

Someone who is leaving treatment will say something like: “Yes, but I do not WANT to go back to my drug of choice, see? I am done with that, I don’t even want to use, I have NO DESIRE to use my drug of choice any more, that is all gone now, so I will be just fine!”

What they do not realize is that their addiction is patient, and even if they are not craving their drug of choice right now at this very moment, they will eventually be facing the demon head to head again out there in the real world. At some point, they will be tempted, and at some point, they will have a rough day that makes them want to self medicate. This is addiction. To deny that this is going to happen is to simply be flying blind and oblivious.

Others in rehab fool themselves because they feel physically better. Modern medicine and addiction treatment detox processes have made it so that many people who are going through withdrawal are actually fairly comfortable these days. Medical staff dole out medications to help keep people from feeling miserable. This can be part of why people get their confidence back so quickly, start feeling good, and suddenly snap and realize that “they can do it all on their own.” So they choose to leave rehab early, sabotaging their recovery.

What they did not realize is that they had already had a tremendous amount of help in the form of medical attention and medication to help them through the worst part of their detox.

People who have never been through the recovery process in the past are the most vulnerable to the problem of over-confidence in early recovery. Those who have not experienced this over confidence and relapsed because of it are much more likely to fall into the trap of abandoning their treatment program.

Those who have been to rehab several times and failed repeatedly are much more likely to suddenly “get it” and realize that what the real solution is:

To take things as they come and not try to direct your own recovery program through self will. Remember that when I was finally successfully in achieving recovery, I had become more than willing to live for almost two years in a long term rehab, whereas before I could not wait to get out of treatment fast enough.

Key takeaway

If you or a loved one is in any kind of treatment program, the most important thing in the world is follow-through.

Stick with the program and let the professionals help you. That is their job. When we think we know better than the professionals, we get ourselves into all sorts of trouble.

If you’re in treatment, don’t leave early!


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