What Percentage of Addicts and Alcoholics Relapse?

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A common question that I keep getting is this: What percentage of addicts and alcoholics relapse? This is a very difficult number to pin down.

People asking this question want a number. They want to hear something like “80 percent of addicts who get clean will relapse in a year” (as indicated here.) But this is not necessarily an accurate or useful number. Why not, you ask? Let’s take a look:

In order to come up with a percentage figure, we ultimately have to gather some data from addicts and alcoholics who initially got clean and sober. This is basically going to imply using a survey of some sort. So any time you see a percentage figure for relapse rates, it ultimately must have come from a study or survey. Regarding the disease of addiction and alcoholism, this presents a number of problems, all of which have potential to skew the results and produce a misleading number.

Consider first the unreliability of a follow up survey.
For example, say a drug rehab sends out a survey to several hundred people who have came through their facility, in hopes of getting some feedback and possibly figuring out what their success rate is. Now imagine that you are any one of those hundreds of addicts or alcoholics who has since relapsed after leaving the rehab. Most would probably be inclined to just throw the survey out. But out of the group of relapsed individuals that did respond, do you think the shame and guilt associated with relapse would cause any of them to lie?

Second, consider the anonymity built into these programs and how restrictive that is in obtaining accurate data. Because of privacy laws, it is very difficult to do a comprehensive and accurate follow up survey at all, and many of those who leave treatment will be finding new homes to live in, going on to long term treatment centers, or simply relocating or moving somewhere else. This makes it nearly impossible to get accurate data. Sure, you will still get a number of responses from these types of surveys, but any sample that you get is going to leave out a number of potential respondents who have become “unreachable.”

Third, consider how difficult it can be to even decide on what to measure. For instance, one addict might be addicted to crack cocaine as their primary drug, and after leaving treatment switch to drinking alcohol in order to self-medicate. Some follow up surveys would count this as a success story, because the person abstained from their drug of choice (crack). On the other hand, anyone who is seriously working a real recovery knows that this is hardly success at all, and amounts to merely switching one drug out for another. But it gets trickier.

For example, say a recovering alcoholic experiences anxiety in early recovery and seeks out a psychiatrist who ultimately prescribes them addictive medication. In some cases this might be considered legitimate, if the person takes the medication as prescribed, uses them for their intended purpose, and doesn’t get “high” in any way from the pills. In other cases, the same situation might result in a full blown relapse that eventually (over several months or even years) leads back to the person returning to alcohol. The point here is that a follow up survey can not discern the difference between these two situations, nor does it go into any great detail about what is considered a relapse versus legitimate medical needs, and so on. In addition, a survey definitely cannot make predictions about the future success of those who still remain “clean” but might be started on a slippery path.

Finally, the problem of coming up with a relapse percentage number becomes even trickier when we start looking at the concept of time-frame. If we are measuring how many addicts that get clean eventually relapse, after how long are we talking? 30 days? A year? 5 years? 25 years? Obviously these would all have different relapse rates for a given group of addicts. In other words, more will make it to 30 days clean than to 30 years clean. But how do we determine success? What is considered “long term sobriety” and what are we really measuring?

Action items – What you can do:

1) Ignore the numbers and focus on you. Plain and simple. I’ve come a long way and I’m now over 7 years of continuous sobriety. If I had let relapse rates discourage me in the beginning, where would I be now? Statistics do not apply to you. You are unique. Claim success for yourself and ignore others.

2) Don’t argue with the doomsday crowd. When they start preaching about how many addicts will relapse in a given time frame, simply smile and know that you are still in control of your own sobriety. Most of the doom-sayers are coming from a fear-based mindset anyway, and are only trying to somehow reassure themselves in some weird way.


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  • Maggie

    I think another thing you can do is surround yourself with inspirational stories of people who have made it. A really great one I just finished reading alive! by Eileen DeClemente. Her story is so inspiring that it should be required reading for anyone even thinking about a relapse and also for those fear-mongers who say it can’t be done.

  • drug addiction recovery

    Recovery from addiction is a difficult process, especially in the beginning. A treatment program should be designed as a positive and self-esteem building experience that will be proven as an effective long-term sobriety.

  • Bill

    I’ve read many “authoritative” figures on success and relapse over the years, and have yet to find more than three or four that even bothered to cite sources, much less give even lip service to data analysis.

    My conclusion: my own observation, anecdotal though it may be, is my best guide. I know a great many people who are clean and sober. I also know a great many who have relapsed. Some of the latter have eventually gotten clean and sober. Some remained that way. Others didn’t. Personally, I got it the first time, as did my wife and several friends we knew in early recovery. Many other friends just disappeared from the screen. Don’t know about them.

    Conclusion: the same as the writer’s. I wanted it badly enough to do what I had to do, and I got it and still have it after nearly 19 years. So does my wife. Those are the only success stories that are any of my business, and hers only peripherally. And one other thing…you the people who seem to really be willing “to go to any lengths to get it” will succeed. Those who whine and say it isn’t for them, or it’s a cult, or they’re different, or they don’t like this or that, or…blah, blah, blah sometimes do make it, but usually not until they’ve been kicked around the block a few more times by the disease.

    When you want it, you want it. When you’re ready and willing to work for it — when you’re so miserable that anything seems better than what you’ve got — then you’ll get it.

    Pantywaists need not apply. Recovery is for people tough enough to handle it.

  • Lisa

    Leave your past behind. The things that you did and the life you were leading can disappear forever if you let it. Focus on the reality that you can be stronger than your addiction if you put your mind to it. The first step to accomplishing this remembering that your mind is yours to control. Don’t make excuses make changes!!:)

  • Patrick

    Thanks to both Bill and Lisa for your inspirational comments above. I agree that recovery is not for wimps, and that it is definitely all about change. Thanks for your comments!

  • Gustav

    What percentage of addicts relapse is like asking how big is a box? The box size depends on the box, and the relapse-free recovery depends entirely on the addict. When a person fully commits (and I mean completely and whole-heartedly with no reservations what so ever) to the idea that sobriety is better than their drug of choice, the percentage of addicts that don’t relapse goes skyrocketing.

  • Patrick

    I see where you are coming from, Gustav, but your qualifiers (people who fully commit) are too subjective to be truly useful.

    Of course we can always look back in retrospect and say “ah, they relapsed, they obviously did not fully commit.” This is going to be true of every single relapse, no? So the added qualifier makes it sort of a useless argument.

    Better is to take everyone who tries to recover, both the die-hards and the slackers, and come up with some raw numbers. Anything else is going to be too subjective, in my opinion.

    AA quotes something like this in their literature, saying that “out of those who really tried, about half stayed sober on their first attempt….” Well, duh. How useless is that? Actually, out of those who really tried, all of them stayed sober….or so we could deduce from observing the outcome! Would anyone claim otherwise (that some who relapsed had really, really tried?) Of course not.

  • Cathy

    I am an addict named Cathy

    For me relapse is part of my story, I had multiple years clean when I went back out after 5 years of complete hell, I had gone through more funerals than most people I have ever met. (Over 10) in 2 years. I tried to keep my recovery together and the people in the rooms kept telling me to “Suck” it up and deal with it well, it turned out that I was just not that strong of a person. I started to contemplate suicide and having a parent that had done it I looked at it as a real option, it scared the hell out of me!! So I chose the lesser of the two evils. ( Suicide was not something I thought about using.) My relapse is not necessarily something that I am proud of but, for me at the time it kept me alive and knocked my emotions down where I could deal with them.

    I have been clean now for over 4 months and grateful that God loved me enough and gave me the courage to come back.

    Do not stand as judge and jury to something you have never experienced!!! If you have never relapsed do not judge those who have, give us a reason to stay not a reason to go.

    I hope that this helps anyone who has gone through a relapse. Always remember their are those that will care about you anyway and it will without a doubt teach you about being humble!!

  • Darren Dwyer

    Ok I have been reading the posts above. Just got out of recovery and I am back add drinking no opiates though..not sure if anyone knowa how bad that withdrawal can be but a person with everyone in life you can become suicidal. Question for all of you… is addiction a disease or are all just a bunch of assholes who want to get high? Can the religious freaks spare me with their jarsons and saying and whatever else. Regision is the greatest invention and fallacy of human kind and why the fuck does it have to be brought up a million times in recovery. Everbody shits on themselves for thein disgressions but then turn around and thank God for everything good in life make up your mind.

  • Patrick

    Hi there Darren

    I can answer your question: “Is addiction a disease or are you all just assholes who want to get high?”

    I know the answer to this because I used to be a young teen who had never drank or drugged in his life. Ever.

    And you know what I thought? I thought drug addicts and alcoholics were probably just a bunch of selfish assholes.

    And then I became one.

    Without even giving my permission.

    Does that answer your question?

    It should.

  • debby shaffer

    It would be better for everyone if alcohol was not so readily available.You can go into just about any store,gas station,drug stores,grocery store,ect. and pick up some form of alcohol,Ithink it would be better if it was restricted to bars,lounges, reataurants,and liquor stores also the punishment for purchasing by or selling to a minor should be a very stiff one a big fine and jail time plus time working at a alcoholic ward or rehab facility and if needed detox for the slap on the wrist and business as usual.

  • Jennifer

    I was just wondering if after 25 years of being a crack addict in and out of rehabs only goes to AA meetings to meet girls,and has now met one he’s completely in love with after 2 weeks.Could he really stay sober?Yes I’m seriously asking.

  • Patrick

    @ Jennifer – Past performance would say to use caution. I would not get your hopes up too much at this point, but you never know.

    Relationships in early recovery do not tend to work out well. Almost never. And, they can lead to relapse.

  • DJ

    I was an opiate addict, i have not relapsed its only been 1 week so far but i did it on my own and i fell great. Just have one Question if in the future a doctor or specialist was to Rx something it would be a bad idea to take it i know, but if it came to real pain and true agony would that be considered a relapse as long as taken as directed and no way else?

  • Patrick

    @ DJ – A relapse is really between you and your higher power, or if you prefer, between you and yourself only. What other people think does not matter much.

    Some people may be in pain, take meds as prescribed, and have no problems. Other addicts might do the same thing and suddenly be “off to the races.” The doctor writing the script has nothing to do with it, as you are your own best doctor and YOU are responsible for anything you put into your own body….period.

    Addicts can manipulate doctors, even without knowing it. Addicts can manufacture pain. Just a word of caution….good luck to you DJ.

  • James

    I am so close to relapse. Im almost 16 months sober. Everything in my life has seemingly went right and got corrected since going sober. but every night I dream of drinking. every night I have to deal with that shame. I havent been taking my anti-depressents lately. nor my other medication. I’ve been drinking caffeine and energy drinks that make me depressed to stay awake for classes. I havent brushed my teeth or taken a shower in awhile. I am falling apart. and I think i may fail a class that ive been trying my hardest in. I dont know what to do. I dont have class tomorrow. and I just want to go get hammered. i dont care if anyone reads this. i could give a shit less. i just wanted to say it.


  • Patrick

    @ James – hang in there man. Don’t get hammered.

    Try detoxing from caffeine completely, eat some fruit for breakfast. You might find that gives you a better energy lift, with no crash.

    People read here and they do care! Hang in there!

  • John

    Keep coming back no matter what happens. Stick to the aa program; it works.

  • MrDavidMWalker

    I think it is important for someone that is very young in sobriety to remember that it is a transitional process and it takes time to go from the lifestyle you had before to the new one that you are building. There will be anxieties, insecurities and uncertainties but they are not unique. Everyone that has gotten sober has dealt with them. Getting to a place like AA where other people understand exactly what that is like and don’t judge you for it is very important. I think what you do with all that energy you have that you where spending on your substance before is a key to success.

  • Sam

    My wife just got out of 31 days in rehab and did fine for 12 days and then relapsed on a 3 day drinking binge until I kicked her out of house. Now she seems to be working hard at recovery going to AA meetings and taking Annibuse. She wants to come back but kids don’t want her in the house and I’m scared that if she comes back before she is fully recovered she will just relapse again.
    Any thoughts?

  • melissa huffaker

    I was married for 27 years. 3 beautiful children. We divorced sadly (he had a significant other). I turned to Vodka during that horrible time. I went to re-hab. I remarried a wonderful man that was a recovering Crack /alcohol addict. I thought 2 months sobriety was good. He was clean for the first 2 years we were together. We went on honeymoon / drank & that was it. He started using Crack again & again etc. I had to divorce him. I couldn’t deal with the constant “disappearing” for days or weeks. He lost work. I’ve been the provider.
    I must say , I do drink wine. When he relapsed I didn’t drink around him at all.
    This Man was the love of my Life!!! He is only “surviving” somewhere now.
    He’s not who I married. Is there any hope? He’s been using 27 years & in prison twice.

  • Anonymous

    what is the real %

  • stephanie

    hey my name is Stephanie I’m sober now since 2 years I went to rehab for 1 year and half am from Lebanon and I start taking drugs since I was 12 now am trying my best to stay sober i have 2 brothers one went to rehab and his sober since 4 years and the other died he had over doze i live with my mom and all i need to stay so sober is satisfaction i guess am writing this may be because am not feeling good today but i don’t want to relapse i can say only one thing (i still face sadness but nothing like the pain before )

  • brandi rose

    Wow I was clean and sober 7 1/2 years no rehab, no meetings, just had a personal relationship with God and wanted my kids to know I love them, then drinking started, then within a year I was strung out on meth (intravenously) my house was raided and I lost everything except my kids!!! By the grace ofGod I still have them, I got clean 2 months later for 29 days, and 3 months later I’m still secretly using !! I can’t stop, there’s got to be something seriously wrong with my brain I’ve totally lost control over myself WTF???? Drugs suck I know this what’s wrong with me??? Whaaaaaaaaaa