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.