The Success Rate of Traditional Recovery Programs

The Success Rate of Traditional Recovery Programs


One of the interesting things about addiction and recovery is when you look at the numbers. How many people actually find sobriety out of all of those who attempt to change their lives? Much has been said about this particular issue but it is difficult to get good data when it comes to success rates.

There are a number of reasons for this.

For example, assume for a moment that you attended a 28 day treatment center. You are assigned a therapist and you come up with an aftercare plan. Then you leave treatment and you start going to AA meetings and maybe you continue to do some counseling. Months pass and eventually you finish up with your aftercare program. Then after six months you get a survey in the mail that asks you how you are doing with your recovery. The main question is: Are you still sober, or have you relapsed?

If you really think for a moment and put yourself in the place of having relapsed, and you are looking at this survey, what do you do? How many people in that situation would really admit to having relapsed and fill out the survey and also send it back in? How many people who actually relapsed are going to follow up and make sure they send back accurate data?

If you are being honest with yourself about this then you know what feeling is going to play a role in all of this:

Shame. People who relapse after treatment are ashamed that they relapsed. And this is going to skew the statistics when people try to track the success rates.

Sure, some people will outright lie and say that they are still sober when in fact they have relapsed. But even if those people never come out and blatantly lie, the statistics will still be skewed and it will be difficult to get accurate numbers.

This is mostly because the response rate will be much lower for people who have relapsed, and much higher for people who have remained sober. And yet when you have large groups of people out of the survey who don’t respond at all, you either have to make assumptions about those people, or you have to disregard them entirely. And even if you simply disregard those people who do not respond, you are skewing the results of the survey quite badly. Because most who don’t respond are people who relapsed.

See the problem? The problem with getting good data on recovery success rates comes down to shame. The feeling of shame makes it very difficult to get accurate numbers.

There are other complicating factors as well. But this is the biggest hurdle to getting accurate numbers.

First of all, why do success rates vary so wildly? What is really going on?

If you look around the web to try to see some success rates for various treatment centers, you will find everything from 3 percent or less all the way up to 100 percent successful. Obviously the truth has to be somewhere in the middle of this, right? I mean, how could one rehab center boast a 100 percent success rate while another government study is showing that certain rehabs only have about a 3 to 5 percent success rate? What in the heck is going on?

Believe it or not, there are many ways to measure the success of treatment.

Stop and think about it for a moment. Let’s say you have 30 people come into an alcohol detox center and then go through a 28 day residential program. You want to follow up with these people and find out if they were “successful” or not. So how do you do it? How would you design the survey?

Would you check with them 30 days after their treatment ends? What about 90 days? Six months? A year later? Three years later? How long defines “successful?”

What if the person abstained from their drug of choice, but maybe used an alternative drug in that time period? Are they “successful” or do you count that as a full relapse?

Everyone leaving the rehab program is assigned an aftercare treatment. What if they fail to follow through on their aftercare and then they relapse? Do they count against your success rate? Maybe they shouldn’t because they did not really “complete treatment” as they quit going to aftercare. So if you wanted to make your numbers look better, you would not necessarily have to count those people who relapsed. After all, they did not follow through! Hint: Many treatment centers that boast of high success rates do this very aggressively. They “disqualify” people who relapse using various techniques.

So it is not necessarily easy to quantify and qualify what exactly constitutes successful treatment. There are plenty of grey areas involved and lots of room to play with the data in order to suit your own needs (or to make your treatment center appear to be more effective).

Because of this, you could have one group of people who measure the success rate of a certain treatment center and they could come up with a completely different success rate than another reviewer. It all depends on what is being measured, how they measure, how the survey is conducted, and all of the assumptions that go into it.

Normally if you just think “what is the success rate of treatment” you would think that a nice neat number should pop out for that question with no real issues involved. But it is necessarily complicated and you have to make lots of assumptions no matter what you decide on. It’s tricky.

Is there a magic treatment center out there that yields vastly improved results based on secret techniques that other treatment centers don’t know about?

If you talk with the general population about addiction and alcoholism, you will see that the question posed above is a common belief among many people.

We all sort of have this assumption that there are people out there–scientists or governments or medical professionals–who are far more advanced than the rest of the world. We assume that the technology and medical advances that we know about are just the tip of the iceberg. There must be so much more advanced things that are going on in secret that is just beyond the scope of our own knowledge, right?

I think we all sort of think that way. If only we had a billion dollars, we could afford the very best treatment in the world for whatever the current problem is that we may be facing in life. Surely the ultra rich have better resources than what we are given to deal with this problem, right? That is the assumption that we all make in our minds.

But when it comes to addiction, this assumption is dead wrong.

The answer is:


There is no magic rehab center where they can get really good results over all of the other rehabs. That is a fantasy. It doesn’t exist.

If you need evidence of this, just look at some of the tragic celebrity stories when it comes to addiction and alcoholism. These celebrities often have extreme wealth, and what does that buy them when it comes to overcoming their problem?

It buys them nothing. Absolutely nothing. Their wealth does not help them one bit in treating their affliction.

Addiction and alcoholism are the great equalizers. The disease of addiction does not discriminate. You can be homeless and begging for money in the streets, or you can be a pop singer with millions of dollars, and it makes no difference. Either person can suffer from addiction. Either person can get help at a rehab, do the hard work on themselves, and turn their life around.

Is it easier for the homeless person or for the celebrity? Is it easier if they go to a luxury rehab center, or to a homeless shelter that includes a detox?

I believe the real answer to those questions is:

It doesn’t matter.

Not much anyway. Oh sure, it might matter a little bit. It might make a slight difference what your background is, and where you go to rehab, and all of those details.

But that’s just it: Those are details. We think that those are important points, but they are not.

What is important?

Surrender. Taking action. Asking for help and getting humble.

Notice that these things are important regardless of whether you are the homeless person or the wealthy celebrity.

Notice too that it doesn’t matter where you check into rehab, or how nice of a facility it is, or any of those other paltry details.

All that matters is your surrender and your willingness. Are you done drinking and drugging for good? Are you ready to ask for help, to take advice, to do what is suggested? Are you willing to do the work, to take an honest look at yourself, to confront your inner demons? Those are the things that really matter when it comes to sobriety.

We would like to think that picking just the right treatment center will make a huge difference. We would like to believe that if we had billions of dollars that we could pay for a better rehab program and that they would offer a much higher success rate.

I don’t believe this to be the case.

Treatment is important, and every struggling alcoholic and drug addict should attend.

But don’t get hung up on the details. Don’t believe that your fate hangs in the balance if you choose the wrong treatment center.

Just get on the phone and make an appointment and take action. Surrender. You will get to where you need to be, trust in that.

My aversion to traditional recovery–justified or not?

I have always had an aversion to traditional recovery programs. Specifically meaning AA meetings in general.

I was afraid of them, to be honest. I was afraid of being put on the spot. I didn’t like it. I did not like the tension. I had some amount of anxiety.

But I got to a point in my addiction where I no longer cared about the fear. I was just too miserable to care. So I went to rehab and I started going to AA meetings.

I attended them for about 18 months or so on a daily basis. After 2 years I quit going entirely. I have been sober now for over 13 years though.

I still don’t like the idea of sitting in an AA meeting. It would still give me some amount of anxiety. Not terrible, I can get through it obviously. I can even speak a bit if I press myself. But it just never got any easier for me, even though I forced myself to speak at meetings and even to chair a meeting for year straight in the beginning.

It never got any easier.

And my philosophy of recovery shifted. I did not want to depend on daily AA meetings to keep me sober, so I started to look elsewhere in terms of personal growth. The big question for myself at the 18 month sober point was, can I sustain my recovery without going to meetings every day? And if so, how do I do that?

Because to be honest, everyone told me at the time that I pretty much had to attend AA meetings for life in order to insure my sobriety.

I later found that to be false. First of all I noticed that some people who continued to attend meetings actually relapsed. Sure, they came back to the meetings after relapsing, but that did not change their outcome. And I did not want that outcome. I wanted to remain sober for the long haul. But this opened me eyes to the fact that simply attending meetings every day was no insurance of sobriety.

So I slowly drifted away from the meetings and in doing so I forced myself to “pick up the slack.” So here I was, no longer attending AA, and I felt like I had to take positive action. So I started to explore my options and ask people what they did outside of AA. I started to learn that most people who were doing well in AA actually had a holistic approach to recovery. But they never talked about it! Many of the people that I looked up to in AA meetings were actually working a very holistic program of recovery. For example, they often exercised, and this was usually a big part of their routine. Why didn’t they talk about this in AA? I realized later it was because most people don’t want to hear it. They don’t want to come to AA and be told that they need to get out there and exercise every day and to stop being lazy! No one wants to hear that. They would rather hear: “Just keep coming to these meetings, and your life will magically get better and better.” When I put it like that, it sure sounds like a recipe for complacency, doesn’t it?

I know that AA definitely helps a lot of people, but for me it seemed to be leading to a certain kind of complacency. So I made a decision and I shook things up and I figured out how to pursue personal growth outside of AA. That was over a decade ago. Everyone has this option of course, but the key is not that you go to AA or you don’t go to AA–that is not the point here. The point here is really “personal growth.” You can be complacent in AA and you can also leave AA and become complacent. The thing that kills alcoholics is not leaving AA, it is the complacency. And so that is what you have to watch out for. Are you still growing in your recovery? Whether you attend AA meetings on a regular basis is completely beside the point. It doesn’t really matter–if daily meetings work for you then keep going! But are you still growing, are you challenging yourself to improve as a person, and is daily meeting attendance helping you to pursue that vision for yourself? That is how you have to measure your success in recovery, in terms of personal growth and positive action.

In other words, if you are in a recovery program, beware of complacency. Don’t get stuck. If you are stuck, start taking some suggestions in order to get back into positive action. Find the next big goal for yourself, and get to work on it.

Fundamental principles of successful recovery

The successful people in sobriety are moving forward. They are making progress. They are taking positive action.

There are certain fundamental principles of recovery like surrender, personal growth, and positive action. If these are a driving force in your life then I don’t think it matters much where you went to treatment or how many meetings you attend each year.

We are either moving forward in our sobriety or we are stuck. There is nothing in between these two states.

Much grief exists because struggling alcoholics and drug addicts believe that there is a state in between “recovering” and “relapse.”

There is no state between the two. There is a definite line in the sand, and on one side of that line is “recovery” and on the other side is “relapse.”

If you try to find a middle ground so that you can be lazy and coast along in your life then you will fail. You will relapse.

There is no shortcut to easy sobriety.

If you want easy then you just relapse, and life will become difficult again. And miserable.

If you want happiness and peace and contentment then you have to work for it. Put in the effort. Surrender and ask for help. Go find treatment and give it an honest effort. Listen to the advice you get and follow through. Do the work. Get honest with yourself and with others. It is not easy and it takes real work and real effort.

The bonus is that if you do this hard work then the rewards of sobriety are truly massive. Your life will slowly turn around and some day you will be much happier sober than you ever were before.

Let me be clear: If you do the hard work in recovery you will one day be happier than you have ever been in your past. Both during your addiction as well as before your addiction. You will know a new happiness and peace that you never even knew existed. And that will be really awesome for you!

Unfortunately you have to pay a price to achieve this new happiness. You have to get humble, ask for help, go to treatment, and do the work. It is so much easier to just go back to your drug of choice and say “screw it all, screw everything.” But that results only in misery…..

Any treatment is better than nothing at all

In the end, you can forget about success rates entirely.

Ignore all of it.

Look at me, I was a hopeless drunk and I wanted to die because I was so miserable from alcoholism and drug addiction. I was using every drug I could get my hands on along with huge amounts of liquor. I wanted to die.

Here I am now at over 13 years clean and sober. My life is amazing today. I have a peace and contentment today that I never had in my life, even before my addiction existed.

I started out in a traditional rehab. I started out with AA meetings. I started out with a 28 day program, even though it wasn’t “perfect.” And it didn’t matter, because I was at the point of surrender. Just for me, and just for today, my success rate is 100 percent.


  1. Awesome article. Doing the hard work and knowing that I am worth that effort makes all the difference in my recovery. Thank you

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