What percentage of recovering people never relapse?

This is one of those questions that we would love to be able to answer, but we can’t.  It would be great if we could keep track of people’s successes, because the ability to do so would be useful not only in evaluating treatment programs, but also for developing a better understanding of addiction itself.  Relapse is very much a part of addiction.

There are programs, and a variety of other sources, with figures that range from 15% to 75% for eventual sobriety — not necessarily on the first try.  However, there are several factors that tend to make us look toward pretty low figures for sobriety without a relapse.

One of those is simple observation.  While perhaps not statistically valid, all of us who have spent time around the 12-step rooms and/or worked in the treatment field have seen the number of folks who come in looking for help, contrasted with those who are around a year or so later.  Although those who have been through treatment seem to fare better than those who have not, it is also true that the folks with forty and fifty years clean and sober have rarely been through what we would call “treatment” today, simply because it didn’t exist back then.

Another indicator is the number of people who repeat detox and other treatment.  Again, this is not statistically significant because we don’t know what happened to those we never saw again.  Did they stay clean?  Did they relapse?  Did they die?  And if they didn’t stay clean, how long were they abstinent before using again?  Did they get clean again?  We simply don’t know, unless they tell us.

Equally, the rooms of AA, NA and the other recovery groups are not useful for gathering information.  It’s that doggone “A.”  How do you track people who are in anonymous programs?  The 12-step programs don’t even keep track of membership, beyond the occasional list of (voluntary) phone numbers.  If you’re clean, and going to meetings, you’re a member.  You resign when you leave.  If a person who has been attending meetings disappears, they may have relapsed — or they may simply be going to a different meeting.

Finally, there’s the question, “What is relapse?”  It’s not correct to say that it’s simply picking up a drink or other drug.  It occurred before that, or we wouldn’t have picked up.  Using just makes it official.

So there’s no way to answer that question with accuracy — in numbers.  But I can tell you who is least likely to relapse.  It’s the person who wants sobriety and recovery more than anything else in the world.  Because recovery isn’t about abstinence, it’s about dealing with life without using, and those who aren’t willing to work at learning those skills are unlikely to make it in the long run.

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