What Percentage Of Addicts Stay Clean For The Long Term?


Medically, addiction is known to be a “chronic and relapsing disease” according to the nationwide research and the UK’s National Health Service. What this definition means is that one or more relapses are a highly expectant occurrence due to the nature of the disease. So, what we want to know, what percentage of addicts stay clean for the long term?

Unfortunately, Not Even The Best Treatment Programs Provide A 100% Safety Net, Or Prevent Addicts From Relapsing.

According to a study published in 2000, relapse rates for addiction in the first year after stopping are between 40 and 60%; this is similar to other comparable long term health conditions such as asthma, hypertension and type 2 diabetes. The only difference being is that us as addicts are the ones in control of our outcomes and whether we do what we need to do in order to succeed or do the bare minimum and risk becoming yet another statistic.


So… What Percentage Of Addicts Stay Clean And/Or Sober After A Year In Recovery?

The first year of recovery is often considered to be the hardest and most unpredictable time because the recovering person is still adjusting to make and maintain many of the lifelong changes that they will need to make if they want to succeed for the long term. Many addicts didn’t become such overnight and likewise, making the vitally important changes that are needed take time too. Thankfully, the longer a person stays clean and sober, the lower their relapse risk becomes.

This is why the phrase “taking one day at a time” is so important, and yet it is often understated and undervalued in it’s importance to addicts!

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The first few years are also a time when a recovering person might stop attending and no longer gain from their ongoing benefit and nourishment for their physical and mental health. Thus doing so increases their risk of a lapse/relapse by not actively taking part in their addiction prevention maintenance plan or program.

According to one study from 2006, the relapse rates for people based on a 16-year analysis can be as low as 20%, suggesting that relapse rates tend to reduce as time passes, but it is still heavily reliant on actively managing an addiction through relapse prevention plans and aftercare programs such as the 12-step program.


So, Does That Mean That Treatments aren’t Effective?

A really common misconception about the high relapse rates after receiving residential or community based treatment is that a lapse/relapse means that the “treatment” has failed or that treatment was ineffective. However, what percentage of addicts stay clean doesn’t have a real bearing on the effectiveness of treatment.

Instead of calling it “treatment”, shouldn’t we really be calling it healing. The word treatment provides a connotation that treatment will cure us of our condition. It doesn’t. It simply provides us with an opportunity to see our misgivings, provide us with the tools to live life in a wholesome and natural way, free from our dependency to substances, and also to provide us with opportunities to overcome some of the difficulties that led us to substances in the first place.

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To better understand why treatment is not considered a failure if relapse occurs, we must first examine why lapses/relapses tend to happen in the first place. One of the biggest reasons why a person may relapse is often due to their belief that they no longer needed to actively maintain their recovery, abstinence and sobriety once they complete their inpatient or community treatment program. A person recovering from drugs and alcohol may deem it unnecessary to continue to go to support group meetings, fellowship meetings, meditate, journal, exercise, eat well and follow their relapse prevention plan after being clean or sober for weeks or months. This more often than not ultimately leads them to relapse.

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To understand why this is the case with addiction recovery, we must look at other chronic, relapsing diseases with similar relapse rates, such as hypertension (high blood pressure). If during treatment for hypertension, the symptoms become manageable, and treatment is deemed effective if the person then decides to stop their maintenance of the disease via the use of medication and relaxation techniques among others, then symptoms will likely return fairly quickly, often worse than the first time round. Yet that doesn’t mean that treatment isn’t effective, it just means that the effective treatment plan and applying techniques and strategies to manage this condition was abandoned.

Addiction works in the same way; by not continuing to follow through on the long-term relapse prevention and addiction management strategies, techniques and plans, one opens up to the possibility of their symptoms returning.

It’s really important to try and avoid relapsing in the first place. Not only because it causes you an unnecessary stress and toll on your body, but it also opens up the real, deadly possibility that you may overdose and die as a result as your tolerance to substances is reduced or eliminated completely.

When you enter treatment/therapy and make a personal commitment to yourself that you’ll never drink or use again, you MUST ensure that you stick to it, no matter what!

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How Can Thoughts & Cravings For Drugs & Alcohol Lead To A Relapse?

Nobody purposefully intends for a relapse to occur and they may even come as a surprise to you when they occur, however this isn’t the case. Relapses often happen as a result of prior occurrences that led up to the relapse actually happening. In other words, they don’t just suddenly happen out of the blue, and happen as a result from situations that snowball. A single thought or physical action can trigger a cascade of events that eventually lead to the relapse actually occurring if it isn’t identified and rectified quickly and early enough:

  1. The trigger: People who struggle with alcohol or drugs often have triggers that they associated with using or drinking in the past. For example for some people, it might be a location such as a certain bar they would have drunk in, or it could be a beer advert on TV, and when they see an ice cold, glass sweating pint of cider in the advert, it may trigger thoughts of drinking again or promote past memories when they sat in a pub garden last summer drinking cider. Or for drug addicts, it may be a certain road or even something as little as a specific time of day when they would have ordinarily used or scored from their dealer. Being around past triggers can trigger a person to start thinking about drinking or using again. These will be unique to each addict and what triggers one may not be a trigger for another.
  2. The thought: The way you think about a trigger can determine whether you continue on to relapse. For example, it’s common for people to mentally justify having a drink by allowing themselves to have thoughts like, “I’m around my old friends and I’ll only have one drink as I can control it.” or “one quick spliff with my next door neighbour won’t hurt.” These type of thoughts are red flags that can make a person may be more likely to relapse when they struggle with alcohol. Applying techniques to manage and challenge these types of thought’s will be a powerful tool in your arsenal of coping strategies.
  3. The craving: Once you’ve open the floodgates and given yourself mental permission to exit abstinence or sobriety, it can be very difficult to control your drinking or using. You may find yourself drinking for longer than you intended, or drinking more than you intended. This left unchecked will ultimately lead to drinking or using bigger and bigger quantities and stronger and stronger amounts.
  4. The actual relapse: Guilt, regret, shame, powerlessness and hopelessness are common feelings after a person in recovery has had a drink or used again after stopping for a period. They may think they are a failure and are unable to maintain abstinence or sobriety and loose hope in trying again. These negative thoughts can then reinforce the “slip-up”. Further, they then feed into a sense of hopelessness that can lead to the person continuing to drink, possibly convinced that they are now unable to stop and that is isn’t worth trying again.

Remember – You can’t argue or justify using or drinking again if you agree with yourself and stick to a rule that you WILL NOT touch any drug or alcoholic product again, under any circumstance.

This way, not matter what your mind tells you or tries to convince you into doing, it won’t win!

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What’s The Difference Between The Types Of Relapses (Slips, Lapses & Relapses)?

Several types of relapses exist. Knowing which one you are facing can help you prepare yourself to overcome the situation and re-enter sobriety:

  • A Slip: A slip is a single instance of drinking or using after you have been abstinent. It is a one-time only situation.
  • A Lapse: A lapse is several smaller instances of drinking or using after you have achieved abstinence. It means that you have drunk or used more than one alcoholic beverage or drug, but you have not returned to your previous alcohol usage patterns.
  • A Relapse: A relapse occurs when you not only start drinking or using again, but also return to a similar, or often worse pattern of alcohol or drug use.

How Can I Do To Avoid A Slip, Lapse Or Relapse?

The longer you abstain from alcohol or drugs, the better your chances of long-term success will be. The key is to understand drugs and alcohol relapse statistics, know your triggers and constantly and consistently work on ways to avoid a relapse by continuing to make an active effort to continue your recovery program and not pick and choose which bits you’ll do or avoid. As with anything, the more you work at it and the longer you work it, the better you’ll be at identifying problems and rectify what’s wrong before you actually, and ultimately relapse!

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If you find yourself in a crisis and are scared you may relapse, there are several steps you can take to avoid a slip, lapse or relapse and the main golden oldies are below:

  • Call Someone… Anyone: This may be a sponsor, family member or friend. A supportive listener can help talk you through your cravings and help you decide not to drink or use drugs. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone close to you, you might want to consider reaching out to someone you don’t know and who don’t know your story or situation. Organisations such as Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous can help through their fellowship meetings, you can also contact us at Drink ‘n’ Drugs or your local community drug and alcohol service.
  • Make Yourself Wait For 30, 40 Or 60 Minutes Before Drinking Or Using: By forcing yourself to wait over a certain period of time before having a drink or using, you’re allowing your thoughts, emotions and reactions to settle, and your cravings to lessen. With time, cravings and urges do fade and dissipate to nothing. Mastering this crucial skill is an important one to keep in your addicts toolkit.
  • Think About The Consequences Of Your Actions: Taking some time, even just 5 minutes to remember the reasons that drove you to seek sobriety and abstinence, what’s motivating you to change, the positives you’ll gain and the negatives that you’ll get rid of as a result of your actions. This can give you an opportunity to perceive things from a different angle that may not have been obvious at first when emotions are high and reactions are snappy. This may help you choose to avoid drinking or using in that situation.
  • Stay Clean & Sober One Day At A Time: By focusing on staying clean and sober in the present moment, instead of for months or years at a time, you’ll give yourself a manageable and achievable goal to avoid drinking and using in the short, medium and longer term.

Effective Short & Long Term Solutions

We have established why a particular percentage of addicts stay clean and sober doesn’t have a bearing on the effectiveness of treatments available to addicts seeking recovery. Rather this stresses the importance and the need for continued maintenance of the disease that addiction is.

If you’re struggling with your addiction to substances, get in touch with us! You can also find contact information for a wide range of charities, groups and organisations who can help you on our help and support page here.


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Published by Drink ’n’ Drugs

Providing useful, relevant, up to date information and support for those suffering from active addiction or those who are in recovery.

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