No U-Turns? Why Relapse Addiction Isn’t Failure

Though there’s been a lot of discussion about the issue, let’s take a moment and review the facts about addiction.

Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease.

Substance abuse actually alters the chemical structure of the brain. The result can be long-term changes, resulting in self-destructive behavior even after an individual has accumulated months and years of sobriety.

No U-Turns? Why Relapse Isn’t Failure

The truth is that rates of relapse among people suffering from drug and alcohol addiction are similar to other diseases, such as asthma, hypertension and Type 1 diabetes.

“Thus, drug and alcohol addiction should be treated like any other chronic illness, with relapse serving as a trigger for renewed intervention,” reports the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Addiction is Similar to Other Chronic Diseases

  • There are behavioral and biological components involved. A patient with Type 1 diabetes, for which there is no cure, must stay continually vigilant about their diet and medication. Otherwise, they will experience a swift return of their symptoms.
  • The recurrence of symptoms can happen after, and even during treatment. This informs patients with a chronic illness of the need for an adjustment in their ongoing treatment.
  • Recovery from a chronic illness is a long-term process, often requiring repeated treatment over time.

Relapse Rates For Chronic Illness

According to the National Institutes of Health, drug abuse relapse is inherent in the disease of addiction, just like other chronic diseases.

Below is a chart from the website that shows the comparison of relapse rates for Drug Addiction, Diabetes, Hypertension and Asthma.

Relapse Rate Comparison Chart

Source: JAMA, 284:1689-1695, 2000

Because addiction is like other chronic diseases, there shouldn’t be any stigma surrounding a relapse. This is a signal that an adjustment needs to be made in their continuing treatment.

Despite this knowledge, many people outside of the recovery community see relapse as a failure on the part of the addict.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this is how society views addiction and the addicts themselves.

For example, some departments of the U.S. government routinely state that addiction to drugs and alcohol is a disease.

In contrast, other governmental departments treat addiction as a crime, sentencing users to years and years of incarceration and often without providing rehabilitation or treatment.

The Stigma

There is also the stigma of mental illness. Those suffering are often embarrassed to come forward and seek help for mental disorders, such as anxiety, depression or schizophrenia. These problems, combined with alcohol and drugs, only worsen matters.

Studies have shown that the longer an individual is able to stay sober, the better their chances of maintaining recovery will be.

The greatest percentage of relapses occur within the first ninety days, which is why many treatment centers suggest patients remain in treatment after the standard thirty days is reached.

Unfortunately, many insurance carriers will not provide coverage for this, and instead expect patients to attend self-help meetings, which are not treatment.

Relapse to drugs and alcohol is not a failure because science has shown that it’s a symptom of a larger, chronic disease.

A patient with cancer isn’t shamed if their disease comes out of remission. They seek out the professional help needed to address their illness.

In addiction treatment, the goal is long-term sobriety, and the pressure to stay clean can sometimes be overwhelming.

Missteps along the way are to be expected, and do not under any circumstances mean that a person has failed. It’s time to end the stigma of relapse.

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