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Relapse: How Often Does It Happen for Long-Term Recoverers?

relapseRenewed media interest in addiction often happens when a celebrity is arrested or dies of an overdose.[1] The recent death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who was noted to be abstinent from alcohol and drugs for 20 years, has raised another interesting set of questions:

  • Do people who get sober stay sober?1
  • Are recovering addicts always at risk of relapse?1
  • Is there a period when they are considered to be cured?1

Unfortunately, cases like that of Hoffman’s often diminish hope and create a perception that addiction isn’t treatable.1 However, this isn’t true—it certainly is treatable.1 There is hard evidence regarding the probability of a person’s duration of sobriety.1 The majority of people who stay sober for a long time will continue to stay sober.1

An eight-year study of 1,200 addicts is the most thorough attempt that science has to help understand relapse.1 It was found that extended abstinence predicts long-term recovery.1 Results showed that while only one-third of people who were abstinent less than a year will remain abstinent, if they make it to five years of sobriety, their chances of relapse dropped to less than 15 percent.1

There are many who have 10 to 40 years of abstinence under their belts.1 However, what happens to these people over time?1 Does the relapse rate stay low or does it increase later on?1 Unfortunately, we do not know.1 There isn’t much funding to study long-term abstinence in addicts, as much of the funding is for helping people achieve and maintain sobriety.1 It would be extremely helpful to learn more about what factors protect people from relapsing and what predispose them to returning to using, especially after such a long time sober.1

What we do know is that, like Hoffman, people who have been sober for decades can and do relapse, but the number is often very low.1 It can be triggered by chronic pain subscriptions and major life stressors.1 It is a devastating occurrence, but it is important to remember that it is the exception—not the rule.1

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