Why Do Recovering Addicts Relapse?

Man thinking about relapse.

If one were to do a cursory survey or study of the most commonly asked questions about drug and alcohol addiction, it is very likely that the most commonly asked question would be, “Why do recovering addicts relapse?” If it wasn’t the number one, most asked question, it would certainly make the list of top ten.

This is absolutely one of the greatest puzzles and confusions of addiction. And it is a quite miserable and unpleasant confusion indeed. It is miserable and unpleasant because it gives people the feeling that there is never an answer or a correct way out of a substance abuse problem. It gives people this sensation that addiction is permanent and that freedom from drug and alcohol addiction is not within reach for them. Not an entirely accurate feeling, but a feeling that thousands of people get every year nonetheless.

In a way, it is totally understandable for people to feel this way. The family members and loved ones of drug addicts and alcoholics put in all of this work and effort and time and financial investment in getting their loved one into addiction treatment and in going through all of the stress of convincing their loved one that it’s the right thing to do, only to have their loved one go back to drug use and alcoholism after getting out of rehab.

There are few things that create as much despair or unhappiness in a person than having a loved one relapse back on to drugs and alcohol. It is a misery like no other, not only for the addict himself or herself but also for the family members and loved ones of that individual. So let's explore why recovering addicts relapse, what causes it, and the steps that can be taken to prevent it from occurring.

What Causes a Relapse

First, let's look at what causes a relapse. A relapse is defined as the revisitation back to drug use or alcoholism or a combination of the two, primarily after one has experienced some degree of sobriety or freedom from those substances. There are a few different factors that can cause a relapse to come about. We’ll go over these below.

Unaddressed Trigger Mechanisms and Underlying Issues

Woman crying, divorce.

One factor is that the individual did not properly address all of the various underlying issues and trigger mechanisms in rehab that caused them to use drugs and alcohol in the first place. This is a huge factor. Any person who misuses drugs and alcohol is suffering from various behavioral and psychological and even spiritual mechanisms that cause them to keep using drugs and alcohol, even when they know they should not continue with such dangerous habits.

So, if a person is not able to properly address all of those mechanisms while in treatment, and when that person is potentially leaving some of the stones of their addiction habit unturned in the process, this then could result in catastrophe in the form of a relapse later on down the road. The person might feel all right for a while, right after completing treatment, but after a given time of sobriety, they may find themselves struggling with some hidden and previously unaddressed trigger mechanism or underlying issue that they never went over while in treatment. This can bring on a relapse.

Not Enough Time in Treatment

Rehab time and calendar

Another factor is the consideration of time. The amount of time an individual spends in treatment can make or break their recovery. This is actually a huge flaw in the vast majority of addiction treatment centers in our country. Most treatment centers only offer a program that is about twenty-eight days long. Some might be a week or two longer than that, and some might be shorter, but almost all of them are basically about that length of time. Unfortunately, twenty-eight days is nowhere near long enough to overcome a drug or alcohol habit.

Think about this from the perspective of logic. From a logical perspective, how could one possibly come to overcome a habit that has been a crucial part of their lives for several years and all in only a matter of a few short weeks? Twenty-eight days is hardly enough time to fully detox and withdraw down off of drugs and alcohol and actually feel clean physically, much less feel clean mentally and spiritually. And the bottom line is that most drug rehabs only offer a twenty-eight-day program because that is what most insurance policies will pay for, which is really the nitty gritty of many drug rehabs out there. It is not exactly thinking with what is best for the individual.

On the other hand, some drug rehab programs offer long-term services that are in excess of twenty-eight days and which even border several months to a year. These programs are able to give a recovering individual enough time in the program to fully overcome and vanquish all aspects of their addiction habit.

Not Taking Steps Towards Stable Sobriety After Rehab

Woman in a bar.

Yet another factor that can play a role in relapse is that a recovering addict does not take the necessary steps after they complete treatment to guarantee their sobriety. What a lot of people do not know is that drug and alcohol rehab is not meant to be the entirety of one's recovery process. Even with a long-term program, after a recovering drug addict or alcoholic gets out of rehab, there is still work to be done. A recovering addict has to make a complete life shift towards an overall better future.

A recovering individual need to get into a different environment than they were in before, and they need to get around different social networks and friends. They need to get away from toxic people or places that might inspire a relapse. Furthermore, they need to engage in aftercare. A recovering addict should always be working on themselves, reading books, engaging with their support network whoever that happens to be (usually family members and loved ones), and constantly striving for self-improvement. When recovering addicts don't do this, they can start to backslide into their old habits once again.

Working Hard to Live a Relapse-Free Existence

These are some of the circumstances and situations that can cause a relapse. This is why it is of the utmost importance that, when one is getting off of drugs and alcohol, they do it the right way. Just like with anything else in life, there is a right way and there is a wrong way to handle addiction. When people do it the right way, they will get a good result and they will be able to live a pleasant, relapse-free existence. Struggling addicts need to know these points before they enter into treatment so they can be sure to do it the right way. And furthermore, the family members and loved ones of recovering individuals need to know these things as well. Total freedom and a relapse-free lifestyle are absolutely attainable, but in that same token, there is absolutely also a right way and a wrong way of going about it. Recovering addicts and their families need to ensure that the right way is the approach used.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.