M.R. asks: I’ve heard that relapse is a “normal” part of recovery. Is that true? How likely is it that someone will relapse if they have several years clean and sober?
It’s more unlikely that people with a number of consecutive years in recovery will relapse, compared with people who are in early recovery and have a year or less clean and sober. That’s because the longer a person remains abstinent from the mind-altering substances or mood-altering behaviours that they used before to not have to deal with life, the more experience they develop to take the ups and downs of life in stride.
That said, what really matters here is not the quantity of time spent in recovery. What matters is the quality of that time. Recovering addicts need to learn how to take care of themselves in healthier ways – physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. This needs to be a daily, ongoing, holistic practice. As an addict in recovery with 35 consecutive years clean and sober, I have watched people I’ve known and cared about relapse, and sometimes overdose, after having 10+ years in recovery – and it has been heartbreaking for me every time it happened.
For some addicts, there can be a difference between simply not using and actually being sober. To me, sobriety means that we are doing the inner work it takes to become self-aware and self-respecting enough to remain abstinent from addictive behaviours regardless of what is going on in our lives – no matter how tempting it might be at any given moment to stray from that intention. No matter how much clean time an addict may have – from any addiction – if we stop taking care of ourselves holistically, we all run the risk of relapsing.