6 Misconceptions About Relapse

Relapse is common for people recovering from addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, between 40 and 60 percent of people relapse within the first year of treatment. That number can seem pretty high, especially to people who know how much time and effort goes into completing treatment. Most people in recovery are understandably concerned about the possibility of relapse but they often have mistaken beliefs based on anecdotes or popular misconceptions. Here are some common myths about relapse that might hold you back.

“Relapse means you’ve failed.”

People with substance use disorders and their families typically have high hopes that treatment will be successful and they can all finally put addiction behind them. Treatment is time consuming and often expensive, but they know it’s worth it if the person with the substance use disorder can enjoy a long-term recovery. If relapse does happen, it can be terribly disappointing. What seemed like the one best chance of recovery didn’t work out. However, relapse is not a permanent failure, and people often do recover after several tries. The important thing is to get sober again as quickly as possible and try to figure out what went wrong. You haven’t failed to recovery from addiction until you stop trying.

“Relapse means treatment didn’t work.”

When someone relapses after treatment, it usually happens soon after treatment. As a result, it’s natural to try to place blame on the treatment after relapse. This may or may not be fair. Clearly, some treatment programs are better than others, and the quality of the program is certainly something to evaluate before trying again. However, a lot can happen between treatment and relapse. It’s possible the treatment was high quality, but the aftercare was weak. Or it could be you started out strong, but didn’t maintain your commitment to your recovery process. Maybe you encountered some major life stress before your recovery was strong enough to handle it.

There are many ways recovery can go wrong, and inadequate treatment is only one of them. One way treatment is often inadequate is that it’s too short. Longer periods of treatment, including extensive follow-up care, are associated with better outcomes in recovery. However, the standard 30 or 90 day course is often not long enough to break old habits, build healthier habits, and treat underlying mental health issues. Often, people with a history of relapse fare better in a longer program.

“Relapse is inevitable.”

Some people hold the belief that relapse is part of recovery. There is some merit in this, in that it reduces the pain and disappointment of relapse and makes you more willing to forgive yourself and try again. You don’t feel like a failure if you believe relapse is part of the process. However, critics of this view believe it sets people up for failure by creating the expectation of relapse and a convenient excuse for those who choose to relapse. What’s more, relapse can be extremely dangerous, since that’s when overdoses tend to occur.

Whichever position you hold, it’s clear that relapse should be avoided if possible and it does seem to be possible. If 40 to 60 percent of people relapse within the first year after treatment, it also means 40 to 60 percent don’t relapse in the first year. That’s very good news because if you can stay sober for a year, your risk of relapse falls considerably. An eight-year study of more than 1200 participants found about two thirds of those who were abstinent for less than a year relapsed. However, after a year, that risk dropped to less than half and after five years, the risk of relapse dropped to less than 15 percent.

“Relapses happen without warning.”

There’s this popular idea that someone can be sober for a long time, then he loses his job or runs into an old friend, and the next thing he knows, his recovery is destroyed. That may happen occasionally, but typically, relapse is a gradual process with distinct phases–emotional, mental, and physical. In the emotional phase, you feel like something is wrong. You might feel depressed, cynical, or resentful. You might start neglecting important parts of your recovery. In the mental phase, you start thinking about using again. You might have cravings, start reminiscing about when you used to use, look for excuses to relapse, or even plan to relapse. In the physical stage, you actually start using again.

The further you get along this process, the harder it is to turn back. This is why emotional awareness, emotional regulation, and coping skills are so important for recovery. The sooner you become aware that something is wrong, the sooner you can make adjustments and prevent relapse.

“Dreaming about relapse means you are going to relapse.”

Dreaming about relapse is fairly common, but it’s typically nothing to worry about. Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital studied more than 2000 patients recovering from addiction and found that about a third of them had relapse dreams after starting recovery. In these dreams, they would typically use drugs or alcohol, feel immediate disbelief or remorse, wake up and feel relieved that it was only a dream. While these dreams are distressing, the study found that relapse dreams are mainly an indication of the severity of substance use, as they were far more common in patients who had sought help for addiction.

“A relapse means you have to start over.”

While a relapse can be extremely disappointing and discouraging, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to start over from scratch. It’s true you have to go back to “day one” sober in your 12-step meetings and start to work the steps again, but you should also remember all the advantages you have now that you didn’t have last time. These include all the insights and skills you gained from treatment, all the sober friends you made in treatment and at meetings, and the knowledge of what the process is like. These can make it much easier to get back on track and try again.

Burning Tree provides programs specializing in long-term residential treatment for clients with a history of drug and alcohol relapse. Our long-term approach and extensive aftercare programs help clients break the cycle of relapse and transition to healthier, more fulfilling lives. Contact us for more information or visit the websites of our three locations: Renewal Lodge, which offers a 90-day treatment program, Burning Tree Ranch, which offers year-long treatment.


We are here for you and your family. You don't have to suffer any longer, find recovery today!

We are in-network with 15+ health insurance providers.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.