Generally, when an addict is sent to or voluntarily enters treatment, s/he is told to expect relapse, that returning to using is a natural part of the recovery process. While it is certainly true that many addicts and alcoholics do relapse during the early stages of recovery, to set up the expectation that relapse is perhaps inevitable undermines the treatment process. In my experience, relapse is not a necessary or expected part of addiction treatment. Rather, it occurs either because of incomplete treatment or because the addict believes so completely that recovery is impossible that s/he gives up the hope of recovery entirely.
What can be done to prevent relapse?
• Reject the idea of addiction as a disease. While there certainly are biomedical components to addiction, the disease model of addiction is not useful to addiction treatment. When someone enters a treatment facility and is told that s/he has a disease, that it is incurable and will have to be managed for the remainder of the addict’s life, to expect difficulty getting sober and a probable experience with relapse, and that early death is likely, the addict can become so demoralized that s/he decides that recovery is impossible – which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
• Instead, approach addiction as a behavioral disorder. Behaviors are things that we can change. Addiction need not be a life sentence. Millions of people worldwide have recovered from addiction. Your client can too! Addicts are already completely demoralized, ashamed, and hopeless. They don’t need more “bad news” about their condition. By being rock solid in your belief that change is possible, the addict can come to believe in your optimism too.
• Give a message of hope. Addicts understand their situations. They know they’re losing or have lost everything of value to them. They know that their family may never forgive the harm they’ve caused. They recognize that they are headed down a road that ultimately leads to death. Even if they won’t admit that to you, if they are contemplating treatment in any way, the addict you’re working with already knows. Instead of trying to motivate him/her with fear about the consequences of his actions, take a different approach; talk about hope, what the addict’s life can be like if s/he chooses recovery. We call this “loving an addict into treatment” and it has helped the treatment center I work for achieve some great (and soon to be published) results.
Addicts can and do fully recover when given proper treatment and support. Relapse does not have to be a part of addiction recovery. There is hope for a new way of life for addicts right now.