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Once an Addict, Always an Addict

What's the truth behind this saying?

Image courtesy of Marin at
Source: Image courtesy of Marin at

In the addiction recovery circles, there’s a saying: “Once an addict, always an addict."

But what does this mean? Some spouses can worry and believe because they married an addict, he will always turn to his drug of choice when temptation arises.

There are also times clients in addiction recovery misinterpret this phrase as well, thinking they will never get better or are doomed to always be “addicted” to something whether booze, drugs, gambling, sex, etc.

So what’s the truth behind this saying? Why is it even mentioned if it’s only going to discourage people in recovery?

Part of the confusion is the disease model of addiction which many believe there’s a biological origin of one’s addiction and consequently, an addict will always be at the same risk for a relapse as when he entered treatment.

But from an attachment model where relationships and how people are treated are viewed as the origin of addiction (i.e. neglectful, non-nurturing, or abusive families causing addictive tendencies), we believe you can learn to create healthy relationships (hence the need for therapy, 12-Step, or other vulnerable relationships) where recovering addicts learn tools that significantly minimize a risk for relapse.

It’s up to the client whether they want to see themselves as a recovering addict or even use the word “addict” but he/she should still be able to identify with the phrase, “Once an addict, always an addict”. Maybe not in terms of his/her identity, but more so in the potential risk of relapse.

In other words, addicts who decide to ditch what they've learned and seek solace by themselves under life's stressors instead of relying on their relationships and other coping skills are sure to relapse.

Keep in mind the risk may be extremely small when they learn the skills of developing true trust, emotional intimacy, and interdependency with others. Nevertheless, from the hundreds of addicts I’ve worked with, the phrase is still a good reminder for them to always remain cautious and never be so proud or boastful that they forget what they’ve learned in recovery, lest they return to a life of secrecy and lies likely leading to a relapse.

More from Sam Louie MA, LMHC, CSAT
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