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The Biggest Lies in Recovery, pt. II: Recovery Failure

by Thaddeus Camlin, Psy.D.

The Biggest Lies in Recovery, pt. II

woman feeling like she failed in recoveryThis week’s topic is the second installment in a series exploring lies that have permeated the recovery culture.  Last week’s article challenged the lie that success in recovery is perfect abstinence.  This week’s article challenges the closely related lie that most people in recovery fail.

I often hear people toss around arbitrary and unfounded statistics in recovery like, “only 10% of people succeed,” and that deviations from perfect abstinence inevitably lead to “jails, institutions, and death.”  The bad news is that “professionals” sometimes contribute to the spread of these unhelpful lies.  The good news is that the lie that most people in recovery fail is unequivocally false.

People often say that numbers don’t lie.  The recovery numbers tell a truth that stands in stark contrast to the idea that most people in recovery fail.  For example, 99.2% of people achieve lifetime remission from a cocaine use disorder, 97.2% from a cannabis use disorder, 90.6% from an alcohol use disorder.  When I share these numbers most people don’t believe me, even when I cite my sources (see Lopez-Quintero, Hasin, de los Cobos, Pines, Wang, Grant, & Blanco, 2011).

The numbers tell us the undeniable truth that most people recover from substance use problems.  The latest diagnostic manual (DSM-5) even states that an alcohol use disorder is “often erroneously perceived as an intractable condition,” and that the average person has a “much more promising prognosis” (p. 493).

Not only do most people recover, there are specific, established ways to speed up and increase the likelihood of success in recovery.  Providing secure resources such as housing, family/social support, employment, and education help people succeed.  Unfortunately, the prevailing mentality in the recovery industry encourages people to take away resources in order to “help” someone struggling with a substance use problem.  It is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit that most people recover in a culture that encourages unhelpful tactics like ‘tough love’ and perpetuates the lie that most people fail.