There is life after addiction – “Most people recover”
It’s been 3 years since the world changed with Covid, and reading different research and articles from around the world about addiction, are we improving in the way we treat addiction?
For instance, the U.S. faces an unprecedented surge of drug deaths, with the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reporting another grim milestone this week. In a single 12-month period, fatal overdoses claimed 101,623 lives.
But researchers and drug policy experts say the grim toll obscures an important and hopeful fact: Most people who experience alcohol and drug addiction survive.
They recover and go on to live full and healthy lives.
“This is really good news I think and something to share and be hopeful about,” said Dr. John Kelly, who teaches addiction medicine at Harvard Medical School and heads the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Kelly co-authored a peer-reviewed study published last year that found roughly 22.3 million Americans — more than 9% of adults — live in recovery after some form of substance-use disorder. A separate study published by the CDC and the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2020 found 3 out of 4 people who experience addiction eventually recover.
“So that’s huge, you know, 75%,” Kelly said. “I think it kind of goes against our cultural perception that people never get better.”
Life after addiction isn’t just possible – it’s the norm
People often see the more destructive side of addiction, drug crime, people slumped in doorways and family members who are not improving, living on the streets, a burden to society. Less visible are the people who survive the illness and rebuild their lives.
“We are literally surrounded by people who are in recovery from a substance-use disorder, but we don’t know it,” Kelly said.
Addiction is hard to beat, and that leads to stigma
Researchers say this data — and the many stories heard about lived experiences — contradicts a widespread misperception that substance-use disorder is a permanent affliction and often fatal.
The negative, and often sad realisation that many do die from addiction, there are many also at any given time recovering from this, and continue to change their lives. The stigma is still there, the old – fashioned ideal that people can’t change what they are, “once an addict – always an addict”
So why is this ailment often characterised as intractable & hopeless?
Recovery experts say one reason is the fact that addiction is agonising and hard to treat. Studies show people usually recover, but the process can happen slowly after multiple relapses. It typically takes eight years or longer to achieve long-term remission even with high quality treatment and medical care.
After the healing, a better life
Recovery rates aren’t the same for all people. There are stark differences in how the body and brain respond to alcohol and different drugs. Studies also show racial bias makes it harder for some groups such as indigenous or lower socio economic status to find treatment. People in rural areas tend to have less access to health care. Many factors can impact on the rates of people accessing treatment. We are continuously seeing more people with mental health issues presenting, and the comorbidly factors can also impact on the recovery rates of individuals.
Meanwhile those with more financial resources or milder forms of addiction often heal faster. But even people who use harder drugs for long periods do typically recover.
“That 75% number [of people who achieve remission] includes obviously people at the more severe end of the spectrum,” said Dr. David Eddie, who co-authored the study on recovery success and also teaches at Harvard Medical School. “So, there is absolutely hope.”
Indeed, most people don’t just survive addiction. Research suggests they often thrive in long-term recovery, reconnecting with family and enjoying economic success.
“They end up achieving things they wouldn’t have achieved if they hadn’t gone through the hell of addiction,” Eddie said.
Researchers say these hopeful findings are significant because they might inspire people to keep attempting recovery even after they endure multiple relapses.
“That can be a challenging thing to face,” Eddie said. “How do you keep getting back on the horse after repeated attempts that have failed?”
“Nobody recovered from addiction dead. My feeling is if we can keep people alive long enough, we know eventually the majority get recovery,” he said.
Recognising that even though the stigma makes it difficult for people to seek treatment or get support even from their families, people are reaching out, and asking for help. Not only is addiction talked about more around the world, – but recovery is too. Recovery could be its own epidemic.
There is hope, there is help and a new and thriving life is possible for anyone who is attempting to change their lives from addiction.
“I have all the good things in life that everybody talks about,” he said. “I’m worthy of that too. Once you get to that place it’s pretty liberating.” (Anonymous client statement)