In the throes of addiction, it can feel like you’re all alone. Sometimes you may even feel that you’re not strong enough to overcome those demons at all. But the statistics tell a much different story — one of widespread and rampant addiction across the country. In fact, according to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 40 million people aged 12 or older battled an addiction — also known as a substance use disorder — in the past year. To provide some context to that number, that equates to 14.5% of the population.
Within that group, 28.3 million people had alcohol use disorder, while 18.4 million people battled illicit drug addiction, and an additional 6.5 million people struggled with both alcohol and illicit drugs.
If you or someone you love is included within those numbers, don’t lose hope. Studies show that about 75% of people seeking recovery from a substance use problem are either in recovery or have achieved their goal. However, we know that everyone’s definition of recovery is different, which leads us to the question we hope to answer today: can you fully recover from addiction?
Defining Substance Use Disorder
Before we get too deep into aspects of addiction and what recovery looks like, we wanted to provide a clear definition of a substance use disorder. According to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, substance use disorders “are characterized by impairment caused by the recurrent use of alcohol or other drugs (or both), including health problems, disability, and failure to meet major responsibilities at work, school, or home.”
In arriving at the number of people aged 12 or older who had at least one substance use disorder over the 12 months prior, the survey asked respondents a series of questions about alcohol and illicit drug use. To receive a substance use disorder diagnosis, respondents must have indicated the presence of two or more of 11 different criteria. Many of the criteria involve behaviors that you might expect, such as taking more of an addictive substance than an individual had planned, being unable to stop using an addictive substance, or spending time, effort, and money to secure more of the addictive substance.
What Addiction Does to the Body
One factor that makes a substance use disorder so hard to overcome is the toll that addiction takes on the body. Let’s start with the brain, the organ that controls all of our bodily functions and the body part that undergoes the most significant change with addiction.
One interesting thought that has recently gained steam within the medical community is that addiction to both drugs and drug-free activities are derived from the same activity: the desire to feel good or feel better. What doctors and researchers now believe is that an addiction to something like gambling or shopping and an addiction to opioids are both essentially harmful attempts at escaping discomfort.
Still, the ramifications of continued drug use and abuse can be highly destructive. Substance use affects the brain’s neurotransmitters, causing chemical changes and the release of excess levels of dopamine. While that discharge of what’s called the “happy hormone” might feel good initially, in time, the brain needs more and more of the substance to achieve the same level of pleasure. That’s how many substance use disorders develop, as the brain engages in a quest for the next “high.”
In addition to the brain, addiction and prolonged substance use can impact other parts of the body. Heart disease, liver failure, cancer, and kidney failure are some of the most harmful effects internally, while acne, skin lesions, and hair loss are also often associated with addiction.
Relapse During Recovery
Beginning the recovery process is a monumental step toward living a healthy and productive lifestyle. But one thing to remember is that recovery takes time, and relapsing during this process is common for those attempting to beat a substance use disorder.
While relapse is commonly used to refer to any return to substance use during recovery, it’s often misused and mischaracterized. A relapse is best described as a complete continuation of an addicted person’s former actions. This includes taking larger amounts of the substance or spending a great deal of time obtaining it.
What people often confuse for relapse is actually a slip or a lapse. As the words themselves suggest, this is a temporary setback that includes a return to substance use, but not for a prolonged duration. Still, a lapse can easily progress into a relapse if the person in recovery does not have a firm commitment to living a clean and sober life.
Research indicates that the average number of attempts before an individual reaches long-term recovery is five. However, we should mention that the median number of attempts was just two. That means outliers who may have severe addictions or several addictions at once are amplifying the numbers.
Further, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that 40 to 60% of patients in a drug addiction treatment program will relapse. In some cases, this is caused by the biological changes to the body that occur after prolonged use. For others, it’s the result of stressful situations arising at work or at home or even environmental cues like certain smells or sights that trigger a craving to use drugs or alcohol.
Whatever the cause — or the severity of the lapse or relapse — you should know that it’s not an indication of failure. The National Institute on Drug Abuse likens treatment for substance use disorders to that of other chronic diseases. For instance, a patient with hypertension may lower their blood pressure and improve their health by exercising regularly, reducing the sodium in their diet, and stopping smoking. But when they discontinue those behaviors, their symptoms will likely reoccur. The same can be said for steps taken to overcome a substance use disorder, such as entering a treatment program and committing to cognitive behavioral therapy.
What are the Signs of a Relapse?
The most obvious indication that an individual has relapsed is directly witnessing their substance use but as you likely know, people with substance use disorders are often skilled at using in secret. Other signs of a relapse that may be easier to spot include a sudden change of priorities, isolation, restlessness, irritability, and a withdrawal from friends and family.
If you come across someone who you believe has relapsed, the first thing to do is remove them from the situation and monitor them for signs of intoxication or overdose. If the person is undergoing treatment, be sure to inform their counselor of the relapse and offer up any help you’re willing to provide in aiding them through detox or by transporting them to an appropriate facility. Perhaps most importantly, make it abundantly clear how much you care for the person and that you’re there to help.
Is It Possible to Fully Recover from Addiction?
As we mentioned above, the road to recovery after a substance use disorder can be a long and tenuous one but recovering from addiction is possible for those who are dedicated to their journey.
Luckily, addiction isn’t a lifelong sentence, and living a fulfilling life after battling a substance use disorder is still possible. In a landmark study on Americans who successfully resolved an alcohol or drug problem, researchers discovered that quality of life significantly improved and psychological distress decreased as their recovery prolonged.
Additionally, about 80% of people tallied at least one noteworthy achievement related to self-improvement, family engagement, civic, and economic participation in the time since overcoming their substance use disorder. That meant buying a house, furthering their education, or building a successful career, all actions which can yield long-term happiness for years to come.
Two of the authors in that landmark study, David Eddie and John Kelly, both of the Recovery Research Institute and Harvard Medical School, provided additional details in an article for STAT. Titled “People recover from addiction. They also go on to do good things,” Eddie and Kelly’s article in the health, medicine, and life sciences news outlet makes it clear that addiction is a highly treatable disorder.
“These results challenge commonly held beliefs about the nature of substance use disorder as a constantly recurring condition with little room for improvement. The reality is that this disorder has a good prognosis and is typified by significant improvement over time in recovery,” Eddie and Kelly wrote.
The pair did note that the longer a person remains in recovery, the more accomplishments they are likely to achieve. That increase is a direct reflection of a person’s success in improving their quality of life, which results in additional achievements.
Though research in this area is relatively limited, researchers have proven that it is possible for brains damaged from years of addiction to return to what they once were. When comparing an image of a healthy brain with that of someone who misused methamphetamine, the images are vastly different. Yet, when you compare that same healthy brain with a brain of an addicted person after 14 months of abstinence from methamphetamine, researchers can clearly see that dopamine transporter levels in the brain’s reward region are nearly completely restored.
Despite that promising research, brain function caused by prolonged substance abuse may still lead to behavioral consequences, especially with regard to impulse control. For example, brain hypoxia, an event that causes the brain to receive insufficient oxygen, is a common product of overdose from opioids and can cause long-term impairment. Substances with neurotoxic effects could also increase a person’s risk of suffering from neurological conditions as they age.
It’s important to remember, also, that addiction is a chronic condition that can never be “cured.” However, individuals can reach a long-term and lasting recovery where they experience few to no cravings for addictive substances and where they are able to live productive, sober lives.
No matter the substance, overcoming an addiction is hard. As any treatment center counselor will tell you, recovery is not a one-and-done event. It is a lifelong process, and the only way to be successful at it is to make it a priority every day.
The Importance of Undergoing Treatment for Addiction
Because of the nature of addiction, attempting to quit using substances abruptly and without professional guidance has a very low success rate. Not only does the “cold turkey” method lack efficacy, but it can also be dangerous. Abruptly quitting addictive substances can cause harmful side effects during the detox process, including seizures, irregular heart rhythms, and even death. Those lucky enough to avoid the more serious side effects are still likely to experience discomfort like nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, shaking, and muscle aches.
A much safer and more effective option is to enroll in a substance use disorder treatment program that helps clients address their health holistically. There are several different types of treatment programs available, each with varying degrees of oversight aimed at addictions across the severity spectrum.
- An inpatient treatment program is the most intensive and strict level of care as patients reside on-site at a facility and are monitored around the clock.
- Partial hospitalization programs don’t require the patient to live at the facility, but patients must be in attendance several days per week for most of the day.
- Intensive outpatient programs are ideal for those who are comfortable balancing treatment with a job or family life.
- Last, outpatient treatment is the least strict of the treatment tiers, with patients maintaining their independence and visiting the facility just a few hours each week.
It’s also common for patients to progress to the less intensive programs as they work their way through recovery.
As the National Institute on Drug Abuse says, “No single treatment is appropriate for everyone.” Treatment should be tailored to the patient’s specific needs and circumstances, but there are some common threads that occur in most treatment plans for substance use disorders.
Most centers will begin by performing clinical assessments to gauge the severity of a person’s addiction, using those findings to help develop the patient’s treatment plan. Therapy is a significant part of addiction treatment, with patients often expected to participate in both individual and group sessions as part of cognitive behavioral therapy. Therapists and treatment center staff will also discuss ways to help repair relationships with friends and family that may have been damaged due to addiction.
Another vital aspect of substance use disorder treatment is developing an aftercare plan, a strategy for how the client will work toward reaching their life goals. Continuing with 12-step meetings and counseling and giving back by sponsoring someone new to recovery are frequently included as part of aftercare plans.
Being an active participant in recovery should be celebrated and recognized for what it is: a new opportunity and a chance for a fresh start. Gratitude is a critical part of the process, and we always encourage those working their way down the road to recovery to be thankful for each day. Mindfulness techniques like yoga and meditation are excellent ways to stay centered and look within and have also been proven helpful in preventing relapse.
You may read online about various success rates of treatment centers, but the reality is that the number of variables involved in addiction treatment makes it hard to fairly analyze those numbers. These rates can fluctuate wildly based on the substance in question or the duration of time since the patient completed treatment.
It’s true that discontinuing substance use is always the goal of entering treatment, but it shouldn’t be the only goal. In addition, we always like to see clients find mental, physical, and spiritual health, rekindle or establish valuable relationships, stay active with hobbies that aren’t associated with substance use, and improve their performance at work or school.
Addiction treatment centers are designed to equip patients with the tactical skills needed to bring an end to their substance use and reach the big goals that make someone a well-rounded and productive member of society. That’s a benefit that quitting cold turkey simply can never match.
Rising Phoenix Wellness Services Helps People Overcome Addiction
We are a licensed mental health and substance abuse intensive outpatient program in Scottsdale, Arizona, with extensive experience in assisting those who need it the most. Offering a welcoming and nurturing environment, we provide a unique approach to treatment that caters to both substance use and the psychological issues buried deep beneath the addiction.
We believe dual-diagnosis treatment is the most effective way to set patients up for prosperity within the pillars that make up our lives, including our health, community, society, finances, and culture. Clients in our program receive drug and alcohol tests up to twice a week, which we feel helps patients prioritize their health and ensures accountability.
If you or a loved one needs help, we have an admissions advisor available 24-7 to assist and answer any questions you may have. Contact us when you’re ready to begin the road to recovery.