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The Lifecycle of Addiction and Recovery

The Lifecycle of Addiction and Recovery

Addiction problems seem to be something that comes to everyone’s attention because of the crises that it causes. Possibly the first few crisis situations pass by and are excused to circumstances but soon enough of a series of crisis shows there is a deeper problem. At the time that people first become aware that addiction could be an underlying cause of these crises, it is really important to understand as quickly as possible how recovery works. Failing to understand this in a comprehensive way early will allow the problem to persist for much longer than it needs to with devastating and debilitating consequences. Unfortunately, getting friends and family to agree on what needs to be done can be quite a challenge, which we will reference in another article. Let’s focus here on what the ‘lifecycle’ of addiction looks like and what we can learn from that in terms of the correct interventions we should make.

At the point when someone first develops a problem with addiction, there is a phase where they encounter problems from the addiction and make a series of attempts to stop on their own. On average this period lasts about 5 years. These first few crises could be things like being caught drunk driving, being caught in possession of drugs, being repeatedly late for work etc. Any one of these on their own could just be bad luck, but a succession shows there is a deeper problem. After an average of 5 years of these ‘self-initiated cessation attempts’, the person asks for outside assistance

At the point where someone first accepts the need for outside help, they may have a number of treatment episodes, residential treatment, day-care and self-help support. From here it takes on average about 8 years before someone can successfully achieve one continual year of sustained abstinence. That may sound a bit dispiriting but it must be emphasised that the overwhelming majority of this period of time is spent abstinent, it’s just that getting to the point where that lasts consistently for more than one year takes time. 

Finally, once one year of abstinence has been achieved, it takes a further 5 years until the risk of relapse drops below 15%. The reason this figure is so significant is that 15% is that this is the same risk percentage that the general population have of ever developing an addiction problem in the first place, so if our group have gotten down to a risk of 15%, then at this point in their recovery they are at no more risk than the general population.

So what can we learn from understanding this Lifecycle of Recovery?

  1. In the first phase, there is a good opportunity for outside agencies such as doctors surgeries, lawyers offices, A&E departments and even friends and families to help bring the problem into someone’s consciousness earlier. The earlier that they can be helped to see it is a problem, the sooner they can get to the next stage and ask for help.
  2. During the second ‘treatment’ phase ( the 8 years of early recovery ) it is important not to become to dispirited or to be dragged up and down by the relapses. Don’t distract the process by looking for miracle treatments. This is a process, it will take time and lessons can be learned as they progress but rather than feeling that it isn’t working or something completely new has to be tried, it is more helpful to congratulate them for the progress made so far and to move back to recovery as quickly as possible. The sufferer may feel shame and the family may feel angry and frightened. These are times for cool heads and kind hearts.
  3. Even once a year of recovery has been achieved, the first five years are still a risky period. It is important to maintain recovery during this time and for everyone to be aware of the risks. After 5 years continued abstinence, it is also important to acknowledge that the sufferer can be trusted to be in remission from their problem and trusted to behave as responsibly as any other member of society. Constantly monitoring or treating with suspicion will have a negative consequence. We must all embrace this new life.

References: This chart and data is taken from a talk given by Professor John F Kelly of Harvard Medical School


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