The statistics for recovery from addiction might not be as bad as you think

We’ve all heard the statistics mentioned at some point – that 95% of recovering addicts will not stay clean. And we accept it, like most other things related to recovery presented by the “experts”. But is it true? I can’t possibly know for sure, but there is one thing I do know: 12-step programs, that is the usual approach to recovery used almost everywhere and relied upon by legal systems who recommend treatment for addicts, are not evidence based. (Excuse the bolded italics – pure evil, I know.)

Here’s what happens to an addict who gets into recovery:

  1. You find yourself in rehab. For the first few days, you’re probably out of it, struggling to concentrate and focus due to the sudden loss of being able to use the drug that you came to depend on.
  2. Once out of the initial “detox”, you find yourself in a strange place, where people are speaking in jargon you don’t understand. They’re all comfortable there, having formed a closed off little society of their own, and you need to fit in. (Because you’re human, and as a social animal, you need to learn the jargon, behave just like the others behave, and so you do. You adapt.)
  3. At this point, you might notice that there is no treatment going on. There may be some information about addiction and how it works – less detailed that what you’d find on Wikipedia… And if you’re lucky you might find yourself being taught basic life skills, and treated like a child. Other than that, it’s all about admitting that you fucked up and asking a “higher power” to fix you. If you’re religious, as most people are, you can simply slot this in to your existing beliefs. The god you already believe in becomes your higher power and you can apply the 12 steps to your life. Even though it doesn’t address your individual problems, you can twist it to apply to you. And besides, that’s what everybody else is doing.
  4. If you’re not religious, and don’t believe in god like me, you have a problem. You can try to apply the stuff anyway, try to make it fit, which is what I did the first time.
  5. Working on the 12 steps keeps you busy. You’re taught that boredom is the enemy, and disciplined working of the steps is the way to go. This is repetitious and time-consuming, but it also distracts you from using drugs, as well as from thinking. 12 step programs are dogmatic, and those who question the effectiveness of such programs are often thrown out of rehabs. (That’s right. If you’re smart enough to figure out that the treatment is bullshit, but dumb enough to say so, you might get thrown out of the only safe place you know. Then when you relapse, it’s totally your fault.) Thus you not only settle into behaving the same as other addicts there, but you become part of the system, showing new inpatients how to behave and stay clean. (Aside – you’ll also form bonds and friendships in rehab that may last for years afterwards. But years later, many of your friends’ Facebook pages will become shrines to them after they relapse and die. Especially the heroin addicts. It’s horribly depressing.) You can’t tell your family who aren’t addicts that the treatment is all bullshit, because as long as you go with the flow, you appear to be doing well, and the “experts” tell them you are doing well only because you are working those damn steps. Thus you find yourself in a situation where you are not getting treatment for your addiction, but everybody thinks you are, and even if you tell the truth about it, nobody will believe you. (And seeing the truth when you are surrounded by people who accept the woo, can be difficult.)
  6. At some point, you get ready to leave the rehab. You’re told about the importance of NA meetings and getting yourself a sponsor, which is where the real 12 steps begin. Maybe you’re told that you must do ninety meetings in ninety days. By this time, whether you are an atheist like me or not, you have accepted that this is the only approach to recovery.
  7. After rehab, you attend those meetings. Maybe you get yourself a sponsor. (I didn’t. But I did go in and out of this program for a few years before realizing that it just couldn’t work for me.)
  8. Those meetings start with parrot-fashion reading of the standard literature of NA. Reciting them brings comfort to many, much like reciting the Nicene Creed in church.

What I’ve described above is a process of indoctrination. Even though such programs are not based on evidence and cannot work, we are told they are the only way to stay clean. And we accept it. Most of us never try anything else, but do spread the word that this is the only way. We develop tunnel vision, using confirmation bias to convince ourselves that the program does work. When it doesn’t work for us, it’s not because the program doesn’t work; it’s because we weren’t committed enough, or didn’t take the steps seriously enough… or some other rationalization. So when we fail, we either go to rehab again, or go straight back to meetings. And if we’re lucky, maybe we manage to stay clean by finding some other way that works for us, which we then credit to the program.

There have been plenty of books published by skeptics and psychologists, making it perfectly clear that such programs can’t work. In fact, they are no better than doing nothing at all. I’m not even going to cite those books, because it should not be necessary to explain why a program that isn’t based on evidence, cannot possibly be effective. (And to be honest, I’m not interested in reaching those indoctrinated people who believe in such programs. I’m more interested in reaching others who have never tried them, and in educating those people who assume that such programs are useful, as I assumed before going to rehab.)

Of course some people following such programs do stay clean. There is no way of knowing if they would have succeeded without any such program at all though. And of course they credit their sobriety to such a program. Having credulously accepted that such programs are the only way, most addicts stuck in a loop of trying such programs, and failing, over and over again, and those who succeed, will never accept that there could be any other way.

It is within that context, of “patients” who partake in non-evidence based programs, that we have statistics of success in recovery. I quoted “patients” because they are not being treated at all.

What I’m trying to say is, the statistics often quoted have no meaning. If one accepts that such programs are no better than doing nothing at all, and I do accept that, then it is reasonable to assume that just as many addicts manage to clean up without any program at all. In fact, doing so as I did the last time around, was much easier. Nobody was telling me that I was doing recovery wrong, or was not working the steps (because I had no sponsor and never opened up that stupid fucking Step Working Guide that I bought), or that I was a dry drunk. Nobody was pressuring me and telling me I would fail because I wasn’t “truly in recovery”. (No True Scotsman fallacy.)

Being open about my past, I have met several people who struggled with addiction, and cleaned up by themselves. There’s a man I know who is 25 years clean, from a heroin addiction. There are no statistics for people like him, or me for that matter. I don’t know what the stats for recovery truly are, but I do know that I never paid attention to them to get clean myself. When going into recovery, you might be told that you are going up against almost impossible odds. Don’t listen to that kind of nonsense! Fuck those people who say it. Recovery is possible.


About Jerome

I am a senior C# developer in Johannesburg, South Africa. I am also a recovering addict, who spent nearly eight years using methamphetamine. I write on my recovery blog about my lessons learned and sometimes give advice to others who have made similar mistakes, often from my viewpoint as an atheist, and I also write some C# programming articles on my programming blog.
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