Too many people still believe that alcohol use disorder is caused by a moral failing. They think that if only the person had enough willpower they would be able to cut back or quit. Someone who has months or years of sobriety may be looked at as a failure if they relapse.
In reality, alcohol use disorder, AUD, is a chronic, relapsing disease, similar to cancer or diabetes. There is no cure for addiction, but treatment can help people go into remission. Just like these other conditions, though, neglecting to treat addiction can lead to relapse.
However, someone with cancer or diabetes isn’t seen as a failure when they experience a relapse in their disease. The same applies to individuals with AUD. In the event of a relapse, it has nothing to do with morality or worth. It is a symptom of the disease and presents an opportunity for learning and growth.
In the past, most people didn’t understand alcohol use disorder. They didn’t understand that it represented a compulsive problem, not one of choice or willpower alone. This led to incredible stigma, shame, and guilt for people battling AUD. These feelings of shame along with the negative stigma made it harder to find help and remain in recovery.
Thankfully, modern medicine understands that addiction is a chronic disease. Research shows that it is a complex condition characterized by compulsive and risky substance use despite the resulting consequences. Understanding why someone relapses requires a deeper understanding of addiction as a whole.
The human brain is responsible for all activity from functions such as breathing, to interpreting stimuli, to experiencing emotions. Alcohol inhibits these functions and interferes with the normal processes of the brain. Substances interact with various signals or mimic the activity of neurotransmitters. They replicate the good feelings you experience during fun activities like spending time with friends or eating a good meal.
The difference is substances take these “good feelings” and magnify them tenfold. They create intense feelings of euphoria or pleasure on command. This drives the brain to seek out these feelings over and over again which creates more cravings.
Over time, these behaviors destroy natural brain functions and cause it to rely on substances to feel good. Activities that once caused pleasure are no longer enjoyable, leading people to feel depressed and lifeless without substances.
Some treatment programs may lead one to believe that they’ll keep the client from relapsing ever again. While this sounds great in theory, the reality is much different. Again, alcohol use disorder is a chronic, relapsing disease. Experiencing a relapse at some point is common.
Relapse is not a reason to feel ashamed. It’s not a reflection of morals or character. It is not a result of “not trying hard enough” or “not doing enough work.” Research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) shows that 40 to 60% of people trying to get sober experience at least one relapse following treatment. This is pretty close to the relapse rates of other chronic illnesses, such as the 30-50% rate of relapse following diabetes treatment.
Just because relapse is common doesn’t mean it’s an excuse to regularly return to alcohol. Alcohol use is still dangerous. Addiction does not “go away” and the likelihood of learning to control drinking is slim.
In an ideal world, treatment would provide everything needed to never drink alcohol again. But that’s not reality. Recognize that recovery is a lifelong process. It doesn’t end when treatment is over. It doesn’t end when one stops drinking. It requires ongoing work and dedication to remain alcohol-free.
Like every journey in life, there will be setbacks and hurdles. Not every day will be perfect. Difficult times are inevitable. By keeping recovery a priority, sobriety is attainable. Even after a relapse, there is no need to feel ashamed. Simply recognize that it was part of the process and continue moving forward in recovery.