Relapse After a Long Period of Sobriety: Causes and Prevention

Relapse After a Long Period of Sobriety: Causes and Prevention

Published on March 31, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

While it may be true that we know more about addiction now than ever before, there are still many unanswered questions about the scientific and medical complexities that involve substance abuse.  We know that addiction is both a physical and psychological condition and that with treatment, recovery is possible.

However, it is more difficult to say for certain whether an individual who achieves sobriety will continue to abstain from drugs and alcohol for the rest of their life.  Studies show that an increased length of sobriety is associated with a higher long-term success rate, however, there are individuals who relapse into substance abuse after decades of sobriety.

If you or someone you love have been sober for a significant amount of time and you feel you are past the early risk factors associated with relapse, it is important to understand the causes and signs of relapse that can occur at any point going forward as well.

How Often Do Long-Term Sober Addicts Relapse?

When we witness someone who has been sober for more than five, ten or even twenty years that suddenly experiences an extreme relapse, perhaps even an overdose, it can be incredibly discouraging to those who are new to sobriety and their loved ones.  This is especially true when a relapse is highly publicized such as in the case of a high-profile celebrity.

It may seem like addiction is a hopeless condition, and that nobody is capable of true recovery. The truth is that relapse in long-term sober addicts is incredibly rare, occurring in less than half of those who stay sober for more than a year, and less than 15 percent of those who can make it to five years of sobriety. 

However, there is a lack of research regarding the chances of relapse for those who achieve long-term sobriety, mostly because most studies focus on helping those with addiction become sober and overcome the most immediate obstacles in recovery.

However, for the small amount that do experience relapse after a significant period of sobriety, or even for those who run into unexpected cravings after becoming free of these urges for a long time, it is important to understands that these incidents are not the mark of failure or hopelessness, but may just be a reminder to get back on track.

Common Causes of Relapse After Long-Term Sobriety

For those who have been sober for a long time, meaning however long it takes for you to feel secure in your ability to turn down drugs and alcohol, it can be easy to let your guard down.  You may go days, weeks, or even months without even a thought of substance use, and you may be able to easily decline an offer that would lead you astray.

However, many people like to think of addiction as a disease that may become dormant but is always there waiting for an opportunity to once again control your body and mind.  This opportunity may come in the form of stress, physical pain, or grief.

Being aware of these common causes can help you to prevent relapse when life inevitably brings hardship and change. Many people find their way back into addiction after experiencing an illness or injury that leads to the use of opioid pain relievers. 

Whether your drug of choice was once opioids or not, those with a history of addiction are usually advised to avoid these highly addictive medications.  A doctor who is unaware of a patient’s history with substance abuse may prescribe these drugs for pain, which can lead to a relapse.

Additionally, any substance that artificially stimulates the brain’s reward system can serve as a slippery slope to the abuse of other substances. Dealing with extreme stress is another common reason people who have been sober for a long time may return to substance abuse.  The death of a loved one, financial struggles, retraumatization or family conflict can all be a source of intense emotions, and without the proper tools and resources to cope with negative feelings in a healthy way, substance use may show up again in an individual’s life. 

When these events occur, it is important for those with a history of addiction to utilize every tool at their disposal for guidance and support, such as group meetings, therapy, and addiction counseling. Those who have experienced trauma in the past and exhibit signs of PTSD should be especially aware of anything that could trigger an episode which may lead to substance use. 

If you or someone you love may be at risk of relapse after a long period of sobriety or have already fallen back into substance abuse, it is important to seek professional help as soon as possible to prevent addiction from once again wreaking havoc on your life.

The First Responders Treatment Program at Simple Recovery uses trauma-informed strategies to cater to the unique needs of law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders with substance use disorders and co-occurring mental illnesses. We recognize that first responders encounter job-specific barriers and obstacles that come with the culture of their careers, and that existing stigma may make seeking help for addiction and mental health issues especially difficult.

Addiction does not have to mean the end of your career or a lifetime of struggling with your health and relationships. By taking a holistic approach to treatment and addressing the underlying causes of addiction, Simple Recovery makes it possible for first responders to regain control of every aspect of their wellbeing.

First responders dedicate their lives to protecting their community, and at Simple Recovery’s First Responder Treatment Program, we believe in dedicating our time and expertise to helping these strong and compassionate individuals find a path to lasting sobriety and mental wellness.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, call us now at 888-743-0490.