What “Relapse Is Part Of Recovery” Means

by Joshua Hoe

Sometimes people ask me why I say (or what I mean by) “Relapse Is Part Of Recovery.”

Here is what that statement (I hope a radical statement) means to me:

* There is no one path to recovery – it took my twenty years (or more) to find the right tools and right support to get sober

* Some people don’t get sober in one try. In fact, the majority of people I know in recovery did not hit one “bottom” and become magically healed

* Some people who are sober for decades lose sobriety. Often people who have radically improved recovery still act out occasionally. But almost always, much less than they did before they found recovery.

Mostly it means that recovery is an ongoing process and not a “cure.”

Why do I feel this so passionately?:

* Most of the legal edifice still sees response to addiction through a lens of personal responsibility and tough love. Shame and isolation are the largest triggers for most addicts and no evidence suggests that hard-line approaches work.

In fact, most evidence shows that the War On Drugs and War on Addiction have been a MASSIVE failure and that the best response is a Harm Reduction approach.

* The world is talking about a political opening for reforms, but most of the offered reforms seem absurd to me. Why?

They are all based on a magic bullet + tough love approach to the problem

What do I mean by this?

People assume that they have solved addiction by sending a person to rehab.

Once they have been to rehab, you have shown you care and given them a chance, but now it is “on them.”

Most of the reforms suggest something like – sentencing that forgives a first-time non-violent offender.

But what happens when they relapse?

Back to personal responsibility, shame, isolation, prison, and tough love.


* For most addicts – one trip to rehab, going to a 12 step program, and attending therapy will not cure them.

Odds are good that it will help a great deal, in fact, it might massively reduce their acting out (but it might not).

But, even in the best case scenario, that does not mean it is now “back on the addict” again. Addiction is not a moral failing.

This does not give addicts a license to commit crimes while addicted, but it does mean that being addicted should not be a crime.

One thing we 100% know is that nobody knows what makes people quit.

Nobody, not the experts, not the recovered, not the media.

* Tough Love approaches are almost always a disaster – You will hear anecdotal evidence of people who were “saved” by tough love, but what those people never reveal is the trail of human wreckage left behind in tough love’s wake.

But, what this style of recovery does is give non-addicts an excuse to cut ties and treat addicts as if they are socially dead.

“We Tried,” they say.

But what you tried, was something very unlikely to work because isolation and shame are prime triggers for acting out behaviors.

What you tried was unlikely to work because addiction is a disease, and it is not “cured” by personal responsibility.

In fact, and here is the part nobody wants to hear, it is not “cured” at all.

It is managed and coped with over a lifetime. Just like diabetes is managed and coped with over a lifetime. But the good news, is that with therapy, 12-step meetings, sometimes medicine, and support, it gets better. The baseline for better is not zero.

What you tried also often does great harm, just look at the decades of tough love torture Sheriff Joe Arpaio has gotten away with in Arizona.

Has his keeping addicts in tent cities, wearing pink t-shirts that mock their struggles, kept in the 120 degree heat outside all day and all night solved addiction in Maricopa County (I used to live in Maricopa but if you want to read more about this read Johann Hari’s excellent book Chasing The Scream)?

I will not get behind any of this so-called “reform – movement” until people start listening to the science and research not the politics (and start making sense).

To me, this is all just more of the same.

Let me know what you think about the sentencing reform movement, about tough love approaches, and about if relapse is part of recovery. The only think missing from this post is your voice, leave a comment!


6 thoughts on “What “Relapse Is Part Of Recovery” Means

  1. I appreciate your expanding on the term here Joshua–me being one of the ones who would ask how relapse is a part of recovery. This (along with many multi-media sources out there, I’m thinking most of the Klen + Sobr podcast) is helping me to expand my recovery horizons. This will, in turn make me more helpful to others and make my life richer. So thank you.
    I find I cannot disagree with the subtler points you make. I agree with each one. I was raised by ‘tough love’ so it’s what I know, although I can believe from experience in what you say about it.
    Still, somehow for me, the small sums that agree with don’t agree with the whole you’ve found. But I am willing to chalk this up to semantics and grow and learn more about the program of recovery (and the MANY paths we take) to get there.
    Have a great weekend! Thanks for some thought-provoking posts!


    1. Mark,

      There are so many paths, all of them are valid if they work for someone. What I am opposing is the assumption that tough love = recovery. For many people, and I have seen the wreckage, it does not.

      I myself spent 20 years as a hammer searching for the right nails. I tried a million things that did not work before I found things that did. I think of recovery more like a “chronic” disease and less like a curable disease. For a small few, help solves all problems.

      More diabetes than cancer.

      Thanks for the kind words,



    1. Ken, I have said many times on this site that “recovery” should be the goal of recovery. IMHO people who are engaged in recovery live a better quality of life than those who remain outside of recovery or sober but circling the drain.

      I don’t believe sobriety is the goal of recovery. I often get other 12-step people upset when I say this, but I do believe it is true.

      I am not sure how I feel about the link dropping (unless it is a two-way street). But, I do admire the hustle :). Thanks for the comment and for taking the time.


      1. Feel free to return the link dropping or to delete my links. I won’t do it again without asking. 🙂

        I’m still finding my voice as far as my writing goes, but the ideas are ones I desperately want to have an extended discussion on. I think we agree on a lot.

        I think I enjoy making the graphics for my blog more than I like writing it.


      2. Ken, it is totally fine as long as you also allow the same on your comments section, sorry to be that way. Blogs should help each other out.

        I wish I could do graphics at all, not my strength, not even a little bit my strength lol.



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