Relapse and Recovery

Demi Lovato released the song ‘Sober’ at the end of June, a confession to relapsing after six years of sobriety. And by the end of July, she had been hospitalized for an apparent drug overdose. For some, it was quite a shock to hear someone who has been such an advocate for addiction and mental health awareness to relapse after such a long time. But it does happen. Relapses are, unfortunately, part of recovery. But why?

My sister has struggled with addiction for nearly two decades. I have watched her go through the cycle of using heavily, going to jail, going to a 28 day rehab, and then returning home to the same life and trying to live it sober. After 7 years of this cycle, it hasn’t happened yet. She has yet to make it one year clean and sober due to countless relapses. I had to educate myself on addiction and recovery to understand why this happens.

What most people fail to understand or accept about addiction is that it is, in fact, a disease. People go through these periods of intense drug use where the drugs hijack and rewire their brain. That doesn’t come undone from a few months in jail and/or a 28 day rehab stay. That is why it is a lifelong commitment to overcome addiction due to the changes that happen in the brain. I wrote about this in a blog a couple of weeks ago. For a refresher, check it out here: Knowing how drugs reprogram the brain may help you in understanding why someone who has any amount of time sober, whether it be a few weeks, years, or decades, can relapse. Let’s look at what we know about Demi Lovato:

In 2010, she entered treatment for addiction, bipolar disorder, eating disorder, and self-harming. She relapsed after she left the treatment center, then went to a sober living facility for one year. In March 2018, Demi celebrated 6 years of sobriety. So what happened between the sober living facility and the release of her song ‘Sober?’ As more news started to come out after her overdose, we learned that Demi wasn’t ‘working her program.’ She had fired her coach and was surrounding herself with people who were not necessarily the most supportive of her staying clean, according to recent news articles.

70 – 90% of recovering addicts who have completed an addiction rehabilitation program will experience at least one relapse before they are able to stay sober for an extended amount of time. Most of the time, major relapses occur within the first 90 days of abstinence because the brain is still suffering from the rewiring process that drugs cause. It takes time to heal this damage. This is why 90 day programs are recommended over 30 day programs. (

Recovering addicts will also be less likely to relapse as they accrue more and more time sober, which has been proven by many studies. It has been found that 1 in 3 people who have been sober for less than one year will remain sober indefinitely. After 1 year of sobriety, the number of people who remain abstinent increases to 50%. That number again increases to 85% after achieving 5 years of sobriety. ( Even after 5 years, the possibility is there. This puts Demi Lovato’s relapse and overdose into perspective because statistically, we know that it can still happen to anyone who has been sober for 5 years or more.

Reading those statistics may seem frustrating and scary. It is important that addicts and their families should not live in fear because of these statistics, but instead, know that the possibility is real. And also to have a plan. A recovering addict’s reaction to a relapse is indicative of a person’s strength of conviction, perseverance, surrounding support, and commitment to change. (

There may be signs leading up to a relapse, such as remembering how much ‘fun’ it was to drink or do drugs, making cravings difficult to deal with. You may worry about about how you are going to live without drugs or alcohol for the rest of your life. Feelings of isolation may become more frequent, especially if you feel like you have no one to relate to what you are going through. Some feel impatient during the recovery process, and wonder why they don’t feel ‘better’ yet. And in the case of my sister, you may feel overconfident that you can face triggers without relapsing and that you no longer have a problem since you have so much time sober.

It is also important to know that a relapse does not mean a failure. It means you need to adjust your plan of action. Remember, this is a disease. Diseases require maintenance. You may have to fine-tune your treatment, just as anyone else suffering a disease would. The important thing is to not fall into a downward spiral, and seek help right away. Interestingly enough, relapse statistics for addiction is similar to those with diabetes, hypertension, and asthma statistics on relapsing from their medications.

If you or someone you know experiences a relapse, consider increasing therapy or counseling sessions. Maybe join a support group, attend them more often, or find a sponsor. A relapse can also make you realize that perhaps you need to involve yourself with people more supportive of your sobriety. Starting an exercise regimen can also be beneficial. You can also talk to a doctor about medications, especially if you experience a co-occuring disorder.

Recovery is about more than just fighting addiction. It is finding a whole new way of life. That can be incredibly hard and overwhelming. For those who used drugs or alcohol to escape their problems, they now have to face those problems head on. They have to feel things they may not want to because they can’t self medicate with drugs or alcohol. They have to work on relationships they may have strained during their active addiction. Even finding a job may be a part of building that new life.

Recovery is complicated. Most people think that an addict can go to rehab and come out ‘fixed.’ But it isn’t that simple. You constantly have to evaluate how well your treatment is working for you, be aware of triggers, situations, and/or people who may not be good for you, and work on rebuilding your life. You also have to abstain from drug and alcohol use to repair damage to your brain.

The news of Demi Lovato’s relapse and overdose were hard for me. It can make you lose hope if you are an addict or if you have a loved one suffering from addiction. But it also brought this conversation to the table. We sometimes tend to put the focus on getting someone help and into treatment so they come out sober. But then what? Are they cured? Demi’s situation has us talking about relapses and recovery, and what comes after the initial treatment.

I hope that one day, my sister leaves treatment and stays clean. But I also understand the disease she is fighting. And that she can’t fight it alone. Through the relapses, no matter how many there are, I will always provide a source of support in her journey through recovery should she need it.

“You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.” – Margaret Thatcher