Does Addiction Ever Really Go Away and is an Addict ever Cured?
Addiction is extremely difficult to overcome. Beating addiction often requires intensive inpatient programs that last for weeks, followed by many years of maintenance activities like going to group support meetings.
Conventional wisdom is that an addict is never really “cured” of addiction. Even if they feel no physical symptoms or urges to use, and have put themselves in the best environment possible, it’s still generally recommended that they continue to attend support groups or meetings at the least.
It’s certainly not bad advice to keep up these maintenance activities, as they can’t hurt. However, from a physiological perspective, is it ever possible for an addict to be “cured” of their addiction?
How Addiction Forms
To answer this question, it’s important to first understand how addiction develops.
Mind-altering substances with addictive potential actually re-shape the brain’s neural network over time. In other words, it messes up the body’s basic communications system at a fundamental level. The “high” from these substances is due to the brain being flooded with neurotransmitters, at a volume and for a duration that is not natural.
The brain physically alters its structure to compensate for this unexpected flood of neurotransmitters. Once that happens, the addict is in a state of physical dependency, and will no longer feel normal unless this unusually high level of brain chemical activity is maintained.
Recovery is the process of trying to restore the brain to something approaching its normal state so that the addict stops feeling cravings and withdrawal symptoms while they are clean. Except in extreme cases, this usually does get significantly better over time. If the addict can get through the roughest stretch of initial withdrawal, they usually find that the cravings and unpleasant symptoms do reduce to a manageable level over time, and sometimes go away entirely.
However, the official position of groups like the National Institute on Drug Abuse is that fully curing addiction is not always possible. There are two major issues here. The first is that the changes to the brain may simply be too great to fully recover from, especially in cases of long-term addiction. The other is that the underlying issues that drove the person to substances in the first place also have to be successfully treated to keep them clean.
The Best Chance for a Cure
Drug addiction recovery statistics paint a grim picture at first glance. Study results vary greatly but have seen relapse rates of over 90% for highly addictive drugs such as heroin. SAMSHA puts the average relapse rate for all addictive substances at about 40 to 60%.
However, these statistics include all people suffering from addictions, whether or not they have sought proper treatment. What percentage of addicts that stay clean rises sharply when they undergo a medical treatment and ongoing maintenance program. For example, studies have found that addicts who go through detox and then immediately enter an ongoing treatment program while living in sober housing are 10 times more likely to stay clean than those who simply detox without ongoing care.
A good treatment program accounts for at least one relapse as a statistically likely part of the process and has a plan in place to deal with it. While no one can guarantee that addiction can ever be completely cured, proper treatment has been demonstrated to lead to a life in which it is very manageable.