While some people might think addiction is a choice, the truth is way more complicated than that. And, despite common misconceptions, addiction recovery is never a straightforward or easy process, and it often comes with roadblocks.
On Tuesday, it was reported that Demi Lovato experienced a drug overdose after years of sobriety. While we don't know the full details about her circumstances (and certainly respect her privacy), Carolyn Connolly Liot, MA, LMSW, clinical director of The Dunes East Hampton, says that relapsing is common when a person is recovering from addiction, and it shouldn't be seen as a failure.
"I would say that relapse is common because people struggle to overcome addiction," she says. "It takes time for people to really have a life change, and people use drugs for many different reasons and so just detoxing their bodies from the substance isn’t enough."
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 40-60% of those in treatment relapse. Liot adds that someone who is in recovery and has been sober for some time might relapse and accidentally overdose on a drug, because their tolerance of the substance has usually become lower. If the person hasn't used a drug for a while, they may go back to using the dose they did previously, which increases the chance of an overdose.
"Once they are off the substance, they don’t realize they can’t go back to taking the same amount they previously did," Liot says.
Relapse is common because people struggle to overcome addiction.
Carolyn Connolly Liot, MA, LMSW
When someone overdoses, their body is being overwhelmed by a toxic amount of a substance. According to American Addiction Centers, different drugs can cause different overdose symptoms, but some signs of an overdose include severe chest pain, seizure, severe headache, difficulty breathing, and either delirium, extreme agitation, or anxiety.
The AAC also says that most people who overdose have a history of substance abuse and/or addiction, and in most cases, an overdose is a clear sign that treatment is needed.
And beyond getting the substance out of someone's system, treatment and recovery involves a lot of support. As the Substance Use and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) puts it, not only do people deal with life-threatening trauma when they overdose, they also have to cope with the emotional aspects of overdose, which can involve embarrassment and shame. To that end, it's important that people in recovery receive the support of loved ones.
"In recovery, it’s important that all areas of life are supported," Liot says. "What will harm [recovery] is if those supports are not in place – supports are practicing mediation, outpatient programs, as well as good diet, rest and exercise."
Even with all that support, though, people may still relapse. And that doesn't mean recovery is futile, or that successful treatment isn't possible. It just means that recovering is a process — and that it's a marathon, not a sprint.
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for free and confidential information.