The first large-scale study of natural recovery was carried out by two researchers, Hasin and Grant, in 1995, using data from the National Health Interview Study, conducted in 1988. This large study used a sample of almost forty-four thousand people, eighteen and over, in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. They identified former drinkers, about 19% of the total sample, or over eight-thousand people. Of these, 21% were alcohol dependent and 42% were alcohol abusers according to DSM-IV criteria. Only 33% of the dependent people and 17% who were alcohol abusers had attended AA, or sought any other kind of treatment.
Breaking the numbers down, out of over eight-thousand former drinkers, thirty-five hundred were alcohol abusers, and seventeen-hundred met the criteria for alcohol dependence. 83% of the abusers quit on their own, along with 67% of those dependent upon alcohol. Overall, in this important study, 77% of those diagnosed with alcohol abuse or dependence quit on their own, without treatment, AA, or help of any kind.[i]
Several large surveys of recovery without treatment have been conducted in Canada. Using data from a national survey of nearly twelve-thousand, and an Ontario survey of over a thousand, one study of those who self-remitted found recovery rates about the same as the American study mentioned above: 77.6% of those who quit did so on their own without help of any kind.[ii]
A very large American study, the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC), in 2005, involved a sample size of over forty-three thousand adults in the United States. Data were collected through personal interviews, and out of the entire sample, almost four-thousand-five-hundred people were classified with DSM-IV substance dependence. Only 25.6% of the sample had ever sought help for their dependence. It can be calculated from this study that of those who were fully remitted in the last year, 72.4% did so without formal help.[iii]
Another natural recovery study involved several groups of dependent drinkers. One group had serious alcohol problems over many years and resolved them through abstinence or treatment, while another group experienced fewer problems but “matured out” of them as they aged. Yet another group recovered, and was able to drink with fewer problems than the abstinent groups. In this study, self-recoveries varied between 53.7% and 87.5% depending upon the number of DSM-IV problems the drinker had experienced. The greater number of symptoms, the lower the percentage of self-remitters. Even among those who had six or more problems, however, 53.7% recovered without formal treatment. As with all the other studies, recoveries with and without treatment were lower as the number of DSM-IV problems increased.[iv]
A study of older, untreated alcoholics involved almost two-thousand individuals recruited from a larger community sample. Using data from 4 and 10-year follow-ups, it was found that 73% of these 51-to 65-year-olds remitted without any formal help.[v]
These are just a very few of the several hundred studies that have looked at untreated remission of drug and alcohol abuse and dependence over the past forty years. Taken overall, the studies indicate that self-change accounts for just about three-quarters of all successful recoveries from substance abuse and dependency problems. That statistic is amazing enough, given that it’s kept so quiet by the treatment industry, but what follows is an even more severe blow to the disease model, and the myth of powerlessness.
Successful Non-abstinent outcomes and natural recovery
Many of the studies and reviews undertaken in the last several years have shown low-risk alcohol use among former abusers and dependents as a widespread and frequent occurrence. In a review of 28 natural recovery studies undertaken in 2000, 22 of the 28 studies (78%) showed significant levels of low-risk drinking on the part of the participants. As many as one-third, in some studies were able to return to moderate drinking, to the point where they no longer met DSM-IV criteria.[i] In the same review of 15 additional studies, 13 of the 15 (86.6%) showed the same results. A similar pattern emerged among drug users, where nearly half the studies reported limited drug use recoveries.[ii]
These results are about the same as those from several alcohol treatment outcome studies, which capture degree of abstinence over time, and together these data suggest that viewing abstinence as the only possible outcome for all drug and alcohol abusers is neither practical nor realistic.[iii] [iv]
The disease model of addiction, that has dominated the treatment field for decades, implies that you are powerless over your addiction, and therefore cannot find any meaningful recovery on your own. I hope that the examples and studies I have presented in this chapter have at least begun to convince you otherwise. If nothing else, you now know what researchers in the field have known for many years: that most addicts recover without formal help, and so can you.
[i] Sobell, L.C., Ellingstad, T.P., & Sobell, M.B. (2000) Natural recovery from alcohol and drug problems: Methodological review of the research with suggestions for future directions. Addiction, 95, 749-764
[ii] Sobell, L.C., Ellingstad, T.P., & Sobell, M.B. (2000) Natural recovery from alcohol and drug problems: Methodological review of the research with suggestions for future directions. Addiction, 95, 749-764
[iii] Breslin, F.C., et al. (1997). Alcohol treatment outcome methodology: State of the art 1989-1993. Addictive Behaviors, 22(2), 145-155
[iv] Rosenberg, H. (1993) Prediction of controlled drinking by alcoholics and problem drinkers. Psychological Bulletin, 113, 129-139Bulletin, 113, 129-139
[i] Hasin, D.S., & Grant, B.F. (1995). AA and other help seeking for alcohol problems: Former drinkers in the US general population. Journal of Substance Abuse, 7, 281-292
[ii] Sobell, L.C. Cunningham, J.A., & Sobell, M.B. (1996) Recovery from alcohol problems with and without treatment: Prevalence in two population surveys. American Journal of Public Health,7 966-972
[iii] Dawson D.A. et al (2005) Recovery from DSM-IV alcohol dependence: United States 2001-2002 Addiction, 100 281-292
[iv] Cunningham J.A., Lin, E., Ross, H.E., & Walsh, G.W. (2000). Factors associated with untreated remission from alcohol abuse or dependence. Addictive Behaviors, 25 317-321
[v] Schutte, K.K., Moos, R.H., & Brennan, P.L. (2006). Predictors of untreated remission from late-life drinking problems. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 67 354-362.
Pete is an author, blogger, and podcaster who makes his home in Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico. His primary interest is in helping others recover from self-defeating behaviors.