Once An Addict, Always An Addict?

A client asks, “Is it true that ‘once you’re an addict, you’re always an addict?’

“Once an addict, always an addict” is  hurled around the recovery field and among recovering people with considerable abandon. It’s an easy way of describing a pretty complex situation, but it’s misleading to a degree. A far more accurate way of putting it would be “Once you stop using, you have to change the way you live and the way you look at life. If you fall back into thinking and behaving the way you used to, you will almost certainly relapse, and if you don’t you will still be a miserable s.o.b.” To that extent, the addict is always waiting in the wings.

When we began using alcohol and/or other drugs to change the way we felt, we essentially shut down our emotional and social development. Healthy emotions require not only a foundation that is often missing in addicts, but also a clear mind to deal with the many issues, pleasant and unpleasant, that arise in our personal and interpersonal lives.

Since someone who is under the influence of mood-altering chemicals is, by definition, not operating with a clear mind, nothing much useful is going to happen in our emotional development from that time forward. Trauma, such as child abuse, severe injury, parental separation, poor parenting, loss of a loved one and similar things can create the same sort of obstacle to becoming a functional person. Combine the two, as so many of us did, and we end up a real mess.

We can see that sobriety involves a lot more than just quitting drugs. Abstinence is essential to recovery, but by itself only allows us to begin to think clearly. True recovery involves learning how to live without drugs: cleaning up the issues that separate us from others, learning to deal with our emotions, resolving the shame and guilt that always go along with active addiction, and building living skills. These are the abilities that we develop in our recovery fellowships, therapy and spiritual practice. Without them, we have no reason to remain clean and sober.

So — once an addict, always an addict?  To the extent that we practice those skills, and continue to practice them, maintaining an emotional and spiritual condition that will enable us to live a life without drugs, we are insulated from our addictions. However, the other side of the coin is obvious: if we fall back into our old ways of thinking and dealing with life, the addict has returned.


  1. Hi Bill,
    Wow! What a powerful site. I stumbled across your site looking for results on the body after 11 years of sobriety and found this site. In looking back to my first day of sobriety December 11, 2003 I
    My first step was admitting that I was powerless and I needed to turn my life back over to my higher power. It has been a great journey but, there has surely been payback for the 30 years of alcohol abuse and addictions to my body.
    The first year I was still smoking 3 packs of cigarettes a year. 12 months after my last year I was rushed to the hospital under the assumption that I was having a heart attack. The first payment began in the ICU being diagnosed with all sorts of illnesses. I knew where to lay the blame. The doctors first words to me was the cigarettes have to go. No problem. I was scared and wondering if I was going to make it. Then it was a long 3 years until I was back completely to the living.
    The haze and fog began to lift. Of course I was attending AA faithfully and hearing a lot of good things and was surrounded with people with many years of sobriety. I learned to shut up and listen. So here I am 11 years later still attending meetings faithfully and also attending ACA. I read as much as I can get my hands on and never forgetting the words of the doctor just before I stopped saying that I had completely poisoned my body with alcohol. He didn’t think I would make it and neither did I but thanks to my Higher power there was another path for me to follow.
    There has been many doctors, clinics, and hospitals and numerous medications to keep me going physically. I was diagnosed a diabetic type II that has continued and I found myself last year being put on Insulin 4 times a day. Treated for heart disease for 6 months and then they discovered my thyroid was diseased and they had to nuke it. Payback? Yes definitely. I never forget that I was at deaths door on alcohol and payit forward in 12th step.
    That is one of the reasons I decided to write to you to share a little of my story in hopes that some of the younger ones can see and identify that the longer you put off recovery the greater the recovery payback with your health.
    Thank you for providing a place to share and I hope and pray for speedy recovery for all those that are coming into the program seeking help.
    Cleveland in Montana.

  2. Thanks for writing, Cleveland. A lot of us are paying the price of waiting too long. But that’s the nature of addiction, isn’t it? It’s the disease that tries to convince us that we don’t have it.

  3. Brenda cuoo says:

    Wow I have 2 years and yes I will always be an addict but I now how how not to use. Shut up and listen I am learning live in the moment I am learning. Life has never been better.

  4. Congratulations on your two years, Brenda! It does get better, doesn’t it? And you’re spot on about knowing [learning] how not to use — that’s what recovery is all about, and it’s the only path to real sobriety.

Speak Your Mind

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.