In addiction recovery it is natural to wonder what one’s chance of success is. If you’re like me, then shortly after you start a program, you’ll be googling something like “what percent of addicts relapse?” I’ll just tell you right now, the results are not encouraging. Depending on your personal flavor of addiction, your chance of never slipping again might be as low as the single digits. This can be a very discouraging realization, both for the addict and for any loved ones that are involved. It can be enough to make one feel that “once an addict, always an addict.”
But I am here to tell you that statistics like these are next to useless when it comes to predicting what your personal story will be. Something about them rang false to me when I first started recovery, and after walking the journey for several years, I gradually came to understand the reasons why.
Statistics of Uncertainty)
Let’s suppose I hold out a coin in front of you, heads-up, and ask you what the chances are that it is heads-up.
“Well it is heads-up,” you might say. “So 100%.”
“But there are two sides, aren’t there? So isn’t it a 50/50 chance?”
“No, I can see it. It’s 100% heads-up, and 0% tails.”
And you’d be right.
Now suppose I cover the coin with my other hand, but I do not rotate it. Still 100% heads?
“Of course,” you say, “it may be covered, but I still know what state it is in. 100% heads up.”
But now suppose I call our friend in, I show him my closed hands, and I tell him there is a coin underneath. I ask him what is the chance that it is heads.
“50%” he says, “and 50% tails.”
And he is right. But you still know it is 100% heads and you are also right.
You are both right because when we talk percentages and statistics we are not talking about the actual state of the coin, we are talking about the state of our own uncertainty. With your inside knowledge you are 100% certain of what the coin is and our friend, without that knowledge, is 50% certain. The numbers you give represent a state of your own selves and not the coin.
And what of the coin? It just is what it is. It isn’t 25% something, or 50%, or even 100%. It just is heads-up or it isn’t, and no matter of ignorant guessing is going to change what it is, even when that guessing is based on statistically sound principles. And not only is the coin what it is, it is also going to be what it is going to be. The mystery and uncertainty of what a flipping coin will land on is only a side-effect of how we view only a narrow slice of time, moving forward at a gradual rate.
The Statistics of You)
And as much as the coin just is what it is, you just are what you are, too. And as much as the coin is just going to be what it is going to be, you are just going to be what you are going to be as well. When you decide to go to recovery, you don’t split off a hundred separate universes and spin a cosmic roulette wheel, hoping it lands on one of the ten realities where you happen to stay sober. When you decide to go to recovery you just are going to see it through, or you just aren’t.
Outsiders may remain uncertain of whether you will maintain sobriety or not. They are ignorant of your inner state, so the best they can do is estimate your chances as a percentage. But you are not an ignorant outsider. You know what your state is and what it isn’t. If you’re honest with yourself, you probably already know whether you’re going to be acting out later this week or not.
The reason why the statistics didn’t feel like an appropriate fit to me when I started recovery was because I knew my own state. Outsiders didn’t know, but I did. I knew some of my group were only there because their wives made them come, but I wasn’t. I knew some were just going through the motions, but I wasn’t. I knew I was going to faithfully be at my recovery group every Tuesday night, and I knew that I was going to be doing my recovery work every other night of the week. I knew that my commitment was real, and I knew that my intentions were serious.
Now you may not be so certain of yourself over the next month and year and decade, but it is possible to be certain of the now. And unlike flipping a coin multiple times, your behavior in the future is affected your behavior in the past. What you choose today weights you more towards one side for the next day. If you are certain of sobriety today, and you follow through with that, then you will be that much more likely of sobriety tomorrow as well.
The Scope of Statistics)
Statistics have their place in the world. They help in defining the probabilities of what is unknowable, and they are useful for modelling large groups. But you are knowable, at least to yourself, and you are an individual, not a group. We’ve spoken to the first of those points today and we’ll examine the other one tomorrow.
Never forget the wonderful fact that you are a person who has free will. You get to choose. You are not a spinning roulette wheel. You are the card that draws itself, and the coin that turns itself. You get to decide your own outcome.