Stopping a Slip From Becoming a Relapse

Posted on September 18, 2012

Is Relapse Inevitable in Addiction Recovery?
Julie Myers, Psy.D.

Slip Or RelapseFor many with serious substance abuse problems, any drug or alcohol use can be problematic. These people must abstain. If they drink or drug again, they can slip into full-blown relapse, even after months or years of abstinence. For some, even a brief lapse may generate so much self-doubt, guilt, and a belief about personal failure, that the person gives up and continues to use. This tendency is referred to as the abstinence violation effect.

So does this mean that even a brief lapse must lead to a full-blown relapse? Does it mean a person must continue to drink or drug until the use returns to the initial level? Is spiraling out of control inevitable? Simply put, no. A lapse need not become a relapse. After a slip, you have not unlearned all that you have learned. You have not unchanged all that you have changed in your life to support your recovery. You do not have to start counting again from day one.

If you view your lapse as a mistake and as a product of external triggers, rather than as a personal failure, research shows that you will have a much better chance of return to abstinence quickly. Your lapse becomes a tool to move forward and to strengthen your motivation to change, your identification of triggers and urge-controlling techniques, your rational coping skills, and the lifestyle changes needed to lead a more balanced life.

Does this mean that a person should view these lapses as a good thing? Of course not! Clearly, if one wants to abstain, lapses are not preferred. But by recognizing that mistakes can happen and learning how to quickly right oneself, long-term abstinence can be achieved. Lapses may occur, but relapse is not inevitable.

Reprinted with permission from SMART Recovery San Diego
Copyright ( 2012) Julie Myers, PysD: Psychologist in San Diego. All Rights Reserved.

10 thoughts on “Stopping a Slip From Becoming a Relapse

  1. Pistol-Pete

    This is an excellent article, thank you. I have been working on my addictions since a DUI last April 2011. During these past 18 months I have tried quitting on my own twice with periods of 3 & 6 months of abstinence. I tried AA for 3 months with 3 months of abstinence. I honestly think that I was better of on my own as I had a much more positive attitude and it was far less depressing! I will not bash AA as I have seen that it works very well for many people. I am an Agnostic, I do not have a God and I do not have a “Higher Power”. This makes the AA program almost impossible to follow.

    I am now staying sober with the help of Smart Recovery. I am attending F2F meetings as well as the occasional on-line meeting when I feel the urge. It has been a wonderful experience so far. The facilitators, the reading material, the on-line articles and the people in the program have all been great.

    It is my belief that the only way you can quit an addiction is by wanting to do this for yourself. Up until this last attempt to finally quit drinking for good I had been doing it for all of the wrong reasons. Now I am doing it for myself because I want to quit and move on with my life! The Smart Recovery program is helping me tremendously and I would recommend it to anyone that is sincerely trying to change their addictive ways.

  2. IllBeFree

    How refreshing!

    Thank you for this article. I have been in AA for a year a 3 months now and I have had what some call “slips” but my sponsor calls relapses. I have gone from someone who drank everyday to someone who has had alcohol on only 3 separate occasions in over a year. Due to the one slip (or sip?) and you lose-all-of-your-time rule, however, I now have almost 60 days instead of a year and 3 months.

    Still, as you said, I have not lost everything I have learned or the renewed sense of peace and balance that I have gained. I am no longer the person I was over a year ago and no glass of wine or even bottle of vodka can rob me of my essential self. None of that matters in AA though. If you knowingly consume even the tiniest amount of alcohol for the shortest amount of time (my slips never lasted beyond 24 to 48 hours) you still forfeit all of your “sobriety-time” and you go back to a big fat ZERO!

    I think it’s designed to be painful that way…. Like PUNISHMENT.

    Honestly, the couple of times I drank would have ONLY been minor slips if not for the heaviness of knowing I had to lose all my time behind a couple of swallows of wine. Losing all my time drives me to drink a whole hell of a lot more after a slip up. Something in me feels a great sense of LOSS, lost and futility. A slip then turns into a binge.

    The SMART Recovery approach seems more positive and affirming instead of condemning. I plan to visit a meeting soon.

    I am tired of feeling like a sick, damned, powerless loser who has been told by my so-called “grand-sponsor” that I am “one who is close to death”!

    Thanks again!

      1. Rick M.

        I have been to many AA meetings and have always been slightly irritated by two things, the one that you mention (one slip regardless of degree=no time sober. The logic of this escapes me. While I have been lucky enough to avoid slips, I cannot stand the idea that one sip of wine now means that the years I have spent without drink are not only of no value, they simply did not occur, and that I am back at square 1. That might have been of some merit on my first day of recovery, but is far worse than useless now–it positively promotes continued drinking on the grounds that I might as well, since all those non-drinking days were of no value, so perhaps than I was also wrong in coming to see myself of being of some value. I realize that most do mean well, but I think that I am coming to value informed good intentions over good intentions alone. As well, part of my recovery is to avoid lying: what purpose is served by tacitly saying to an addict, “it would serve you better to lie just now”?

        As to the often made statement that religion need not enter into AA, that virtually anything can serve as one’s higher power, I can only say that I have heard it said far more often than I have seen it practiced. Recently I attended a group new to me, and after hearing several speakers speak of the importance of God to them and their recovery (and for them, they are very likely right), my turn to speak came–I said something like, Glad to hear that the speakers before have found something that works for them; myself I am not smart enough to be either a Theist or an Atheist, lacking firm evidence either way. So I guess that I am Agnostic, that is to say without knowledge. What I do know, however, is that not drinking has greatly aided in my sobriety. I hope that I have not offended anyone’s religious beliefs, it was not my intent–as they say, the silence that followed was deafening, until it was broken by yet another tale of how only through God could that person have found sobriety (again, may well be true for that person). Still I wonder about the real sobriety of a group of people who think that only through their way (i.e. God) can sobriety be found. Is such lack of tolerance part of real sobriety? Oh well, I will tolerate their views, but not share them. All in all a better solution than was my wife’s, who is not a problem drinker, who suggested strangling the lot of ‘em:). She was kidding, of course, but I am quite serious when I say that the value of days drink-free days I have spent with her are far more important to my than the views any sponsor might hold about a sip of wine.

  3. Pete R.

    I enjoyed your article and feel it is an important topic. I use the Smart Recovery tools and am also a member of AA. I have to say that I feel more comfortable with the logic and tools at Smart Recovery than I am with the 12 steps of AA, but enjoy the frequency of AA meetings in Madison WI. Specifically, every meeting starts with anniversaries, then ominously asks if “this is anyone’s first meeting after their last drink”. Total honesty requires that you then “start over your sober date”. So far, I have been doing well (5 months no slips), but am starting to hate the “Sword of Damacles” and stigma of a slip hanging overhead. I am going to check into local Smart meetings in person soon.

  4. Ray D.

    I like your article and have but one question what do you consider is a “slip” sorry 2 questions, when does a “slip” become a relapse?

    1. Julie Myers, PsyD

      I don’t think there is any definitive time that a lapse turns into a relapse. Instead, I would say that a “relapse” is as much a state-of-mind as it is a length of time. It depends very much on the individual.

      1. Pistol-Pete

        Thank you Dr. Myers! I agree with you 100%. In my mind a lapse could be anywhere from one drink to ? It all depends on your state of mind. I think that as long as you realize just what you are doing and are conscious about your behaviour you are still headed in the right direction. On the other hand if you are just saying F-it and heading back into that “dark” place well………….

    2. Don S.

      Some people define a relapse as happening when you give up your commitment to long-term sobriety. This makes sense to me, since a lapse is frequently under stressful circumstances, and one is still aware of a long-term desire to work towards being healthy and sober.

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