What’s the Definition of Relapse?

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Relapse is defined as a recurrence of a past condition. It is often a negative one. In the context of an addiction, it is resuming use of a substance after a period of abstinence. What they don’t always tell us, however, is that relapse is often a normal part of the process of achieving sobriety.

Because of this lack of information, I was absolutely devastated the first time I relapsed. Thankfully, I was fortunate enough to have a sponsor who explained to me that I was not the abject failure I thought I was.

Did I Relapse…or Slip?

Addiction is not like an illness that can be cured with one course of treatment. Within a few months of sobriety, statistics show that most people will use again. My relapse did not mean there was no hope. I had a weak moment and I slipped. And since my support system had decided that I was in a full-blown relapse, it could have become a self-fulfilling prophecy on their part, because I was more likely to use again than if they viewed it as a one-time incident.

So, is it one slip and all hope is lost or one slip that could be a learning opportunity? For example, I slipped at my best friend’s wedding. She has no frame of reference for my addiction; she thinks it’s simply a matter of willpower on my part. I was her maid of honor, and she insisted I take part in the champagne toast they had planned. She kept saying that one drink certainly wouldn’t hurt me, but she would be hurt if I didn’t participate.

I had several drinks that night and felt so guilty about it the next morning that I immediately called my sponsor and we went to a meeting together that afternoon. I was sober for the next two years. That is a slip, but if my sponsor viewed it as a relapse, I know I would have gone out and drank again that night, because I would feel as though I already failed; why bother to start over or try again?

So, What is a Relapse?

A relapse is much more serious than a slip. With a slip, you are eager to climb back on that wagon as soon as possible. With a relapse, a number of things will happen:

  • Resume using or drinking on a regular basis
  • Pre-treatment problems return
  • The support system is rejected
  • The goal of abstinence is abandoned


At this point, it is easy for your support system to feel that you went through treatment for nothing, that you didn’t get anything out of it. Unfortunately, my friends and family felt that way after I had my first slip. Things got even worse after my rehab counselor said I could not return to my outpatient support group, because I was “no longer sober”. If it hadn’t been for my sponsor, I probably would have continued drinking.

A Lapse Does Not Have to Become a Relapse

I really believe that if my family and friends knew the difference and had given me the encouragement I needed, I may not have relapsed two years later. At the end of the day, I still own it, but I have learned that their reaction to my first slip helped set the wheels in motion.

Be proud of all the progress you have made in recovery, especially when you slip, because that is when you are most vulnerable. Remember just how far you have come, and a lapse does not have to become a relapse.

The Anaheim Lighthouse is a modern and effective addiction treatment center in Southern California. To talk to us about treatment options at our affordable drug and alcohol rehab that fit your needs, call (844) 494-4939.

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