Slips vs. Relapse
Getting sober from alcoholism, drug addiction or a behavioral addiction (gambling, spending, sex, video gaming, etc.) is among the most common New Year's resolutions. Unfortunately, most addicts have little to no idea what that entails or how hard it's really going to be. Yes, some addicts do walk into a treatment center or a 12-step support group and find that they are suddenly "struck sober," with the desire to drink/use/whatever swiftly and permanently removed. However, that is not the usual pathway to healing and a better life. More often the road is winding, rocky and littered with pitfalls, and the majority of addicts are likely to slip and/or relapse at least once or twice before long-term sobriety takes root.
It is important for recovering addicts to understand that temporarily backsliding into the powerful pull of addiction is not the end of the world, and it doesn't mean they've failed. Instead, it is a learning opportunity and a chance to reaffirm and hopefully strengthen their commitment to living differently in the future. Addicts should also understand the difference between a slip and a relapse.
• A slip is a brief, mostly unintended return to addiction. Sometimes an unexpected stressor or a poorly constructed plan for maintaining sobriety will lead to a slip. A slip can be managed and contained by immediate and honest disclosure. Recovering addicts must tell others -- family, supportive friends, therapists, 12-step sponsors -- about a slip if they hope to get back on track.
• Relapse occurs when an addict keeps a slip secret, choosing to hide and justify his or her behavior, thereby setting the stage for slips of increasing frequency and intensity. Before long, the addict is back where he or she started -- struggling with a full-blown, out-of-control addiction.
Warning Signs for Slips and Relapse
• Overconfidence: This is going really well. Maybe I have the problem licked and I can let my guard down.
• Denial: See, I can stop drinking/using/whatever without any trouble. Now that I've proved this, I can drink/use/whatever like a normal person.
• Isolation: I can handle this on my own. I don't need to go to therapy or 12-step meetings, and I don't need to be in constant contact with other recovering addicts.
• Blaming: If my spouse hadn't gotten that new job that takes up so much of his/her time and energy, I wouldn't feel like I need to go to the bar to socialize.
• Making Excuses: I know that being alone with my computer is a danger zone for relapsing with my porn addiction, but I need to stay late at the office to finish this important project.
• Setting Up Slippery Situations: I know that I have a gambling problem, but the buffet at the casino is really good so I'm going to schedule the next family get together there.
• Minimizing: I'm only drinking and smoking a little pot. It's not like I've gone back to cocaine.
• Ignoring or Devaluing Feedback From Supportive Others: The people in my therapy group and my 12-step group just want to control me. The stuff they want me to do might work for them, but they really don't understand my situation.
• Feeling Victimized: I don't understand why I have to deprive myself when everybody else can drink without fear or problems.
• Rationalizing: It's OK for me to party a little bit when I'm traveling for work or on vacation. My "rules for sobriety" don't count when I'm in a different state.
• Ignoring Previously Agreed-Upon Guidelines: I know that I promised my wife I wouldn't look at porn or flirt with other women on hookup apps, but what she doesn't know can't hurt her.
• Feeling Entitled: I've worked really hard in my recovery for six months, and I've been pulling double-duty at work, and nobody seems to appreciate the effort I'm putting in. I deserve a little something just for me.
Dealing With Slips and Relapse
Slips and relapse are not the end of the world. Rather than looking at these events as disasters with no solution, recovering addicts (and their families, therapists, 12-step support networks, etc.) should view them as learning opportunities. In other words, setbacks should be treated as problems to be explored and solved rather than personal failures. As such, after a slip or relapse, addicts, working with knowledgeable others, can explore the "stinking thinking" that led to their backslide, identify the trigger or triggers that pushed them over the edge, and devise ways in which they can handle themselves differently in the future if the same or a similar situation arises. They should also explore other situations in which they might relapse, planning for ways to cope there as well.
No matter what, any recovering addict who finds himself or herself in the midst of a slip or relapse should immediately get honest about what's going on, confessing to his or her therapist, 12-step sponsor and support group, and family. Addicts have established these important connections for a reason; now is a great time to utilize the support of these loving and empathetic others. If addicts in the midst of a slip or relapse are unable or unwilling to ask for help, their downward slide will continue. If, however, they reach out and ask for assistance, they can save their sobriety and ultimately their lives.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age (coauthored with Dr. Jennifer Schneider). He has provided clinical multi-addiction treatment training and behavioral health program development for the U.S. military and treatment centers throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.