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Relapse or Lapse?

Frustration from suffering from relapse

In addiction recovery, whenever a person returns to active involvement with their drug or behaviour of choice, it is considered a relapse that requires an appropriate response.
However small it seems, any slip back into addictive behaviour, especially substance use, must be addressed swiftly and appropriately. Exactly how it is dealt with can be crucial. Minimising the event can be dangerous but over-reacting can be unhelpful too.

Relapse or Lapse: What’s the difference?

A lapse may be said to be an isolated incident where a person stumbles but continues on their recovery path. It often occurs in the early stages of the journey. A relapse, on the other hand, maybe seen as a stumble followed by a complete deviation from recovery altogether. A lapse is often unexpected and unintended whereas a full relapse signals a shift in attitude away from the desire to be clean and sober. With these definitions, you can now identify if you’re experiencing a relapse or a lapse.

Understanding the process of a relapse or lapse

It’s important that both the addicted person and those involved in their support understand the process as well as the actual context of the event. Successful recovery from addiction means being open to drastic change through a learned behaviour pattern that reshapes attitudes, habits, and relationships. It is a challenge partially addressed through trial and error with a relapse or lapse. An occasional backwards step is therefore not surprising. After all, recovery requires a lot of practice and relapse is a recognised characteristic of the disease of addiction. It is not helpful if family or healthcare workers react negatively.

How does a lapse occur?

Committed sobriety must come from the heart as well as the head. Once a person has looked at their situation honestly, the logical argument for stopping is overwhelming. Yet most addictive habits can be so ingrained in a person, that they sometimes take a drink or a fix one more time after sobering up.  Again, there are those who deep down would prefer it if miraculously, they could somehow control their addiction rather than give it up altogether. Such people are sometimes drawn to test themselves, usually with disastrous results. Another form of slip may be as a response to a strong craving triggered by some unexpected or unplanned-for situation. Simply being given an alcoholic drink or smelling the unmistakable aroma of cannabis can be powerful triggers.

Lessons to be learnt from a lapse

Whatever the nature of your lapse, there will always be lessons to be learnt, most likely from the following list:

  • Failure to think and plan ahead
  • Overconfidence
  • Risk-taking attitude
  • Not listening to advice – doing it my way
  • Minimisation of the power of triggers
  • Not asking for help and support
  • Not having adequate coping tools.

A positive response to a slip will always be to recognise what went wrong and take appropriate steps to ensure it is never repeated.

How to Deal with a Lapse

Shame often motivates people to hide their slips-ups A tell-tale sign if often when they stop attending self-help meetings. But honesty is the best response. They say that ‘secrets keep us sick’ and hiding the fact of a slip sets you up for a repeat. A genuine lapse caused by momentary unpreparedness or lack of focus, is best dealt with by acknowledgement and sharing with others, reflection on the event itself and understanding how it could have been better handled. It can then be viewed as a challenge faced and managed, after which a person can move on with their recovery.

Minimising a lapse, treating it as a joke or trying not to mention it can be as dangerous as over-reacting. The ability to deal with a challenge calmly and realistically is a sign of maturity that should give us a feeling of satisfaction. There is no need to beat ourselves up.

A Lapse Can Become a Relapse if Not Addressed Correctly

A lapse is always a warning sign and should never be minimised or ignored. What appears to be a minor slip may in fact be the first stage in a person’s downward spiral. Many people subconsciously build themselves up to a relapse due to underlying issues that they have not properly dealt with. These might be stress at work, frustration with relationships or feelings of inadequacy, for example. It is therefore important that every slip is examined and discussed in depth to determine whether any such underlying problems are present.

How to Help Your Loved One Through a Relapse

Catastrophising is a common trait for someone who has experienced addiction. Getting clean and sober is such an existential struggle that a slip can seem to some like the end of the world altogether. Remember too, that many people in early recovery may still be abnormally sensitive to stress. They may also be suffering from varying degrees of depression or mood swings, brought on by chronic substance misuse or self-defeating behaviours such as gambling. Their ability to recognise a lapse is therefore likely to be compromised; and any inappropriate reaction by family, friends or support workers may be magnified. A calm, reflective and practical response is likely to be far more effective than expressions of disappointment or personal criticism.

If you’re struggling with your recovery (maybe you recognise you are having a relapse or lapse) or are beginning to recognise problematic behaviours, Which Rehab can help get back on track with the right course of treatment.

For advice on which type of recovery programme is best suited to your needs, call our free 24-hour confidential helpline for advice on treatment options available to you or fill in out contact form and a member of the Which Rebab team will get back to you.