What Is A Relapse?

What is a relapse?

That may seem like a silly question. It’s when you take a drink, or shoot up, or buy something you can’t afford, or patronize a sex worker, or begin doing for your addict (or kid) things that they need to be doing for themselves.


Well, sorta. How about if a drinker starts hanging around the local bar with his or her old drinking buddies, talking the same trash, acting out in all the old ways except taking a drink? What if, instead of cruising, a sex addict hangs out in the mall checking out all the girls walking by–or, instead of that, watches porn for an hour?

There are two things we need to understand about relapses. The first, and probably most important, is that relapse happens before we act out. Like sobriety, it’s a process, not an event. Anyone who is inclined to argue about that need only consider: If you haven’t relapsed already, why would you act out? Also, since it’s a process, at some point we could have turned around and gone to a meeting, called a sponsor or support, said a prayer, or gone to the gym and burned off some energy. Why didn’t we? Because, at some point we decided to go ahead and act out, or at least decided not to do anything to avert it.

This sort of gives the lie to the concept of a “slip,” too, doesn’t it? Call it what you will, the thought preceded the deed and in the vast majority of cases, there was a point where we decided to continue. I won’t deny that there are exceptions, but they’re rare. If we’re being honest with our sponsors about our behavior (if we aren’t…uh…well….) then they can help us figure it out.

The other thing about relapse is that it means different things in different programs. (See the sex addict example above.) That’s true mostly for the process addictions, but it still pays to take a look at the things I’m going to note even if we’re substance abusers “only.”

Addicts of all kinds need to sit down with sponsors and supports and discuss what the line is for them. Is hanging around sales without spending a relapse for a shopaholic, or is it what some fellowships call “accessory behavior?”  In any case, is it healthy behavior? Is devouring the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue a relapse for a porn addict? What about a gambler who makes bets in his head for fun, or an exercise addict who runs marathons “for a good cause?” When do they cross the line?

I don’t have answers for those questions, but I do know this: if we don’t have a clear idea of our “bottom line” behavior–the stuff that constitutes a lapse in our recovery–before we get in a dangerous situation, we’re not going to be able to make those calls when we need to. If we wait until we think we might be in trouble (assuming we’re that alert) we’re already in up to our necks. Taking self-defense classes after we’ve had the crap kicked out of us is a good idea, but it does nothing for the bruises.

We talk about relapse prevention a lot, especially in treatment. There have been many books written on the subject, covering nutrition, support, participation in recovery related activities, post-acute withdrawal syndrome, and myriad other subjects. But the basics of relapse prevention involve a thorough understanding of the things that trigger us, the rituals that lead up to using, and exactly what will constitute a relapse for us. These things must be discussed with others ahead of time, and after the fact, if necessary–always with others, because it’s easy for us to fudge without feedback.

We also need to remember that addiction is tricky. It’s not about the substance or actions, it’s about unresolved issues that have been haunting us for a long time. That’s where the Steps and possibly therapy come in. Without a thoughtful program of recovery our addiction will raise its head again in some other form. Many of us already carry another addiction or two with us that may have been eclipsed by a more obvious one. We need to be vigilant, always.

Fooling other folks is rude, but fooling ourselves is all too often fatal.

2 thoughts on “What Is A Relapse?

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