Unfortunately, slips and relapses are relatively common in early recovery. The good news is that they are not the end of the world. Rather, these temporary setbacks are learning opportunities and chances to reaffirm and hopefully strengthen one’s commitment to recovery, sobriety, and living a better life. The simple truth is the majority of recovering addicts experience at least a few bumps in the road before establishing long-term sobriety. And that is perfectly OK. No addict ever recovers perfectly.
Sometimes addicts slip in their recovery, other times they relapse.
- Slips are brief, mostly unintended returns to addiction. Sometimes an unexpected stressor or a poorly constructed support network will lead to a slip. A slip can be managed and contained by immediate and honest disclosure. After a slip, recovering addicts must tell others—therapists, 12-step sponsors, accountability partners, and supportive friends in recovery—about the event if they hope to get back on track quickly and relatively easily.
- Relapse occurs when an addict keeps a slip secret, choosing to minimize, rationalize, hide, and/or justify the 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, consequence-filled addiction.
Though slips and relapse are different, the precursors for both are the same. (This is true with all forms of addiction.) The most common warning signs include:
- Blaming: “If my work wasn’t so demanding, I wouldn’t feel so stressed out and I wouldn’t need to stop off for a drink after work.”
- Denial: “I haven’t gotten high in over a month and it was easy to stop, so I don’t really have a problem. I can use like a normal person and I won’t have any more problems.”
- Feeling Entitled: “I work really hard to support my family, so I deserve to get that erotic massage I’ve been thinking about, even though it violates the boundaries of my sexual sobriety plan.”
- Feeling like a Victim: “I don’t understand why I have to deprive myself when everyone else I know can drink without even thinking about it.”
- Ignoring Feedback: “The people in my therapy 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.”
- Ignoring Previously Agreed-Upon Boundaries: “I know I promised my husband I wouldn’t gamble anymore, but what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him.”
- Isolating: “I don’t need to go to my NA meetings anymore, and I don’t need to be in constant contact with other recovering addicts. I can handle this on my own.”
- Making Excuses: “I know that being in a bar is a danger zone, but everyone from work is going and I need to be there too, for my career.”
- Minimizing: “I’m only looking at a little porn. It’s not like I’m having affairs again, which is the part of my sex addiction that my spouse cares about.”
- Overconfidence: “My recovery is going great. I think I’ve got this licked and now I can let my guard down and relax a bit.”
- Rationalizing: “It’s OK for me to spend a few minutes at a casino when I’m traveling for work. My ‘rules for sobriety’ don’t really count when I’m in a different state.”
- Slippery Situations: “The buffet at that Chinese restaurant across the street from where I used to drink is really good, so I’m going to have lunch there.”
If you find yourself thinking slippery thoughts like those listed above, you are in danger of slipping and/or relapsing. To combat your “stinking thinking,” you need to get honest with your therapist, your 12-step sponsor, and your social support group. Usually, simply voicing your problematic thinking out loud removes its power. If you find yourself in the midst of a slip or relapse, this advice goes double. If you reach out and ask for assistance, it is possible to reestablish sobriety relatively quickly. If you keep things quiet, however, your downward slide will likely continue unabated and you will find yourself in the midst of a full-blown relapse.