One commonly heard phrase in the treatment community is “Relapse is a part of recovery.” In fact, hearing it often starts a debate between counselors as to the veracity of the statement. While a relapse is certainly not inevitable – and some individuals do give up alcohol for good on the first attempt – it is usually not the case. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism puts alcohol relapse rates at 90 percent, while other sources’ numbers hover between 75 and 85 percent — either way, quite high.
While complete relapse prevention is ideal, relapse management is more of the reality. Some counselors find it beneficial to refer to early relapse as a “lapse” and not a complete return to regular and habitual use. This serves both to minimize shame for the client and to reinforce the idea that one slip-up doesn’t have to completely derail a recovery plan.
Reasons Why Catching a Lapse is Important
To keep the recovery plan intact, it helps if the alcohol relapse is caught quickly. This is important for several reasons:
One of the biggest hurdles standing in the way of recovery is shame. People who relapse often try to hide it because they are embarrassed by their behavior and don’t want anyone to know that they “failed.” When a relapse is hidden, an individual can become depressed, making him or her even more susceptible to a return to habitual drinking. If, instead, it’s caught early, the lapse can be managed before that downward shame spiral begins.
Recovering persons need structure and accountability. Many have fallen into the trap of thinking they can just have one drink, because they are now “cured” of their alcoholism. If they can expect regular BAC testing, they learn to hold themselves accountable for any lapses in sobriety, even if they believe they will still “feel” functional after a slip-up.
A short-term return to use, as opposed to a long-term one, minimizes further damage to the brain and a return to full-on withdrawal when the alcohol is again taken away to regain sobriety. The prospect of a prolonged period of withdrawal sickness can prevent a recovering person from attempting sobriety for a second time, sometimes for many years, depending on its severity.
A String Around the Finger
It reminds the recovering person that he or she is susceptible to relapse without the consequences of a return to his or her previous use pattern. It also can help the person identify the trigger for the relapse more easily if it is allocated to one or two isolated events.
This is not to say the treatment focus should not remain on alcohol relapse prevention. A single use can have severe consequences, even death, for some recovering individuals. However, if that can’t be done, early intervention is key.
About the Author
Kathleen Esposito is a certified addictions counselor in the Pacific Northwest. She helps individuals recover from drug, alcohol and gambling dependencies through group and individual therapy and regularly speaks at treatment centers.