A Slip VS A Relapse – Does The Difference Matter?

slip versus relapse

Evidence shows that a staggering 90 percent of recovering alcoholics will relapse at least once within the four years following inpatient treatment. Though numerous studies have been conducted on the reasoning behind this alarming percentage, no definitive common link has yet been discovered. Impaired control has repeatedly been suggested as a determining factor in relapse. Mark Keller, who published a paper in 1972 titled On the Loss-of-Control Phenomenon in Alcoholism, suggested that the term ‘impaired control’ bears two meanings.

  1. The unpredictability of an alcoholic’s choice to refrain from the first drink, and
  2. The inability of an alcoholic to stop drinking once he or she has started.

Research has repeatedly shown that the severity of the physical and mental dependence affects the ability of the individual to stop drinking after the first drink. According to Gordon Alan Marlatt, a professor of Psychology at the University of Washington and Director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at that institution, the transition from the initial drink following a prolonged period of abstinence and recovery (known as a lapse or a slip) to excessive drinking (a relapse), is heavily determinate on the reaction an individual has to the first drink. This piece of information is important in illuminating the difference between a slip and a full-blown relapse, and determining which course of action is best to take incase one or the other des occur.

A Slip VS A Relapse

There is, in fact, quite a significant difference between experiencing a slip and experiencing a relapse. Having ‘a slip’ indicates a brief and essentially harmless return to an old behavior – one that an individual has been working to quit or eliminate. In most cases, a slip is a one-time occurrence, and results in very minimal personal damage. A relapse, on the other hand, is characterized by a complete return to a highly destructive behavioral pattern that one has been attempting to quit entirely. In order to better understand the difference between the two, and why it is important, let us take a close look at the definition of each term, respectively.

Relapse – Defined

The word ‘relapse’ originates from the Latin root word relabi – meaning ‘to slip back’. Relapse implies that an individual recovered from an illness, only to return to an even worse state with the recurrence of once entirely eliminated symptoms. In terms of alcoholism, a relapse is typically considered a return to self-destructive drinking patterns after a long period of complete abstinence. Many believe that in order for one to relapse, one must have been recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body – in other words, one must have completed the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. While the intricacies of the definition vary depending on personal beliefs, a relapse is essentially a return to alcohol abuse after a period of recovery.

Slip – Defined

A slip typically refers to a situation in which an individual experiences a short-lived lapse of judgment, or spiritual contact, or perceptiveness. For whatever reason, this individual ingests a small amount of chemical substance. For the alcoholic, a slip most frequently looks like a small sip of alcohol. However, because this individual does possess a great amount of spiritual fortitude and has been working a solid program of recovery, he or she will likely immediately feel repulsed by his or her decision. A slip entails a brief and undisruptive return to old behaviors. Of course, even a slip can be emotionally trying. As alcoholics, our subconscious priority is to protect our own tender egos. An unwarranted fear of judgment or demotion on the part of our peers may prevent us from reaching out for help in the case of a slip – and failing to reach out may warrant dire consequences.

Preventing a Relapse After a Slip

Unfortunately, a slip has the potential to progress into a relapse if the concerned individual does not take the necessary actions to protect him or herself from continued use. It is important to take an honest and thorough look at why drinking momentarily seemed like a good idea in the first place. While only an individual and his or her higher power can truly determine the appropriate course of action to take, it is imperative that he or she share the experience with a trusted supporter – likely a sponsor, therapist, or spiritual mentor. During the period of time immediately after a slip, an individual is far more susceptible to going back out. The disease of alcoholism may utilize the fact that alcohol has already been ingested as a convincing excuse for continued use – especially if the incident has been kept a secret. Keep in mind that even when the symptoms of alcoholism remain in remission, the disease always lays latent – and the disease wants you dead.

In order to prevent a relapse after a slip has occurred, it is wise to speak about the experience with others, and to dive back into recovery headfirst. Examine the events that proceeded the slip with a therapist, and attempt to work through any potential emotional trauma that has been left unresolved. Look for weak spots in your personal program of recovery. How is your connection with a higher power? Have you been allotting adequate time for meditation and prayer? Have you been continuously engaged in service? Are you engaging in other detrimental behaviors that could be compromising your overall integrity, such as promiscuity or dishonesty at work? Take a close look at yourself, but avoid dwelling on your slip up. Your disease wants you to linger on your mistakes and beat yourself up incessantly – of course it does, when you are full of fear and self-pity you are exceptionally more vulnerable to relapse. Pick yourself up, reach out, make the necessary changes, and move forward.

Do What You Need To Do For YOU

No one can tell you what to do regarding your personal recovery program. The final decision is between you and your higher power. However, keep in mind that the main goal is to keep from picking up again. If you feel picking up a white chip will help to keep you sober and humble, do so. Do what you need to do in order to protect yourself – in order to save your own life. Be aware of your ego, and keep in mind that self-consciousness will likely devastate future effectiveness. Others may judge you, sure. But who cares? Your true friends will stand by you, and you may inadvertently be saving the life of a peer who has been too afraid to step forward.

Next Chapter and Relapse Prevention

The fundamental goal of alcoholism treatment is, of course, to help the patient maintain long-term and uncompromised sobriety – remission of the disease. Because of the exceedingly high levels of relapse amongst patients, we at Next Chapter have worked tirelessly to develop a comprehensive program of recovery focused heavily on relapse prevention and on instilling the tools necessary to achieving long-term, uninterrupted sobriety. We believe that a combination of thorough and intensive therapeutic treatment, active involvement in a 12-step program, and continued care are all essential components of relapse prevention. We also believe that with the right tools, coping mechanisms, and supports, long-term sobriety can be achieved by anyone.