Establishing long term sobriety is hard, and how one manages returns to old behaviors can either enhance this process or greatly jeopardize long term gains. Gaining some sober time in the sum of weeks or months can feel invigorating and motivating; at times it is easier than it looked, while at others it is a downright battle. Embarking on the journey of sobriety will bring ups and downs and lapses or relapses can dismantle even the purest of intentions, creating interpersonal conflict, legal/ work issues, and diminish self-worth.
Progress is not a linear path and will require one to endure the oscillating effects of pleasure and pain. It is a rarity for someone to determine to make a change in their lives and stick with this change without any reversals. While this is true with any behavioral change, it is especially so with chemical dependency. Receiving ultimatums from spouses, parents and bosses and the high consequential costs of relapses adds to the pressures felt to be perfect and to never use again under any circumstances. It is true that these boundaries can influence abstinence and add in reminding us of the consequences of using, and they also can add to the guilt and shame felt if any deviance from abstinence occurs.
As it is often said in the recovery field, relapse is a part of the recovery process and can be used as a learning experience. A relapse refers to a prolonged return to a pattern of use that one is trying to control or quit, and a lapse represents a momentary slip, typically a one-time occurrence. There are major differences between a lapse and a relapse in terms of how one might want to move forward and adjust their recovery process. A lapse may entail increasing mutual support meetings or counseling sessions, whereas a relapse may require additional lifestyle changes and safeguards. The tendency for the individual to beat themselves up over their deviation from recovery is counterproductive and often propels one to use more of their substance as a means of avoidance and emotional support.
Turning a relapse or lapse into a learning experience and an opportunity to remember the pain and challenges that lifestyle brings can help enhance future recovery and reinvigorate present resolve. These experiences provide an opportunity to identify both internal and external triggers that may have gone unnoticed before and prompt us to seek additional support we may have been avoiding. A relapse is not a sign of failure, but a sign to turn a different direction and seek additional approaches. It can also assist in one deciding whether moderation or abstinence is the right choice for them based on their previous attempts and resultant consequences. Ambivalence is often tested on the cold hard battlefield of daily experiences and can be overcome through occurrences that cause friction and pressure in our lives as the result of their natural consequences. The guilt and shame felt do not have to be overly indulged and used as further justifications to get faded. Instead, those feelings can be used as reminders of why we wanted to make changes in the first place and what we do not want to experience as a result of choosing to drink or use. If we can objectively look at our behaviors and how they affect those around us, and remember the feelings felt post re-engagement with our substance of choice after determining to make changes, then we can use a relapse or lapse as a catalyst to continue moving in a value driven direction.