What Is A Relapse And What Does It Mean For Alcoholics?

If you would like to learn more about what causes relapse, we tackled that subject in a recent post so click that link to take a look. This article is focusing more on what a relapse is, especially in the context of alcoholism.

Whats a Relapse?

A relapse is when you have stopped drinking for a while and then you start drinking again.

In general terms, relapse means to suffer a deterioration after making improvements for a period of time. The exact period of time, or the level of setback doesn’t necessarily matter in defining a relapse, but generally it’s a big setback after a long period of doing better.

Instead of calling it a relapse anytime someone drinks after stopping drinking for a while, some people prefer to use the term “slip” for a small slip-up, we’ll touch on that as well.

What do you do when an alcoholic relapses?

If you know someone who has relapsed on alcohol, this can bring out a lot of feelings.

If they’re a parent, another family member, or a close friend, the feelings can include things like frustration, sadness, anger, resentment… these are healthy feelings, but it’s best if you can process them without taking out anger on the person who drank because they already feel guilty about it, almost certainly, and adding that on top probably won’t help them.

Having said that, there’s value in being open and honest with your feelings and it’s okay to let someone know how their drinking is impacting you. Sometimes, this can be a big motivation for someone to stop drinking, but it should be a conversation had out of compassion and empathy, rather than anger or frustration or resentment.

What does it mean when someone relapses?

It doesn’t mean they hate you, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to stop drinking, it means they had a moment of weakness but that doesn’t mean their journey in sobriety has to end.

Even if someone relapses and drinks, they can stop again.

It means they might be dealing with more stress than usual, and it means they can probably use a friend or someone to be there for them.

It means they weren’t able to recognize their triggers to drink before it happened, and they weren’t able to reach out for help and support before drinking.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t learn those skills for next time.

“I relapsed. Now what?”

Now, you get back on the path to sobriety and you keep going.

You reflect on why you drank, and what you can do to avoid that happening again.

Were you going through a particularly difficult time?

Thoughts on Slip vs. Relapse

Slip vs Relapse

Having one drink after a year of sobriety, and treating that the same as a relapse where someone stops drinking for a week and goes back to binge drinking everyday, can be a bit counterproductive.

Some people like to look at this through the lens of a “slip” versus a “relapse”.

For some people who are struggling with addiction, once they’re like “Oh no, I’ve relapses, oh well, might as well have another one…” it can lead them right back to where they started, and feeling like they’ev lost all their progress can make it even harder to stop drinking again.

On the other hand, if they look at it as a “slip”, and they recognize that they can simply move on from it and not keep drinking, because they’ve made a ton of progress, it can be a much healthy awy of analyzing this.

The problem can be if people start using the existence of a slip as a way to justify drinking just a bit, just a little slip, and that can obviously snowball out of control very quickly.

So, the concept of a “slip” instead of a “relapse” can be a great way to hold onto progress but be mindful that it doesn’t become a justification to drink.

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Martijn van Eijk
Martijn is a passionate creator and the driving force behind StopDrinking.com. He created this website to assist individuals and their families in conquering alcohol addiction and finding a joyful, fulfilling life after alcohol. With a deep understanding of the challenges they face, he empowers readers with valuable insights and practical guidance on their journey towards recovery. Author of the Stop Shaking Book.