In addiction treatment and recovery, we talk about lapse and relapse. Lapse is when someone is just beginning addiction treatment and starts using again shortly after. Lapsing is common. Think about dieting and how easy it is in the beginning to eat a candy bar when the urge gets strong. The alcoholic or other-drug addict, cocaine addict, opiate addict, etc, in early recovery hasn’t learned how to control the compulsion to drink/use, so, unless they’re following all directions in recovery, they’ll likely give in to the compulsion. It will seem to the person as if they have no control whatsoever over the compulsion that drives them to drink/use. I’ve heard it described by alcoholics as if they went on autopilot, and zombie-like walked into the liquor store, bought the bottle, and before they knew they were drinking.
If the person returns quickly to recovery to start again and learn why they drank alcohol or used some other drug, then it can be a learning experience. There was a lapse in recovery, the person started back in recovery and went forward. No one has to have a lapse, but it happens. The person will usually feel guilty and beat themselves up, but this shouldn’t last long — the person has to get over it, talk with someone who understands and start again. Addiction recovery is tough in the beginning– lapses happen. I don’t want to make light of a lapse. Some people drink/use again and bad things happen, like a DUI, a fight where someone is seriously injured, the final straw for a spouse who leaves — then the person loses hope and the return to drinking/using turns into the continuance of addiction and down-hill slide. There are much easier ways to learn how to stay sober than going back to alcohol, cocaine, opiates, and suffering consequences. There’s an old saying in recovery communities – it’s easier to stay in recovery than to leave and come back.
A re-lapse is when someone has recovered, then gets away from the things that got the person straight and sober to start with, and they return to active addiction. This can happen after a year in abstinence, 10 years of abstinence or 40 years of abstinence. Re-lapse is usually more severe, because the person becomes more confused, guilt-ridden, filled with shame and anger at themselves. It takes quite a lot for someone who relapses after years of recovery to come back into recovery. Many people don’t make it back. The worse thing the person can do is give in to the shame and guilt and wallow in it.
Just remember, if you’re in recovery, it’s much easier to stay in recovery and continue to maintain recovery – however, if you lapse in early treatment or relapse after years of abstinence, quickly get back and learn from the experience. Remember that’s it’s a disease and you’re human – humans don’t always do what’s best for them. We can start feeling healthy and start believing we never really had a real problem after all, then start drinking or using again only to find that we again lose control. Learn about addiction, and once you know the truth believe that the truth doesn’t change, no matter how long you’ve been abstinent or how healthy and powerful you feel.