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Does One Drink Count as a Relapse?


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Linda’s recovery was feeling a little shaky.

When a friend from her Alcoholics Anonymous group reached out and asked for Linda’s help, Linda jumped at the chance. As a former professional dancer, Linda agreed to help her friend’s teenage daughter decide on some university dance classes. Linda and the girl set up a time to meet for lunch. Half-way through lunch, Linda leaned in the girl’s direction and said, “You know, I’ve been drinking again. I started with a bottle, but I just bought a case. It’s in the car.”

Then, as if the statement was an ordinary remark in an ordinary conversation, Linda shifted the subject to talk about a picnic planned for the week ahead.

The 15-year-old girl knew something was off. Linda was her mom’s A.A. friend. They had both been sober about the same amount of time: ten years.

The girl shared the story with her mom, and Linda went back to treatment within a few days. Linda later thanked the girl for helping.

After spending ten years sober, Linda felt an enormous amount of shame around her relapse. She was so guilt-stricken, in fact, that she didn’t want to confide in any of her recovery friends. Instead, a 15-year-old girl was her safest confidant.

While this story may sound far-fetched, it’s a true account of one person’s relapse (with names and identities changed, of course). Luckily, we have some thoughts to share on relapse, especially in light of the stress many of us have experienced in the past several months.

Is One Drink Considered A Relapse?

Yes. If you have been diagnosed with the chronic condition called alcohol use disorder, also called alcoholism, then the answer is, “Yes, one drink counts as a relapse.”

Old-timers in A.A. are often strict when it comes to the topic of relapse because they fear that the very nature of alcoholism means a true addict won’t stop after one drink.

Indeed, relapse can be life-threatening for a heroin addict or alcoholic. One drink can set off a wave of drug use which, without treatment, can be fatal.

Because addiction is a chronic condition, there is no cure, and no cure means managing your disease one day at a time for the remainder of your life. Yes, this is a daunting task. For this reason, recovering addicts focus on maintaining their sobriety for one minute, one hour, one day, and one week, particularly at the beginning of their recovery.

For an in-depth understanding of relapse in recovery from addiction, read this 2016 peer-reviewed journal article, “Alcohol Relapse and Change Needs a Broader View than Counting Drinks,” published in the “Research Society on Alcoholism” and written by Carlo DiClemente, PhD. and Michelle Crisafulli, PhD., both experts in the field of recovery.

Does Relapse Mean You Have Failed in Recovery?

No. Every day is a chance to start again. If relapse is a part of your recovery journey, like it is for many, the focus must be on making a different decision in this very moment. Can you re-commit yourself to recovery? Do you have a desire to stop drinking? If so, you have met the requirements for continuing your recovery.

Our understanding of addiction as a disease has broadened in recent years. Like other chronic medical conditions, relapse is often a reality for those managing alcoholism. Would you judge someone who stopped their treatment for hypertension and suffered some medical setbacks?

For alcoholics, the belief that relapse equals failure can stop them from seeking the treatment they need to get back on their recovery path.

You can read more about how relapse works in the brain and body at the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) website.

Three Simple Tips for Managing After A Relapse

  1. Talk. Don’t hide from the truth. Find someone committed to recovery to share your truth. Relapse can pave the way to a stronger, better recovery. Find the safest person you know in your recovery network and share your truth. Then, share again with another trusted person. At some point, shame subsides and relief takes its place.
  1. Write. Write about what brought you to this point. What led to relapse? Were you too Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? Talk it out with a sponsor or substance use professional. Compare a time when your recovery was running smoothly to the time when your relapse occurred. What was different? What actions can you take to get back to serenity?
  1. Stay visible. After a relapse, all your instincts may be telling you to hide. Instead, find safe folks committed to your recovery from addiction. These folks are your life preserver.

If you are an addict, take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. Many people struggling with addiction turn to substances when they are in pain. You aren’t damaged goods, and your sobriety isn’t a measure of your self-worth. Remember, you can recover from a relapse, whether you’re 40 years or 24 hours sober.

If you are in crisis, visit A.A.’s 24-hour hotline or call any treatment center, like Into Action Recovery Centers, to talk to someone who can help.

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