What Is Relapse?

By Terence T. Gorski


To talk intelligently about something we must first define out terms. The term “relapse” is often misunderstood. This article carefully defines the word relapse which is widely used in all addiction recovery programs. These are the key points on the definition of relapse that are mentioned in a wide variety of dictionary definitions. Relapse means …

1. To suffer deterioration in a disease after a period of improvement.

2. To fall back into illness after convalescence or apparent recovery.

3. Suffering deterioration in health after a temporary improvement.

4. To fall or slide back into a former state.

5. To regress after partial recovery from illness.

6. To slip back into self-defeating old ways and habits after making a commitment to change.

7. Backsliding into old and unwanted behaviors or states of health.

8. To fall back into a former state, especially after apparent improvement.

9. A return of a disease or illness after partial recovery from it.

10. The process of falling back or regressing into a state of previous illness and problems.

Language Programs the Brain, Focuses the Mind, and Motivates Behavior. Think clearly to get results in recovery!

Origin of the Word RELAPSE

The word relapse comes from the Middle English term “relapsen” meaning to forswear -to promise to give up (something) or to stop doing (something). It can also be traced to a combination of Latin words, relb and re. The Latin word relb or relps means to fall back gradually; and the Latin word re means to slide in an uncontrollable way or to slip.

The word relapse results from a linguistic process called “nominalization” which means to describe a process (like loving someone or relating to someone) into a thing (like love or relationship). Relapse is a process of becoming so dysfunctional in recovery that a return to addictive use seems like a positive choice. Relapse is not the event of starting to use. Starting to use is the last step of the relapse process that occurs after many early warning signs indicating the direction in which you are going.

A Cross Walk Between Twelve-Steps and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

It is very important to do a “cross-walk” between the 12-Step language, including the terms “dry drunk” and “wet drink.” A dry drunk refers to a person feeling miserable in recovery and being unable to find meaning, purpose, and a sense of peace or well- being when abstinent. A wet drunk means a return to the use of alcohol or other mind-altering drugs. In the language of the Twelve- Step Culture, the relapse process is often described by the idea that “a dry drunk leads to a wet drunk.”

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy presents a similar idea of relapse described in different words. According to CBT, relapse is “the process of falling back into an illness, condition, or habitual behavior problems that end in the act of drinking, drugging, or acting out an addiction or habitual self-defeating behavior.”

The term addictive release refers to the momentary sense of pleasure or euphoria that is felt when retuning to the use of addictive drugs or behaviors. The use of alcohol or other drugs while experiencing some form of an addictive release occurs at the end of the relapse process and marks the beginning of a relapse episode. A relapse episode is a single discreet episode of use or a closely related string of use episodes with no significant periods of sobriety or recovery between each drinking episode. A relapse episode is usually preceded by stressful events or triggers that raise stress and activates old self-defeating and addictive ways of thinking, acting, and relating to other people.

There is distinction between a lapse and a relapse. A lapse is a short term and low consequence episode of alcohol and drug use ended by returning to recovery before serious damage is done. A relapse is a return to a previous state of out-of-control use of alcohol and other drugs usually accompanied by a return of secondary problems related to the addiction and leading to serious damage of life and health.

I believe that we need to go to any lengths to stay clean and sober. In my mind, this means adopting a Twelve-Step Plus Approach that matches the needs of individual recovering people with strong recommendations and encouragement to attend 12- Step Meetings and to participate in other treatment activities such as professional counseling and therapy. Trained and certified addiction professionals supervise treatment activities. Recovering people in the community organize peer-led, peer-supported, and community based programs such as twelve step meetings and secular recovery programs like SMART Recovery and others. Programs like these help to meet individual needs, promote long- term recovery, and uses appropriate relapse prevention methods.

There Are No Wrong Doors into Recovery. There is No Wrong Treatment or Recovery Activity if it Helps People Live Sober and Responsible Lives Filled with Meaning and Purpose.

Terence T. Gorski is the Founder and President of The CENAPS Corporation. He is an internationally recognized expert on substance abuse, mental health, violence, and crime. He is best known for his contributions to relapse prevention, managing chemically dependent offenders and developing community-based teams for managing the problems of alcohol, drugs, violence, and crime. He is a prolific author and has published numerous books and articles. Terence is the Director of Relapse Services at the Beachcomber and is Director of The National Certification School for Relapse Prevention Specialists.