Depending on who you ask, a “slip” and a “relapse” have several different meanings.
Many people who follow a strict program of recovery would say that a slip and a relapse are one in the same.
Many addiction professionals, however, make a distinction between the two and it all boils down to intention.
For those who distinguish between the two, a slip refers to an accidental intake of alcohol or drugs. For example, you are at a wedding and alcohol is being served but you are careful to drink a non-alcoholic beverage. In the midst of the festivities however, someone places their alcoholic drink next to yours and you inadvertently pick up the wrong glass and take a swig without checking. Now, if your intention was not to drink alcohol and you made an honest mistake, and as long as you don’t continue to drink out of the wrong glass, and go back for more, then you could call this a slip, or slip up, and not even have to change your sobriety date. (I have heard of some hardcore people in the program who would say otherwise, though.)
A slip can also be intentional but usually implies that it was a very short-lived period of use. Like a one time, or one day sort of thing.
Lastly, there are those who will say that “slip” is just another term for relapse. Some people may say they’ve had a slip in order to minimize the fact that they relapsed. It sounds less severe. For example, an alcoholic who begins drinking again but only on weekends might call these weekend binges slips, but, even if it is only a couple of days out of the week, it is the pattern of behavior – drinking behavior – that constitutes a relapse.
A relapse means you have made a conscious decision to abandon your sobriety and sober lifestyle to return to your old behaviors and thought processes. There is premeditation with a full-blown relapse. You actually obtain and consume alcohol or your drug of choice. You know the consequences, you have been in recovery but, you choose your addiction over everything you have been working toward in sobriety.
In this sense, a relapse is far more serious than a slip because it means you have returned to your former addiction. A relapse often starts off as a slip but then continues and gets progressively worse. A relapse can last anywhere from a few days to a few (or more) years. The longer the relapse, the more likely it is that the current attempt at sobriety has been completely abandoned.
It’s up to the person who slipped to decide whether they should change their clean date or date of sobriety. Those who take their sobriety seriously and choose to look at their slip as a close call to going back down a dangerous road will see the importance of being honest with themselves and others. This type of person will most likely decide that it is best to be humble about their clean date and reset it to reflect their most recent use of drugs and/or alcohol, however brief that moment of use may have been.
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