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Is One Drink A Relapse?

How many drinks does it take to relapse? For many people in recovery, relapse means so much more than taking one drink. Some think that one drink erases all progress. That one drink, and the shame that comes with it, leads to a prodigious bender in which the damage is doubled, or tripled. For others, one drink is viewed as a “slip,” a minor relapse. They stop there, go back to their treatment center or AA meeting and start over with a renewed sense of purpose to stay sober.

Many people with an alcohol use disorder do relapse. However, there are some who never relapse. While no one knows precisely why some people relapse while others don’t, relapse does not have to mean a step backward. All of the progress from the days, weeks, months, or years of sobriety are not erased by one drink. A short relapse can be a stepping stone to figuring out that alcoholism is a lifelong disease that needs regular, daily maintenance like other chronic physical or mental disorders.

What Is a Relapse?

According to the Encyclopedia of Drugs, Alcohol & Addictive Behavior, the issue of relapse is divided into two categories. The term “lapse” describes a minor episode of drinking following a period of alcohol abstinence. This would suggest that having one drink is considered a “lapse.” On the other hand, a relapse “should be used to connote major episodes of use, such as drinking five or more drinks or two or more consecutive days” following a period of abstinence.

For many alcoholics or people with AUD, having one drink is nearly impossible. One of the common aspects of alcoholism is not being able to control the amount of alcohol someone drinks. The line between a “lapse” and a relapse is a thin and dangerous one.

If you have been struggling with a drinking problem, ask yourself: have I ever had just one? If I had just one drink in one day, how many drinks did I have the next day? If you are like the millions of people who have sought treatment for alcohol addiction, you will probably conclude that a “lapse” often leads a full relapse.

You Don’t Have to Relapse (Again)

Persons with AUD experience relapse rates relatively similar to those who have other chronic physical illnesses, such as diabetes. Up to 60% of people in their first 90 days of recovery experience a relapse. Research and studies show that people do experience less severe binges, reductions in the frequency of relapses, and improving quality of life if the individual continues to seek help and treatment.

Relapse happens, but it doesn’t have to happen. It definitively doesn’t have to keep repeating. And the best way to ensure that one drink doesn’t turn into a destructive binge is not to take that first drink. Treatment centers and 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous are effective ways to build a sober foundation, a recovery community, and new life skills to remain sober and live purposefully.

According to a study published in Addiction (a leading addiction research journal), more than half of people who stay sober for three years after entering a treatment program or Alcoholics Anonymous for their alcoholism remain sober for 16 years.

Early Recovery, Relapse, and Hope

Brian had been on probation for a couple of years, had lost his living situation, and had been drinking since he was 12. After asking for help from his step-dad, he entered an outpatient treatment program and began going to AA meetings.

For Brian, who was struggling with alcohol, heroin, and cocaine addiction, the answer to that question is one drink. When Brian first tried to get sober, he relapsed weekly—sometimes just one drink and sometimes all-night benders. It took him three months before we put together 10 consecutive days sober.

Those 10 days were painful. He was shaking and jittery. He was unhappy and not quite sure staying sober was worth it. The life group therapy and one-on-one treatment sessions, as he says it, did just enough to help him become open to the idea of recovery. The people in AA gave him hope and friendship that he hadn’t experienced in years. It was barely enough to carry him those first few months.

To his surprise, he stayed sober for 30 days, then 60 days, and before anyone knew it, he had stayed sober for one year. His story is similar to the millions of people who have had success in treating their alcoholism.

Recovery Is Unpredictable

Recovery is possible, especially for those who are doubtful. It is scary, and sometimes it feels like you take two steps forward and three steps back. But one relapse or one drink doesn’t mean progress is lost. A slip, even a short one, can be significant for someone to be able to decide how vital sobriety and recovery is. Boardwalk Recovery is here to help if you have any questions about relapse prevention, rehab, and recovery.

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