A therapist once explained to me what she referred to as a “slip.” What she described to me, I was used to calling a “relapse.”
A lot of people like to count their days clean from whatever battle they are facing, whether it be self-harm, alcohol or drug use, eating disorder behaviors, or any other negative coping mechanism. One of my friends growing up shared similar struggles to mine, and we used to check in on each other’s days clean as a way to encourage each other to be accountable and make good decisions for ourselves. While the accountability at times was incredibly motivating, other times it was crippling.
In a perfect world, you stop. Drinking, smoking, self-harming, whatever. You decide to stop and you never do it again. Unfortunately, most people’s journey of recovery is not a straight road. This is not to discourage people from counting and celebrating their time without behaviors, but just an insight to what surfaced for me while counting my days on my windy path of recovery.
I remember celebrating my friend’s one year clean, nothing crazy, just walked to the park and got ice cream. I saw her pride, and shared some of it. I was proud of her, as well as the year I would be reaching in just two months. Unfortunately, within that time I strayed from my path. I let myself engage with my intrusive thoughts, and during an upsetting fight with my friend, I “relapsed.” I felt like I had lost everything. Almost a full year of committing myself to recovery every day gone, wasted, meaningless. The frequency of my urges skyrocketed, my thoughts were spiraling. The following weeks, I felt like I had no reason to do it anymore, like everything was pointless because I’d just mess up again anyways and even worse, I had to start again at one.
The distinction, the therapist once made to me was that a relapse was when you lose your commitment to recovery. A slip was a mistake, a moment of weakness. She explained that recovery was a lifelong evolution and should be measured by progress not perfection. Although I slipped with negative behaviors, that doesn’t discount the eleven months where I didn’t. The eleven months where everyday I picked myself over my dysfunction. I picked healthy coping, I picked sitting in discomfort, and not yielding to instant gratification.
If counting days helps, by all means, track them and celebrate your progress. Of course, the goal is to not go backwards. However, acknowledging that a slip doesn’t reset your progress is a significant reframing that can go a long way. I have learned to see slips in recovery as speed bumps. Sometimes it means I need to re-evaluate my stress level, build in more support systems, or give myself time to regroup. I do not praise myself for them, but I forgive myself. I will never be at zero again. No matter how many times I struggle, I have grown for years in recovery, and I will continue to. I guess when you look at it, “slip” and “relapse” are fairly interchangeable in definition. For me, it was just a purposeful reframing that helped me keep moving forward. Instead of focusing on the shame of falling down, it allowed me to focus on gaining insight as to why it happened and plan on better ways I can handle it in the future. By forgiving myself, and calling it a “slip”, I was able to skip the shame of not being perfect and focus on continuing forward progress.