Lapse or relapse?

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Man appearing to be falling.

‘Often the fear of a relapse can be the trigger for us to slip and slide. Just as lapses must be recognized as an opportunity to work our program of recovery diligently, the relapse must also be seen as a GIFT: A Great Indicator For Throwing Stuff out. They are the emergency alarm bell telling us we are on fire, and need to stop and pause to put the fire out. Dreading the relapse will just put us onto the vicious cycle of addiction.’ —Eight Step Recovery: Using The Buddha’s Teachings to Overcome Addiction.

Relapse is part of the continuum for recovery. Few people manage to get total abstinence of their recovering journey from day one. And those who do, most probably were practising some form of harm reduction before they came out and publicly said: ‘No more. I’ve had enough. I’m not picking up ever again.’

Many of us do harm reduction, and/or relapse, under the scornful eyes that can judge us. Such overt or covert judgement can trigger nihilistic and facilitative thoughts inside of us like; ‘I’m a loser, I can never get clean, I may as well continue’, and we can begin to inhabit toxic feelings of shame. The scornful eyes, or the judging comments from others may never change but our relationship to relapse and our inner world of toxic stinking thinking can.

First we must begin to identify between a lapse and a relapse. For example, we have a row with someone, we feel nauseated, and we turn away from the overwhelming feeling without being aware of the thoughts in our head that we have identified with, like, ‘F***, I want a drink’. This identification is often unconscious and sometimes conscious, and the ending result of both is picking up our fix and using. This can be a lapse and turn into a relapse.

A lapse can end at that first sip, first puff, picking up the needle, turning on the computer. It could be by accident you pick up your stimulant of choice, unaware it had alcohol or sugar in it. Unaware that when you woke up your computer there were triggering images glaring back at you. Or it may be that you slip after a difficult situation, you pick up, become aware of what you have done, and you have a choice, do you put it down or do you continue? When you put it down it’s a lapse. When you continue it is a relapse.

Sometimes a lapse can be as long as a day, and then you get back on track and lapse again. However, if this pattern is occurring more than a week, then you really do have to admit you are in a relapse. A lapse is most definitely not an excuse to say well: ‘I can have one drink and call that a lapse’. The intention of having the drink, the motivation of having the drink would be acted out of a mind conning itself and would most probably end up in relapse.

Recognizing a genuine lapse is important. There is a gap after a lapse where thoughts and emotions emerge. In this gap we can make a new decision. We do this with the breath. When powerful thoughts like: ‘What the heck, I’m gonna use anyway’ arise, we must become absorbed in our breathing rather than absorbed in our thoughts. If we go for refuge to these thoughts — give them a prominent place in the heart and mind — we will inevitably spiral into relapse.

If we do lapse we have to be prepared that our thoughts can become overwhelming and we will lose sobriety of mind. This is where we have to work our recovery, because for the next few days our mind will be full of all sorts of thoughts of using, and we have to turn toward them kindly and know that all the mind is doing is producing thoughts we have no control over, and trust they will quieten down.

If we resist these thoughts the mind will go into mindless obsessing and before we know it we will be sliding helter-skelter into a relapse. And so recovering from a lapse is perhaps one of the most challenging things we have to do if we want to strengthen our abstinence and sobriety.

We have to stop listening to both the external and internal judgments made by others and ourselves. We have to choose our recovery over the relapse. This is even harder. Many of us relapse because in that moment of being triggered we want the our stimulant or distraction of choice, more than we want our recovery. A relapse can also be premeditated, planned and often triggered by a lapse.

Awareness of body, feelings and thought can help deter a relapse and lapse. When we can pause and connect to the body, feelings, and thoughts, everything slows down, and we can catch the catastrophic drama unravelling in the mind. We relapse because we disappear into the thoughts which are so overwhelming that the inevitability of falling of the wagon is lurking in the next moment. If we can learn to disappear into the breath, thoughts will become impermanent, and will not exist or grip us in the same way.

If we train the heart-mind to be more mindful we may begin to see that if we always do what we’ve always done, we will always get what we have always got. We will see the insanity of our relapses which are habitual behaviours that keep on producing the same results.

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