The Language of Using Again

Originally posted on the Reunion San Diego blog on June 2, 2013

Man relapsing drinking

For a long time, addiction treatment programs have used the word “relapse” to describe a return to drinking or drug use following a period of voluntary abstinence by people with drug and alcohol problems. Often the words “lapse” or “slip” are used to distinguish a brief period of “using again” from a return to more extended and long-term use.

At Practical Recovery, we’re joining hands with a number of experts in the field who want to do away with the use of the word “relapse” because we think it has negative connotations.

As addiction scholar William White, M.A., author of Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, points out, the terms lapse and relapse actually have their roots in religion and morality – not health and medicine – having to do with such things as abandoning religious faith and moral failing.

We think a much better term than relapse is “recurrence”. If we accept the fact that serious substance use disorders wax and wane for many people, they are analogous to disorders like diabetes for which the symptoms can recur. If someone’s diabetes becomes out of control, we don’t say he or she “relapsed”. His or her care is stepped up until the symptoms are under control again – and patients know that they have a place they can return to if and when their symptoms come back.

Thus it should be with addiction. If your symptoms recur, be they big or small, it’s important to take action fast and to not be ashamed. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to recognize the situation for what it is and to ask for help. At Practical Recovery, we’re here to help you come up with an action plan.