How do you define relapse?

Readers Question Readers Question: (Name changed for privacy)
Stanton Peele Response by: Dr. Stanton Peele
Posted on November 18th, 2008 - Last updated: November 21st, 2023
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I have been abstinent (mostly) for almost 3.5 years with 3 relapse events – 1 moderate (half pint) about 3 yrs ago, 1 heavy (2 pints over 2 day period) about 1.5 years ago, and 1 moderate to heavy (2 beers and a pint) about 2 months ago. My family is upset with any relapse. I am committed and working on a number of stress-reducing mechanisms. Since I use your book and many of its philosophies, I would be interested in your opinion of my situation. I am working with a mental health counselor who is comfortable with my plans, but my family seems unconvinced. Another opinion?


Dear Jerry:

I am surprised if you rely on my work (books such as The Truth About Addiction and Recovery and 7 Tools to Beat Addiction) that you fear you are in relapse because you have drunk alcohol fairly moderately three times over the past 3.5 years. It seems that you never drank to intoxication; you certainly didn’t enter a heavy drinking period.

A more common error than yours is when people read my work as indicating that moderation is the only way to lick an alcohol problem. Of course, temporary, extended, or even lifelong abstinence are possible outcomes people can pursue. Only the individual can decide what is realistic, and desirable, for themselves.

Even if you would have consumed more, and clearly become drunk, three times over 3.5 years, you wouldn’t have actually relapsed. I might call such drinking relapse events. But they would still be so few and far between that I wouldn’t say you had relapsed. Dangerous drinking episodes you or others trying to abstain or control your drinking experience should not to be ignored – rather you should understand the conditions that led you into such drinking, and come up with reasonable responses to avoid repeating them in the future.

But relapsing is returning to your former level of problems, or something near them. Obviously, you are substantially improved, and could be considered not to have had any drinking problems in the last three years.

On the other hand, you may have a problem with your family and drinking. The issue is not your drinking so much as how you are approaching your family and their views of you and your drinking. They don’t seem to share your values. Ignoring them is not the answer. Not telling them when you consume a small quantity of alcohol is possible. Or having your counselor meet with them in a family session might be another solution to pursue.

Best wishes,

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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