Very recently, more recently than I even really want to admit, I “relapsed.” I really despise that word so I didn’t call it that. Exactly what happened is that I let myself down. I fell back on the commitments and intentions I had set for myself, and relived old patterns.

I’ll write more on my own personal experience a little later, but first I want to talk a little bit more about the word relapse and what it’s important to find alternatives.

I can’t remember when I first developed a distaste for the word relapse- but I do remember a specific instance about 12 years ago that solidified the feeling.

I was working at a Safe House for at-risk teens. I was in the final semester in my Child and Youth Care Counseling certification, and had been specializing with youth substance use/abuse and street youth. There was teenager of about 16 or 17 staying at the Safe House. She had already lived a rough life by then, having been on the streets and heavily using methamphetamines (crystal meth). In the past 5 months, she had made huge progress. She had stopped using drugs, was regularly attending recovery meetings, she was a healthy weight again and was beginning steps towards reconciliation with her family.

One night she came back to the Safe House very distraught. “I F’d up! I went downtown and I smoked weed. Now I have to go back to day 1 again. I had almost 5 months sober days and now I’m back to zero.”

We talked about the incredible progress she had made in the past 5 months. We talked about the fact that she had been downtown, where her former friends and dealers were, and that she had decided not to use her drug of choice. She had come so far and I encouraged her focus on the positive. But she was so hung up that she had relapsed and would have to announce this in her meetings and go back to “day 1” as if all of the personal growth and awareness she’d gained along the way didn’t mean anything.

This bothered me, and looking back, I’m sure this contributed a lot to my personal path of seeking out alternatives to traditional recovery models.

To me the word relapse negates any positive progress or growth. We grow, we live, we “make mistakes,” we learn, we change, we make some more “mistakes,” we learn some more… we EVOLVE. 

This is why I seek out and base my practice on alternatives that honour awareness, that value the journey as much (or more) as the destination, and that take into account the fact that we are all individuals, and as such, we each will have our own path to follow.

I was so proud of a client of mine who recently experienced a “relapse.” She had set clear intentions for herself around her drinking (max 2 drinks in an evening) and had been doing quite well honouring her intentions for more than a month. Last week she went through several really big and emotional changes in her life and on the weekend decided to go to a party. She consciously released her agreement to herself until she drank to the point of not having to be think anymore, about anything, blissfully checking out for the evening. The next day, she felt a familiar anxiety rise as she tried to piece together conversations and events from the night before.

Instead of getting stuck in regret and shame around the “relapse,” she quickly reframed, instead using it as re-affirmation of her commitment to herself. During our session a few days later, she said to me: “You know, maybe I needed that experience to confirm that I really don’t want to feel that way anymore. I don’t want to wake up hungover, and not remember all the details. I really don’t want this in my life anymore. I want to be fully present. ”

That is why I am proud of her. We talked about bringing awareness to the intention behind the behaviour, that she still had work to do around her tendency to want to “check out” when things got hard. We talked about alternatives for her to use to calm and relax her mind, and work through emotional times, instead of getting wasted. We celebrated the positive change I had witnessed in the 1.5 months since our first 1-1 call together.

I’m also proud of her because I KNOW how easy it is to let a relapse negate or somehow cancel out progress. This happens when we focus on the behaviour and allow it to define us.

This *almost* happened during my last “relapse.” After drinking very little to nothing for months, I had what I considered to be a major regression. I was in a big city for a health coaching conference and I found myself sliding rather rapidly into some old behaviours. I went out drinking with some friends (drinking friends) and hid my drinking from others (health coaching friends). I had previously joked with the friend I was staying with that I was so happy my “partying until getting on my early flight” days were done, then I proceeded to do exactly that. I forgot my telephone in the bathroom of the bar I was in, thankfully realizing in time to go back and get it, then I forgot my phone charger and favourite travel mug in my friend’s apartment, and I don’t really remember checking in at the airport.

Hazy and hungover on my flight home I had resisted the urge to be completing self-shaming. It was hard not to slide into that regret and to start questioning my purpose and ability to be coaching others on this topic (even though I KNOW I’m a fantastic coach and that ALL of my experience is valuable). I resisted this urge because and reminded myself that I know am armed with an incredible amount of self-awareness, which I didn’t have before when I was in my heavy drinking days. I consciously made the choices that led me directly into repeating past patterns, and I wanted to understand why. 

I was about to launch my business online, therefore outing myself and my experiences, and I realized that was scaring me shitless. I was afraid I wouldn’t live up to expectations (largely my own) and that I wouldn’t be able to be vulnerable. I was resisting being a leader and role model, for one more weekend acting out in a way I thought would make me feel “free.” Not surprisingly, instead of allowing me the false freedom I had previously accessed through that wild child part of myself, I wanted more than ever to free myself from alcohol.

I was recently discussing  my distaste for the word relapse and my desire to find a more meaningful term with my friend Maylene whom I also consider to be be one of my spiritual teachers. Here’s what she had to say:

“The mind (ego) wants us to feel like we ARE our behaviours and we do not change, which is completely untrue. Awareness automatically alters the power those behaviours have over us.

I think the most critical thing is to emphasize that it’s not a punishment or a failure but a sign that there is more to work with and examine in that behaviour, there’s more that wants to be seen before we get free of it. It’s a reminder to be mindful and present with the actual feelings that underlie the actions. We don’t just ‘act’ mindlessly, there is an emotional seeking or avoidance under it. If we are courageous enough to really look and feel it, we can get free. If we ignore it or pretend it’s not deeper than the action, it grows and requires avoidance of some kind.”

We started trying to come up with other terms that take into account the accumulation of our experiences and evolution. A few that we thought of were “temporary regression,” “temporary set back,” “reminder,” “wake up call from the Universe,” “growth opportunity.”

What do you think about the word relapse and the experience of relapse? Do any of these terms resonate with you? I loved having this conversation with my friend, and would love to continue the conversation here.

Let me know what you think in the comments!