Moving Forward: Why Lapsing Isn’t Negative

This Article Was Published On 13-09-2019


Just as recovery is a personal process, moving forward and then hitting a bump in the road can take on different meanings for everyone. For some people, lapse and relapse are the same things. Those who see it as the same thing view it as a debate of semantics and so assume it has no meaning.


This approach enables every stage of moving forward to be treated the same, and if you adopt an all or nothing approach to treatment and recovery then this makes perfect sense. However, if you are comfortable that moving forward is a process, then part of that recovery process can include lapse events.


Moving forward is not a linear process


Lapse is a normal stage of recovery and though not everyone goes through this experience, this stage is critical for us as practitioners. If we do not acknowledge it, and instead view it as a Moving forward: why relapsing isn't negativerelapse, we will limit our own creativity and flexibility to motivate the clients to view their lapse as a sign of progress and moving forward. You can only lapse if you have made progress, if you have stopped using for some period of time. The lapse is evidence that there is more work to be done. Better still, lapsing often outlines very specifically what area of work you can focus on to sustain your recovery and keep moving forwards. If your service user lapses due to who they are with, then you need to do more work on boundaries, and who they have in their social networks, whilst if you lapse because of complacency then you know that there is more work to do on planning and being self-aware etc.


A lapse does not mean you have lost sight of your goals, only that you have simply missed the target for a moment. Try, try, and try again is part of the ongoing ethos we encourage on the recovery journey. Instead of making the same mistakes, it is better to view those mistakes as evidence that something else can be done to work towards moving forward. It is inevitable that you will experience missed appointments, misunderstandings or missed deadlines as you identify what it is that you need to learn, and how best you can resolve that challenge. 


Expecting things to always go right the first time is admirable and certainly inspiring, but unrealistic; it is much better to anticipate the barriers you might come up against, and instead see them as opportunities in which to begin learning, growing and moving forward. 


I once had a client who had not used for almost a year and arrived in tears as they had viewed their lapse as a relapse as catastrophic and interpreted their first period of sobriety in three decades both as halting their moving forward process and even meaningless. It was one episode of using and yet they were devastated. I asked them if I had told them nine months ago that they would go so long without using, would they have believed me, they said ‘No, I would have thought you were mad.” If I told you that on the day you used you would be devastated about one event instead of proud of those 9 months what would you have said?” The client abandoned their tears of pain and shame and replaced them with tears of joy, able to accept the ups and downs of moving forward as a process.



Why do professionals relapse?


The sad bit of this job is attending funerals. We work hard and inevitably we find that someone we have invested in has struggled to a point where they or their body has had enough. This loss is magnified if it is a fellow professional, either a colleague in the services or someone who has been moving forward into recovery or started an associated career.


The craft of recovery is very much about learning to look after yourself instead of prioritising others, and so it is inevitable that so many success stories become colleagues. So why do we lose colleagues to relapse? Maybe it is the reality of recovery. It is not true that everyone who enters a period of recovery will sustain it, so there is no reason why our colleagues should be any different. There is the overarching paradox of colleagues struggling when it comes to moving forward; that of helping others whilst failing to employ the very tools that you are cascading with such passion. For many professionals, the support network can often revolve around fellow colleagues. Should a fellow colleague lapse it then presents an immediate conflict of interest that can be hard for some colleagues to easily resolve. Do they tell friends who are also colleagues that they have been using and need extra help whilst potentially impact on their professional status because of it?


Lapse – Mistake or learning?


Moving forwards: why relapsing isn't negative

Is it really so useful when your clients and colleagues are experiencing low self-esteem, to refer to episodes of lapsing as mistakes that prevent them from moving forward? Surely they are not mistakes, but challenges that can be addressed and almost certainly challenges that those who are moving forward have encountered and addressed. 


With whatever lapse event you are presented with, you are not making mistakes or failing but instead learning what happens when you take a more measured approach. Reframing lapses in this way helps you see your recovery journey in a different light, moving forward in a more helpful and progressive way than seeing every failure as a relapse. 


Your service user’s recovery journey is not a linear process of moving forward. We have over 100 lapse tools and techniques that can help promote rapid, sustainable progress. Explore our services for the tools you need to support the supporters, as well as those most vulnerable.