About ten years ago I went to dinner with one of our field’s experts on relapse prevention. He explained that the key to success was identifying and addressing relapse triggers.

“I’m not sure what they’d be,” I told him. “Our addicted clients are more like ‘see drug, do drug’.”

“Well, that’s not a relapse,” harrumphed the expert. “That’s a lapse. Entirely different thing.”

Over the years I’ve read many explanations of the difference between lapse and relapse. Some made a degree of sense, while others involved tortured metaphors that just confused the issue. At some point I concluded that it doesn’t make all that much difference.

The more important question is whether the alcoholic or addicted person is at the point where he is actually trying to stay sober. If he was, and he just failed, then you can probably work with him. If he wasn’t, then there’s your problem in a nutshell.

It leaves you with a choice. Either switch to a more motivational strategy, hoping to increase his internal desire for an end to addiction. Or you can allow him to go his own way and perhaps fall flat on this face, as a form of object lesson. Depends on the situation.

The one thing we shouldn’t do, in my opinion, is to rescue him from some consequence of his behavior. Because addiction so easily turns that to its own ends.

Very often I’ve seen a clinician go to bat for a client as an advocate, with the best of intentions, without stopping to consider: ‘what lesson has my client actually learned from this situation?”

It shouldn’t be that when he gets in trouble, somebody will rescue him. That’s a bad lesson.

It’s like the story about the man who trained his cat to ring a little bell whenever she wanted to go outside. He was very proud of the achievement, until his wife pointed out that in reality, it was the cat who had trained him.