If you think of recovery as the acquisition of a set of skills, it’s not difficult to understand how slips happen. They’re a sign of real-world flaws in somebody’s recovery program.

Working definition of slip: an unplanned lapse in sobriety. The emphasis on unplanned is because some alcoholics deliberately drink to test their control — a phenomenon that deserves its own discussion, provided elsewhere.

A slip might be differentiated from a relapse as follows:

  1. Slips occur when recovery is not yet fully established. Relapse follows an extended period of (apparently) successful treatment.
  2. Slips tend to be short-lived. Relapses generally aren’t.
  3. Due to 1 and 2, a relapse presents greater challenges to treatment.

Compare a diabetic who ‘slips’ with a few candy bars to one who abandons his diet altogether in favor of a prolonged sugar binge. Both have consequences, but the second is usually worse.

There are four common scenarios that seem to generate slips.

Accumulating stress

Certain behaviors enhance stress. Irregular or binge eating, skipping sleep, overwork, obsessive worry or resentment, compulsive hyperactivity – all can contribute to a feeling of being overwhelmed. Particularly when you isolate yourself from others who might help you restore balance.

Some practical suggestions:

Reach out. A phone call, a visit, a conversation after a meeting, provide opportunities to relieve stress and more importantly, gain some helpful perspective. If you’re going through a period where you can’t avoid exceptional stress, make sure you’ve got a routine of talking things over with someone who understands – every day, preferably.

Calm yourself. Practice simple relaxation or meditation techniques daily (they become more effective when you do).

A homely truism: a structured life, built around a simple routine, is less stressful than frenzied activity. And I’m convinced you actually get more done when you take your time.

Toxic emotion

Slips often stem from unpredicted surges of negative feeling that lead to panic. They’re rooted in the fight-flight response.

When we’re threatened, our brains reflexively seek to run or turn for combat. But in the absence of saber-toothed tigers, modern man often overreacts to his own fears. Here’s an example, based on the work of scientist Richard Restak:

Imagine you’re sitting in a restaurant, having lunch, and in walks someone with whom you once had a very painful love affair. Suddenly you find yourself flooded with anxiety: heart racing, stomach tense, the taste of food turning sour in your mouth. You manage to sneak out unnoticed. As you walk away your heart slows and the tension drains from your body, and you find yourself wondering why you reacted so strongly. After all, the relationship is long over, right?

You just experienced a fight-flight reaction based entirely on the past. Intellectually you know better, but your emotions are still to some extent a prisoner of a painful history.

The remedy is the same as before. First, reach out to someone. Not a bad idea to have made agreements with several friends to be available for each other in such circumstances, with their number on speed dial. Then, practice your relaxation technique as soon as you can.

Testing boundaries

Recovery involves a number of changes in lifestyle, and as a rule, most people don’t like change. So there’s a built-in motivation to test the limits. Do I really need to change this? Can’t I just keep doing things the way I always have?

Unfortunately, the answer is frequently no, you can’t.

Example: Benny takes great pride in his work as a media sales rep. That’s traditionally meant taking clients out to lunch and dinner at clubs and restaurants and buying them drinks. It’s his principal sales technique, in fact. But now he finds himself anxious and irritable, and continually tempted. Leaving him with a choice: Keep doing things the old way and probably slip. Or change.

Most people try sticking with the old way, at least for a while.

Treatment generally includes identifying high risk situations and making a plan for dealing with them. Benny knew his sales meetings were high-risk; he just wasn’t willing to give them up without a trial. Three slips later, he acknowledged reality.

Peer pressure

We don’t just mean friends who urge us to drink or use drugs along with them. Most of the real pressure comes from inside us – from our own desire to fit in.

That’s most visible among children and teens, but it doesn’t go away with adulthood. We all feel the need to belong. Our self-image is to some extent a reflection of the things we admire in others. That’s a major issue, and a source of shame, for some alcoholics. Why can’t I drink like other people?

To some extent, self-help groups are a response to the need for companions who share our experience. We begin as part of a larger culture that accepts drinking. Gradually, alcoholism sets some of us apart. Eventually those individuals accept the need to abstain from alcohol. But where is their peer group? It isn’t easy to identify with those who never had the experience of alcoholism. They could gravitate towards others who are in recovery, too. But some resist that. It’s their reluctance to acknowledge their changed reality.

Can you blame them? Who wants to be different?

But some of us are.