By Michael D. McGee, M.D.
Chief Medical Officer, The Haven at Pismo
Author of The Joy of Recovery: A Path to Freedom from Addiction
In treating persons with addictions, it is absolutely essential that we help them to learn how to not let a slip turn into a recurrence of the addiction. Those who expect perfection in their recovery will consider a slip a sign they have irreversibly failed. Then they give up and a slip becomes a full-blown recurrence.
Though slips and episodes of addictive behavior are not inevitable, they are common. This is why our patients need “slip insurance.” Below, I have provided suggestions that clinicians can give to their patients about how to think about and to deal with slips. That is, to develop a “slip management plan.”
BEFORE: In advance, have emergency contacts in place
Do you have in place emergency contacts whom you can ask for help in the event of a slip? Emergency contacts might include a therapist, a recovery mentor, other recovery supports, or trusted friends.
Commit ahead of time to being honest and transparent with your recovery contacts. Planning ahead allows you to reach out if you slip.
DURING: If you slip:
1. Admit it and forgive it
Gently acknowledge the mistake but do not beat yourself up, despair, or give up. Instead, tell yourself that slips are just mistakes containing a lesson for your growth.
In recovery, you have to persist and persevere. If you slip, immediately recommit to your recovery. Call someone right away to get help. Go to a meeting. Throw away the drug/bottle/pack of cigarettes. Get yourself to a safe place. Remove yourself from all triggers.
3. Tell it
Don’t keep your slip a secret out of guilt or shame, unless doing so would cause significant harm. Take care to at least be open with your recovery supports.
AFTER: Learning from the slip
An important part of a slip management plan is to learn from the slip. Something has gone wrong in your recovery when you slip. So, it is important to try to understand where and how you fell off your recovery path.
What were the triggers? How were you not right with life? What was the detailed sequence of events that led to your going back to addictive behavior?
Think about all this in your journal, with your therapist, and with your recovery mentor. This can help you to explore the sequence of events, the circumstances, the thoughts and feelings that triggered the slip. Then, let this understanding teach you what to do differently next time.
Remember that slips result from a process that started long before you actually slipped. Rather than one singular event, a slip results from a cascade of events. Negative emotions commonly trigger slips. If you do not know how to reduce your pain in healthy ways, the urge to use the substance to feel better arises. When you look deeper, you see that negative emotions arise from nonacceptance, unrealistic expectations, or unskillful behavior. Unskillful behaviors include dishonesty, a failure to assert yourself, or some other failure to take care of yourself. Maybe you became complacent and lost your healthy respect for the illness within you. Perhaps you gave up recovery activities and supports because you thought you were cured.
By understanding a slip, you understand the warning signs—signs you were not well—before the slip. This teaches what you must practice going forward to maintain a sound mind.
AFTER: Making necessary changes
With your newfound understanding of what went wrong, make corrections to your recovery and life plans. The changes you make in your recovery plan might include:
– With the help of your therapist, devise a better way to manage stress and pain. Fix what’s not going right; for example: simplifying and balancing, taking better care of yourself, asking for help, or repairing damaged relationships.
– Put into practice plans to manage triggers and cravings. Remove triggers wherever possible.
– Monitor yourself for the daily emotional lapses that can lead to using the substance.
– Go to more recovery meetings
– Make sure you are seeing your addictions therapist regularly.
Making these and other changes helps you get back into recovery. In this way, you prevent the failure of a slip from defining you and instead let it teach you.
Many slip because they got away from their personal recovery program. They forget that addiction is always within them. Recovery loses its place as the number-one life priority upon which everything else depends.
You should persist in your personal recovery program until the day you die. Just get back up when you fall and move forward.
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