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Will One Drink or Drug Use Make a Difference?

Does It Matter If You've Been Abstinent for a While?


Updated May 27, 2014

In a word, yes!

But whether a small relapse is helpful or not to your quitting depends on how you handle it. The key is to turn it into a learning experience that will make you better equipped to handle a clean and sober lifestyle.

The following pitfalls are common after that one drink or drug use, but can be used to your advantage.

Fear of Failure

After having that one drink or drug use, people often get scared that alcohol or the drug has a “hold” over them and that they will never be free of it. Fear increases anxiety, and when you are anxious, what do you want to do? You want to have a drink or take the drug that used to make you feel better.

So getting scared when you have had a drink or taken a drug after previously quitting can lead you right back to where you started.

The Solution

One way to handle this kind of fear is by learning relaxation exercises, and practicing them on a regular basis, especially when you feel the urge…

Increased Cravings

After having one drink or drug use after quitting, some people have such a good time that they start craving it even more. This is partly because of the increased excitement for doing something forbidden, partly because of the decrease in tolerance you have for the alcohol or drug, giving you a stronger effect, and partly because in order to become addicted, your brain built up pathways as a fast-track to stress relief.

The Solution

The best way to handle the increased desire to return to your addiction is to think seriously about other ways to enjoy yourself. They may not seem very exciting compared to drinking or drugs, but keep an open mind, and think about activities or experiences you have always wanted to try but never did (maybe because you were spending all your money on your addiction).

There may even be things you wanted to do but never dared or things you did when you were younger and really enjoyed doing. This is time to think about that skydiving holiday, joining a knitting club, or learning a new language.

Once an Addict…

When you give in to the craving for just one more drink or hit, you may feel resigned to the idea of being an addict forever. Yet this simply is not the case.

Very few people started out in life being addicted, and most have to work hard to get addicted in the first place. Your addiction may be something that feels very familiar to you, but that doesn’t mean that is all that you are.

The Solution

Think about other sides to yourself, not related to your addiction. Counselling can be very helpful to realising you have choices about what you spend your time doing.

The Good News About Relapse

“Falling off the wagon” is not all bad. Most people who eventually succeed in quitting find that this can be their best learning experience. It can help you really pinpoint what your triggers are, what pushes your buttons, and ultimately, what lead to your moment of weakness.

So if you have woken up with a hangover for the first time in weeks, or otherwise partied in a way you shouldn’t, think back over what lead up to it. Was it running into an old friend? Stressing about paying the bills? Feeling really pleased about your performance at work?

Whether it was that great drinking buddies feeling, escape from everyday hassles, or finding yourself in a celebratory mood, looking at what caused you to take that one drink or drug can help you prepare for next time, so you have a different way of handling it.

As long as you keep your long-term goal of getting clean and sober at the forefront of your mind, one mistake should not make you quit quitting.


Marlatt, G. Alan and Witkiewitz, Katie. “Relapse Prevention: Maintenance Strategies in the Treatment of Addictive Behaviors.” Edited by Marlatt, G. Alan, and Donovan, Dennis, D. Guilford, New York 2005, 1-44.

Miller, William R. and Rollnick, Stephen. “Motivational Interviewing: Preparing People for Change.” Guilford, New York 2002.

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