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Does One Drink Break Sobriety? A Nuanced Answer

A hot point of contention in the sobriety and recovery community, and one that I have gone back and forth on personally, is whether one drink breaks sobriety.

In fact, it’s possible you’ve read my post, “No, You Can’t Define Sobriety On Your Own Terms” and figure I’d come out staunchly on the purist side of this debate. The truth is, however, that after five years of sobriety, I’m not as rigid.

So does one drink break sobriety? It depends on a few factors. So let’s talk about them!

Did you have a slip-up or are you relapsing?

It happens to a lot of people in sobriety. You reach a period of time, maybe months or years, and you think to yourself, “I wonder what would happen if I had a drink.”

People entertain this idea for any number of reasons, like:

  • Good, old-fashioned curiosity
  • Getting hit with a wave of FOMO
  • Missing alcohol
  • A desire to fit in at social functions
  • Testing the waters
  • A belief that you can now drink moderately
  • Just because

Not all drinks are a result of profound, internal pressures or even in response to external pressures. Sometimes you just drink because you drink.

If you decide to have a beer or a glass of wine, does that mean you’ve blown your sobriety? It depends.

Disclaimer: There are no hard and fast rules on this. I’m merely giving you my opinion based on what I know from five years of researching and writing about sobriety and living it myself. If you want medical guidance, speak to a medical doctor or trained addiction specialist.

1. Did you have a drink and stop or did you get drunk?

Personally, I don’t think having one drink and deciding that it’s not for you, is a death blow to your sobriety. Is the drink one and done? Are you able to maintain your sobriety after the incident? You have personal autonomy to decide what that means for you.

If you’re a ‘days counter’, maybe you start over, but even if you don’t, that’s your choice to make. I mostly take this position for people with significant sober time under their belt.

Why? Because the longer you are sober, the likelier you will stay sober.

one drink of beer being poured from the tap
Does one drink break your sobriety?

Relapse Facts & Statistics

As you can see, the risk of relapse decreases significantly the longer you stay sober.

Is one drink a relapse?

The Encyclopedia of Drugs, Alcohol & Addictive Behavior has an interesting take on this. They refer to a minor episode of drinking (ex: having one drink) after a period of abstinence as a ‘lapse.’

A relapse, by contrast, is a major episode of drinking such as drinking five or more drinks or drinking on two consecutive days.

So by that definition, one drink isn’t necessarily a relapse, but it’s not exactly a reason to celebrate, either. Any time you drink after a period of abstinence, you are choosing to sit down at the top of a slippery slope.

To be clear, any time you relapse, that is engage in a major episode of drinking, you’ve broken your sobriety.

Key Differences Between a Slip and a Relapse

Remember, a slip, or lapse, is a brief return to drinking or using substances, typically followed by immediate regret and a quick return to sobriety. This momentary lapse often strengthens the individual’s resolve to stay sober. It’s like momentarily losing your footing but catching yourself before you fall.

In contrast, a relapse is a more serious and prolonged return to old substance abuse behaviors.

It’s not just a brief slip, but a slide back into the patterns that the individual had previously overcome. The duration of sobriety before the relapse can vary widely, but the key factor is the return to habitual drinking.

Understanding these differences is vital. A slip might be a wake-up call, prompting a renewed commitment to recovery.

However, a relapse indicates a need for more intensive intervention and possibly a reassessment of the recovery strategy.

2. Have you been formally diagnosed with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)?

Having one drink is a significantly different experience for someone who has been diagnosed with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).

People who struggle with gray area drinking or are trying to change their relationship with alcohol do not experience one drink of alcohol the same way as someone who suffers from AUD.

The consequences of that one drink can be far more significant for people with a history of alcohol abuse, as they are traditionally more vulnerable to a life-threatening relapse. This is why for many in traditional recovery spaces, one drink does mean you’ve broken your sobriety.

And the reason for that is we’ve seen too many times what happens when people struggling with addiction dip their toe back into those waters – it can lead to a devastating relapse that is much harder to recover from.

It’s why one drink can feel like a five-alarm fire and the support network for someone with a history of alcohol use disorder will move quickly into action.

After that drink, we tell them to go to a meeting, reach out to their sponsor or therapist, refocus on the work and recommit to sobriety.

That’s because early intervention can be the difference between one drink being an unfortunate blip on someone’s sobriety journey and a relapse that impacts not only the person drinking, but their families, spouses, children, and other loved ones.

But let’s say you aren’t someone who has been clinically diagnosed with AUD or you’re not in a high-risk group for relapse. Does one drink break your sobriety?

It depends.

3. What happens after you have one drink?

The longer I’ve been sober, the more sympathetic I am to the idea that having one drink does not have to blow up someone’s recovery completely provided that:

  • It was just one drink.
  • The person stopped immediately.
  • There are zero plans or desires to drink again.

Because when that’s the case, it doesn’t really fit the definition of a relapse. Plus, if it’s a one-and-done situation, you’re still very much a sober person.

However, people for whom sobriety is mostly a lifestyle decision need to understand that there is one basic requirement for membership into our little club – you have to not drink.

If you’ve been sober for a while and decide to have a drink, it’s not the end of the world or your sobriety, necessarily, unless you decide that it is.

If, after this one drink, you decide to have a glass of wine at an event one month later and another glass of wine a couple of months after that, you are no longer sober.

There is no such thing as a sober person who drinks occasionally or rarely. Perhaps you are somebody who doesn’t really drink, but sober people abstain from alcohol entirely. Once you cease to be a person who abstains from alcohol, even if it’s once in a blue moon, you are no longer sober.

And if you aren’t someone who suffers from AUD, that’s totally fine. You don’t have to be sober!

Where the Breaking Sobriety Discussion Gets Tricky

Here’s where this whole conversation gets complicated.

It is very common for people to resist the idea that they are an alcoholic or fit the clinical definition of someone suffering from alcohol use disorder. I struggled with this for years.

There’s a difficult, painful period of time when people dance between wanting to get sober, knowing they have to, and convincing themselves that they don’t actually have a problem and just need to ‘learn’ to drink moderately. (We all know how that last part goes.)

For many of these people, one drink does break sobriety because it is the beginning of another terrible cycle of binge drinking or other alcohol-related behavior that negatively impacts their life.

It’s always a good idea to ask for help.

That’s why it’s so important to have open, honest conversations with trained medical professionals and addiction specialists if you’re at this type of crossroads with your drinking.

I would never want someone to read this article and take it as permission to have one drink or to test those waters. I’m merely trying to address the nuance of this question for the different types of people that ask it.

So if you do have that drink and feel vulnerable to entertaining future drinks, and if that would have harmful consequences for your life, then 100%, you need to take it seriously and think about starting over.

Starting over doesn’t mean you failed. It just means that you need to go back and do some of the early sobriety work again to protect yourself from a serious relapse. And of course, reach out to a sponsor, therapist, or whichever support network you rely on to stay sober.

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