In a presentation, “Worthiness is not Flawlessness,” delivered at a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints conference, Bradley R. Wilcox shared a story of a young man named Damon.
Damon felt stuck in a years-long addiction and the pit of self-loathing it had knocked him into. Though he made some progress in kicking his addiction, another relapse was always just around the corner.
A couple quotes stick out from Wilcox’s address:
“The Lord sees weaknesses differently than He does rebellion. … When the Lord speaks of weaknesses, it is always with mercy” (Richard G. Scott).
- “Considering how long Damon had struggled, it was unhelpful and unrealistic for parents and leaders assisting him to say “never again” too quickly or to arbitrarily set some standard of abstinence to be considered “worthy.” Instead, they started with small, reachable goals. They got rid of the all-or-nothing expectations and focused on incremental growth, which allowed Damon to build on a series of successes instead of failures” (Bradley R. Wilcox).
Notice the mercy flowing from each of these quotations. The Lord’s grace extends to everyone, including YOU if you have relapsed into a destructive addiction over and over again.
What is Relapse?
While there may be slip-ups or lapses along the way, they are different from a relapse. A bona fide relapse occurs when you stop maintaining your goal of reducing or avoiding the source of your addiction (be it drugs, alcohol, pornography, etc.) and return to previous levels of use.
Becoming clean after an addiction is a grueling, gut-wrenching effort, but when you finally get there, nothing can compare to the feeling. You’ve had this goal in your sights for so long, and all of the effort has paid off. Your days in the valley are over; you’re finally free.
In the glow of this victory it’s hard to imagine that you’ll ever be in a dark place again, but relapse is always a possibility. If you do relapse, the disappointment can plunge you to an all-time low. You’ve let yourself down. You’ve let others down. The heavy doubts creep in. Are you even capable of lifelong recovery?
What to Do After a Relapse?
First, know that you are indeed capable of recovery, no matter how many times you’ve relapsed. Here are 5 steps for bouncing back after a relapse and getting back on the road to recovery as soon as possible:
Stop using. Once you feel like you’re skidding down a bad path, it can be hard to stop the momentum. The self-defeating talk is real: As long as I’m headed in this direction anyway, why not continue?
If you took a wrong turn behind the wheel, you wouldn’t keep going in the wrong direction. Nor should you keep using just because you’ve relapsed. Do what it takes to stop yourself, whether it be contacting a faith based treatment center or seeking help from a trusted loved one.
It’s not too dramatic to say that your life may depend on stopping. Relapse is particularly dangerous because your body isn’t primed for what you’re doing to it. When you’re actively abusing a substance, your body develops a tolerance to it. That’s why you need more and more to get the same effect.
During periods of non-use, your tolerance drops. Jumping back to your pre-sobriety levels could be a shock to your system, and a potentially deadly one.
Remember that you’re on a journey. Because you’ve put a lot of emphasis on becoming sober, you may think of that as an endpoint, but it’s merely one point on the road to recovery. Buckle up and remember that you’re in this for the long haul.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that average relapse rates for substance abuse disorders are between 40 and 60 percent. Recovery is a winding road marked by accomplishments and setbacks. In many cases, the setbacks can work for your good. They may help you discover and fortify weaknesses so they won’t derail you again. They may make you more committed to sobriety than ever.
Understand that you’re dealing with a disease. Should a cancer survivor sink into self-loathing when their cancer returns after a period of remission? Certainly not. Like cancer, the American Medical Association defines addiction as a chronic disease. So why do we treat substance use disorder (SUD) so differently?
Repeated substance use can change the structure and function of your brain, which accounts for intense cravings, impaired judgment, impulsive behavior, etc. In other words, there are very real, biological reasons you want to use.
Relapse is common with chronic diseases like hypertension and asthma, which both have relapse rates between 50% and 70%. SUD isn’t any different. Shed the shame associated with your relapse and focus on what you can do to manage this disease.
Identify triggers and celebrate your progress. Part of recovering from a relapse is identifying what caused it. This may include tension in a relationship, work stress, or the influence of friends who you used to use with. As you pinpoint triggers, you can make a plan for avoiding these triggers in the future. You’re not a powerless victim of addiction, you are a proactive agent who can change your interactions, environment, and thought patterns for a brighter future.
We humans are prone to hyper-focus on our missteps to the exclusion of our triumphs. We fixed a beautiful dinner, but all we can remember is that we overdressed the salad. We were patient and loving with our child all weekend except when he dropped his ice cream cone in our lap. And yet, we replay our grumpy response over and over again in our heads.
If you’ve relapsed, chances are that all you can see is just how badly you went wrong. But this is only one small part of your story. Remember all the things you did right to achieve sobriety? Those were staggering victories that many people don’t achieve. Celebrate it.
Reach out to your support network. Your support team has invested a lot in you and your recovery, so you’re likely very afraid of how they’ll react to your relapse. But if they understand substance use disorder, they’ll know that you’re dealing with a disease that is sometimes bigger than you are. Here are a few reasons why it’s critical to reach out to your family, friends, support group members, therapist, etc.:
Addiction thrives in secrecy. Conversely, your best path out of it is through open, honest communication. It may take courage to tell your loved ones about your relapse, but they will recognize that you are ultimately committed to honesty in your relationship. This will help build trust.
You need your people. Family members and other support networks are critical for helping people get and stay sober. They provide accountability and encouragement. With their constructive help, you’ll have a much better chance of avoiding future relapses.
They can help you work through relationship-related triggers. If a challenge within your support group (such as tension in a relationship) triggered your relapse, you’ll need to get to the bottom of it. Working through difficulties with friends or loved ones can reduce your chances for future relapses.
When dealing with addiction recovery and relapse, never forget that the most important resource you have is grace through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. He gave up His life for us so that we can keep trying to be better. The Atonement is not the back-up plan, it is the plan. “The atonement exists because our Heavenly Father knew we would veer off the path. We believe in daily, joyful repentance for whatever we have done. We also believe that nothing we do can put us out of the reach of the atonement,” said Preston Dixon, COO of Renaissance Ranch, the leading LDS Drug Treatment Center for men here in Utah.
In the Holy Bible, the first book of Corinthians, the apostle Paul teaches that we’re not just supposed to have hope. He tells us to “abide” in it through all of the ups and downs of life. Biblically, abide literally means to “remain” or “endure” in something.
A relapse can be discouraging, but the fact is that 75% of people who experience addiction eventually recover. The odds are overwhelmingly in your favor. The Lord is overwhelmingly in your favor, too: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end” (King James Version, Jeremiah 29:11). There is a beautiful plan for your life.
Be realistic in your expectations, and be gentle and encouraging with yourself. Turn to the atonement and abide in hope and you’ll emerge from this relapse better and stronger than before.