Helping Program Graduates Who Relapse

by Michael Liimatta, AGRM Director of Education 

At rescue mission recovery programs, homeless addicts spend several months to a year or more in a relatively safe, drug- and alcohol-free environment. While involved with the program, they are introduced to Christ and learn the principles of a sober lifestyle. Despite all this help, many, if not most, graduates from solid programs with caring, competent staff will use alcohol and drugs again. 

Unfortunately, many people in early recovery experience relapses. However, they can turn out to be the key to gaining a deeper commitment to Christ and to a program of personal recovery. These experiences can lead addicts away from self-reliance and into a deeper sense of their need for God. So, we must help program graduates who fail to use failure in a constructive manner.

Let's take a look at the main reasons rescue mission program graduates relapse:

A. Denial - Addicts who are not fully convinced that they are powerless over alcohol and/or drugs will withdraw from support groups, counseling, and other activities intended to support them in recovery. They usually end up experimenting to see if they can, in fact, handle drugs and alcohol.
 B. Relationship Issues - Romantic involvement with a dysfunctional person is one of the most common reasons newly sober people relapse. Isolation, by failing to make new friendships and to stay in touch with a support network, in another big reason. Failing to adequately deal with broken past relationships can also be a setup for relapse.
C. Financial, Legal & Vocational Issues - Not finding or keeping a job, not paying their bills, and unresolved legal problems lead to major stress, especially for program graduates on probation or parole. Too often, they end up dealing with this stress by using alcohol and drugs.
D. Spiritual Issues - 1 Cor. 10:13 is a simple warning - "Let him who thinks he stands take heed, least he fall." Success, itself, can result in an attitude of pride, which in turn leads to a neglect of the very disciplines that brought the success in the first place. Commitment to rigorous honesty is the foundation of recovery. Newly sober addicts must remain committed to their relationships with God and His people.  

Program graduates must know that if they fail, returning to the mission for help is an option. Help can be provided through on-site counseling, referral, or coming back to live at the facility. If the third option is chosen, keep these thoughts in mind:

A. Focus on Forgiveness and Humility - People who relapse get stuck in shame and become discouraged. We need to help them recognize that their failure was anticipated by Christ at the cross. It can be used to motivate them to avoid the sort of self-reliance that got them into trouble.
 B. Start Them At The Beginning - In a multi-phased recovery program, the initial phase should focus on addiction education and overcoming denial. A refresher in these principles is important, since the relapse is proof that he or she either forgot them or never believed them to begin with. Reviewing the essentials of the spiritual life is also a good idea.
Once the returning individual has completed the essentials of the first phase for a second time, he or she can progress through the remaining phases at an accelerated pace. This should be based mainly on the successful completion of the required tasks for each phase.
C. Map Out the Relapse - Relapse is too often thought of as the actual act of ingesting alcohol or taking drugs. It must be viewed as a process that begins with certain types of thinking, attitudes and behaviors. The objective of a "relapse map" is simple: to help addicts recognize their patterns and, then, to develop strategies for circumventing them before the actual use of alcohol and drugs occurs. 
 D. Aftercare Planning - Before the individual leaves the mission program for the second time, they must work with a staff member to develop a detailed aftercare plan. It should include concrete activities in which he or she will participate in order to avoid falling into patterns that were identified in the "relapse map". It may also be helpful to schedule follow-up sessions with a mission program staff member in order to build in a level of accountability.

This copyrighted article originally appeared in RESCUE Magazine, published by the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, December 2004  Reprinting without permission is prohibited.