Preventing Relapse

by Michael Liimatta, City Vision College Academic Director

From a seminar given at the 1996 AGRM Annual Convention

Along with introducing them to Christ, helping addicts to maintain sobriety is a critical job of the rescue mission residential program.  Learning to read, completing high school, and gaining other life skills are important.  But, if residents cannot remain sober, we might have only succeeded in creating smarter Biblically literate drunks. The act of using drugs or alcohol is the just end result of a process that begins long beforehand.  Addicts relapse when it is more painful to stay sober than it is to get "high".  

The  immediate benefits of ceasing drug and alcohol use include: improved health, better sleep , return of appetite, and clearer thinking.  However, all addicts eventually face a challenge even more difficult than stopping drinking or using drugs -- coping with life without them!  Doing so involves a whole lot more than just "putting the cork in the bottle".  They must learn a completely new way of life.  We often refer to this process as "recovery" -- the Bible calls it "sanctification" -- a definite ongoing program of personal growth.

Major Causes of Relapse

  • Denial - inability to accept that one is indeed addicted to alcohol and/or drugs and that it is a primary cause of life problems.
  • Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome- inability to cope with a set of very stressful, physiologically-based symptoms that occur only after use of alcohol and drugs has stopped
  • Emotional Dysfunction - inability to cope with feelings such as grief, depression, stress, fear, etc., without mind altering substances.
  • Relational Dysfunction - inability to develop and maintain healthy relationships with others.
  • Temptation -  inability to deal with the issue of sin in one's life.
  • Dishonesty - the inability to maintain a commitment to rigorous honesty which is the foundation of a life of recovery.

Some Relapse Prevention Strategies

 1.  Spiritual  Activities - Worship, prayer, Bible Study, and scripture memory all equip the person new to sobriety  to overcome temptation and live a life that is pleasing to God.  One especially important area where they need special help is in learning how to form healthy relationship and avoid destructive ones. Unhealthy relationships, especially of the romantic sort, are one of the biggest causes of relapse.  Teaching about godly relationships, even in the sexual area, helps them to avoid getting caught up with people that are not good for them.

2,   Take Relapse Seriously - It must be clearly understood that use of alcohol or drugs results in immediate dismissal from the program.  This could mean simply being asked to leave the facility, demotion to "transient" status or referral to another program.  After thirty days, the client can be reassessed for reentry to the program.  The worst possible situation is to give them the impression that everyone has at least one drunk "in the bank."  We can be assured that they will use it!

3    Addiction Education - Gaining more knowledge about addiction serves two very important functions.  It helps the addict in denial accept his condition.  And, this knowledge can be a tremendous source of comfort and reassurance for those struggling with post acute withdrawal symptoms and the emotional difficulties that come with early recovery.  Newly sober addicts need to understand that they are suffering from a malady that is shared by others. It also gives hope that change is possible.  Many resources are available: lending libraries, literature, videos, and local professionals who can speak at the mission. 

4    One on One Counseling - Every participant in a long-term program needs at least one hour a week with a staff member who understands addiction to help them through the struggles of early recovery.  Relapse is a process -- no one is working a solid program of recovery one day and drunk the next.  Therefore, one very important goal of these sessions is to help them to recognize their relapse patterns and learn interrupt them before the process leads to actual use.

5    Support Groups - Good support groups provide recovering addicts with find a safe, non-judgmental setting to share their struggles, thoughts, and feelings without fear of rejection.  Hearing the stories of others with similar difficulties and how they overcame them provides real encouragement to go on in a life of sobriety.  Because addiction wreaks havoc upon an individual's relationships with others, support groups are also a great place to begin the difficult and painful process of re-connecting with other people.  (find Christian support groups in your area)

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Michael Liimatta is Academic Director for CIty Vision College and the former Director of Education for the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions.  

This copyrighted series originally appeared in RESCUE Magazine, published by the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, in the October 1997 issue.  Reprinting without permission is prohibited.