Signed in as:
Signed in as:
As we conclude our Relapse Prevention Series, join us as we look at two necessary components for sustained recovery.
In the third section of the new series on addiction recovery, we investigate why some recovery efforts fail.
In the second section of the new series on addiction recovery, we investigate components a recovery plan needs.
In the first section of the new series on addiction recovery, we investigate what addiction is and how it begins.
An Infographic look back at exactly what happened over the past couple of years for those in addiction recovery.
The pandemic took its toll on everyone, but how did it affect substance use disorder and relapse prevention?
Whether addiction is called substance use disorder, compulsion, or choice, if we do not seek to understand an individual’s specific reasons for why they began and seek recovery, we cannot adequately support them. Failing to see the person’s entirety will only result in improper treatment and create a more substantial chance of relapse.
In the first section of the new 3-part series on addiction and recovery, we investigate what addiction is and how it begins. In the second installment, we explore the maze of recovery and discover why some methods work while others fail. And in the final section, we conclude why relapse prevention is challenging but doesn’t have to be.
We love to label things, don’t we? Give it a hashtag or an acronym, and we are all over it. Even in recovery, there are a ton of clinical buzzwords and catchy phrases for addiction. Currently, the new one is ‘substance use disorder.’ Despite what fancy terms you will read and hear about, everyone has reasons for doing anything, why they stop doing it, and why they return to it.
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.
1 Corinthians 10:23
To accurately understand relapse prevention, we must first understand a few other things. Clinically, the National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as “a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences. It is considered a brain disorder because it involves functional changes to brain circuits involved in reward, stress, and self-control.”
In other words, it is a groove that has been worn in on the record of our life. And every time it repeats, the track is cut just a little deeper. It also signals a progressive decline. Like the graphic, our lives are going to revolve around something. For most anyone, if something has the slightest chance of turning destructive or harmful, we tend to contribute to the downward spiral, not the upward one.
This spiral typically begins because of unresolved trauma (abuse or loss), mental health, genetics, family situation, and stress. And if these issues are not properly addressed, they will eventually lead to coping behaviors to deaden the suffering, such as escapism and self-medication (anything that will provide temporary distraction or comfort). And this is where society’s sliding scale of ‘preferred prescriptions’ tends to reveal itself.
On the more acceptable end of the spectrum, most of society allows and even encourages some addictions. Cell phone scrolling, binge-watching TV shows, climbing the corporate ladder, gossiping, talking, attention-seeking, shopping, social media, relationships, caffeine, sweets, competition and sports, exercise and beauty routines, cleaning, and organizing. (Let us know if we forgot any.)
About midway through, we see some questionable addictions populate the graph. Video games, nicotine, depression, anxiety, gambling, food, and adrenaline junkies begin to blur the line between “I just enjoy doing this” and “I need to quit.” Activities in this region are polarizing, and where most arguments begin when people are confronted.
However, the optics of some addictions and society’s perception of them are viewed as more unacceptable and distasteful. Body modifications, hoarding, pornography and sex, alcohol, methamphetamines, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and opioids. Most people in this region have already accepted their choices as a large part of their lifestyle and identity, although some may occupy shame or obliviousness in their secrecy.
There is a caveat to this section, though. The categorization of the listed addictions is rooted in subjective preferences. While you were reading some of these, I’m sure varying levels of apprehension arose. But, based on how addiction is defined, boxes can be systematically checked off for nearly any repeated choices we make. However, the frequency, intensity, and immediate risk of those choices are how society ethically categorizes addictions.
Granted, many more atrocious ones can result in death and despair. So, please do not read this as comparing the morality or mortality of scrolling on Facebook for hours to a heroin overdose. Instead, we seek to understand addiction in its purest and primal form as accurately as we can. While addiction leads to physical suffering, spiritual suffering is the more significant concern.
Most, if not all, addictions begin as a pattern of thought, a constant cycle that happens over time. However, as this ‘constant’ evolves, individuals lose control. What starts as a choice becomes a compulsion, and desire overtakes them. (This is why depression and anxiety are classified as addictions. From personal experience, both of these extremes began as an object of thought that I obsessed over until fully controlled by them.)
Essentially, addictions can create an imbalance in our lives—anything we obsess over in an unhealthy manner. But what is ‘unhealthy’ to one person may be completely normal to another. This is why depending on society to define addiction fails to maintain a universal standard—society is only a reflection of the herd mentality at that moment.
And, just like Paul said in the above verse, we are free to do whatever we want to in life. But we must understand that sometimes, that freedom is what leads explicitly to slavery. Because ultimately, if what we choose to do is not “helpful,” it must be the exact opposite, harmful.
Now that addiction is roughly defined, we can look at what relapse is and what causes it. Relapse, recidivism (in the criminal sense), backsliding and drifting (in the spiritual sense), reverting, and regression are all fancy ways of saying returning to something. However, it is not the same as returning home from vacation, but instead, going back to repeated actions that made us sick and unwell in the past.
Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly.
As the writer of Proverbs uses the visceral imagery of vomiting, it means that we engaged in something that initially made us unwell. Vomiting is a sign that something has entered, and the survival instinct of our bodies has said, “Hold up, you don’t belong here,” and quickly sends it back out. While picturing a dog upchucking is easy, although unpleasant, it reflects what addiction and sin do to our spiritual selves. Instead of regurgitating and distancing ourselves from it, relapse means we return to it.
Relapse, though, signifies three separate stages: 1) did something, 2) stopped, and 3) returned to it. Sounds simple enough, right? In theory, yes. But where things get complicated is when we define our motivations for each of the stages. We all have reasons why we begin addictions, reasons why we stop them, and reasons why we want to return to them. While attempting to answer all three stages simultaneously would be like drinking from a fire hydrant, we will try to uncover them throughout this series. But in general, they all signify that our lives revolve around something foreign.
Whether the reason we return to old habits is stress, boredom, people, or places, something happens that causes the person to give up on the goal. Perhaps we were told we had to quit and didn’t really want to. For some, myself included, we hadn’t come to the end of ourselves yet.
However, for most active and recovered addicts, relapse begins much sooner than we may think. Rarely is relapse the product of a sudden, knee-jerk reaction. It often starts with a seed planted in the heart. And every day, we will choose to let it grow, help it out and water it, or uproot it. Addiction, just like sin, only grows when we feed it and give it attention. The only valid choice is to yank it out by the roots or risk letting it overtake the garden of our hearts.
For some, relapse happens with the first obstacle placed before them. Something trips them up and catches them off guard—and they wake up the following day to the reality of falling off the wagon. They feel defeated and ashamed but are still willing to try again. After a few months of unsuccessful attempts at recovery, they find themselves spending more of their time in relapse than recovery. Unfortunately, when we engage in this “On again/Off again” cycle, our commitment erodes a little more each time we fail. Whether by self-sabotage or ‘legitimate’ excuses, we find ourselves defeated every time an attack comes our way. In all honesty, this habit of defeated thought is nothing more than a dangerous self-deception.
For others, the threat of relapse is like a leaky faucet. A slow drip, calling you to return. Something unusual happens, and we revisit old thoughts in our hunt for ‘stability.’ We resist the initial attacks, and the battle has been won. Yet, a few days pass, and the thoughts of desire return. You fight another battle and emerge victorious again. Weeks turn into months, and before you know it, a year of successful recovery has elapsed. After getting a few years of fending off the frantic style of daily melees coming at us, perhaps we get a little too relaxed or too confident. Unless we are watching, the attacks become more subtle, systematic, and strategic. As time churns, the likelihood of relapse decreases—but does so in a manner that it becomes less watered-down and more concentrated.
“Feeling like an ‘old hand’ at this whole ‘following Jesus’ routine, we slowly become a little too confident in our efforts and find ourselves skipping a meeting, entertaining thoughts we shouldn’t, and consider veering off the path. But, since we are ‘weathered veterans,’ when we notice ourselves reverting to old patterns, we reason and convince ourselves that it is just a temporary phase—when in reality, it is a more terminal one.”
(Excerpt from “Align – A Modern Dissection of the Human Heart”)
Regardless of which of the two camps you may find yourself in, both have a wildcard working against the recovery efforts—our past experiences. Unfortunately, we can’t just forget our past and the previous years of use and abuse. In many ways, the allure of returning to old familiar ways of addiction appears more attractive, comfortable, and controllable than venturing on the new adventure of recovery. And this is where the addict and non-addict find their true enemy—the former self.
As the first installment comes to a close, here are a few scriptures that address the former self. I encourage you to pick at least one and commit it to memory for when—not if—the thought of returning to old habits crosses your mind. The effort you put in now will serve you dramatically more than just winging it when the enemy comes knocking at your door.
Scriptures for Recovery
“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
2 Corinthians 5:17
Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
Society's Sliding Scale of Addiction
Whether addiction is called substance use disorder, compulsion, or choice, if we do not seek to understand an individual’s specific reasons for why they began and seek recovery, we cannot adequately support them. Failing to see the person’s entirety will only result in improper treatment and create a more substantial chance of relapse.
In the previous article, we investigated addiction and relapse and what causes them. In this two-part installment, we will explore the maze of recovery and discover why some methods work while others fail.
When we defined addiction, one word was remarkably accurate—disorder. However, believing a disorder to be uncontrollable is simply not true. A compulsion, yes, but having no actual choice? Only in rare occurrences, such as an infant born addicted, does no choice exist. Just as we have our reasons for choosing a specific path of addiction to walk down, we also have reasons for seeking freedom. Whether the motivation for getting clean and sober is generated by legal issues, financial burdens, family concerns, health scares, or homelessness, we will eventually have to admit our choices started to infect other areas until they completely overtook our entire life.
While answering the ‘why’ regarding the pursuit of recovery is not a prerequisite to beginning treatment, it is necessary to allow at least the question to circulate in the background of your mind. Because in the long run, answering ‘why’ will ultimately determine your priorities and what you value in life. Just be aware that time tends to change this answer occasionally. As weeks elapse during recovery, a larger picture is often revealed to us that helps explain and elaborate on the why. What might have begun as resentment during a family intervention and threats of kicking you out if you didn’t go to rehab have often resulted in reconciliation and a renewed spirit of embrace from family members.
Many of us have to humbly accept that we may not know everything, and there is often more than one perspective for every situation. Ultimately, our ‘why’ must withstand attack from every direction, external and internal. Since the ‘why’ develops over time (like a photograph in a darkroom), we must be willing to undergo the process with a humble spirit because it is only during the journey that we can accurately answer the question.
But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor.
Most of the reason why someone pursues recovery and a specific method is usually for some intangible definition of what ‘clean’ or ‘sober’ is (which essentially means not using anymore, if we are honest about it). But one of the states of life—physical, emotional, social, financial, spiritual, mental, occupational/vocational, or environmental—is what drives the decision, to begin with. This specific state is also what we usually use to determine the outcome. Like a yardstick, we use progress in that particular area to measure our efforts. If addiction has led to bankruptcy, we attribute a financial measurement to recovery. “Well, I now have a job, bills are paid, and I have money in the bank. Therefore, I must be doing good.”
While this may address one area, humans are more than one-dimensional. And if we want to tackle the subject of addiction and relapse seriously, we may have to utilize more than one method. By using a cross between the scientific method, the problem-solving process, project management techniques, and sustainable change models, the following stages have been observed regarding the recovery process and its main components.
Every journey begins with a call. For addiction recovery, it begins with an issue. Perhaps something isn’t working as it should. Maybe red flags or suspicions in yourself or from others are starting to become more frequent. Something is starting to disrupt your functional routine, like calling into work on Monday mornings, fighting with your spouse more than usual, and having to borrow money more often. But at some point, a small voice will confirm that these suspicions are valid concerns and on their way to becoming legitimate problems if not addressed. And ultimately, you will have to decide if you care enough to do something about it.
If you decide to answer the call, it is time to begin collecting and analyzing information. As you do this, areas will naturally illuminate themselves as needing attention. Although you may not initially know what it is you need to fix something, the key is to allow yourself some room for growth and understand that, at this moment, you may not be seeing things as clearly as possible. Try to find out where your blind spots are and identify where the weaknesses lie. This is where support can greatly assist your journey. Utilize guidance, opportunity, and accountability as much as possible, even if you despise it. Whether initial treatment begins with detox, rehab, or step-down, know that this is just one step on a much larger expedition.
Although your ‘why’ will typically mature and evolve as you progress, be honest with yourself and determine why you want to do this. Identify what needs to be changed and why—envision the outcome, and draft a plan to help you focus on the whole picture. Decide where you want to go, but know ahead of time you may have to adapt and adjust how you get there.
Allow yourself time to process and prepare—whether in education, journaling, or discussions. Chances are you will need some level of dialog and input, exchange of ideas, questions and answers, venting, and sharing to help encourage you.
As you realize a better spectrum of recovery, you will naturally identify areas that need either additional or primary focus. As these areas reveal themselves, set realistic and achievable goals, then create structured plans and activities to reach them. As you are doing this, determine, as best you can, how you will track your progress, and get them on the calendar as something to aim for and work toward.
This stage is pretty cut and dry—do the work, build the parts, and test them before installing and integrating them. And do them one at a time. It is usually best to change only one behavior at a time. Avoid wholesale kit-n-kaboodle upheaval on assimilation. Adjusting too many settings at once may introduce new and significant problems and initiate a complete rejection of future efforts. Begin with the major issues and work your way down the list.
Make sure you are working on the right problem at the right time. Although you will eventually become a strategist, understand that, at this moment, you are learning tactical skills for everyday combat. As you monitor progress and implementation, you may find that other areas now need your attention. As you put out these fires, be mindful to document findings by appreciating victories and studying failures. While the goal is to move on to the next stage in your recovery, it is essential to clean the area before hopping on a train to Albuquerque. Addiction typically yields a considerable amount of collateral damage in its wake. To the best of your ability, fix what was destroyed by forgiving others, apologizing to those you have hurt, and making amends.
As we close one chapter and prepare to move to the next, we must now think about how this transition will occur. Like our lives, recovery does not operate in isolation. We are part of a culture and community and interact with many people every day. This is our sphere of influence—up, down, and around.
An excellent way of transitioning into investment is to help others. Your experiences coming through addiction and recovery are invaluable for others. By supporting others, we help bear their burden (as someone helped bear ours), and we also strengthen our understanding of certain universal truths, identify our own process, and develop new perspectives. As the old saying goes, “The best way to learn it is to teach it.”
Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
1 Thessalonians 5:11
Bear in mind these are simply the main checkpoints on the map. Many organizations may have labelled them differently or elaborated on them in more detail, but these are essentially the components required to build a foundation of recovery. In many ways, recovery shares similarities to repentance, redemption, and reconciliation.
However, where most secular and, to a degree, even some faith-based ministries falter is when they make recovery the ultimate goal. Recovery is a process, not an identity. And unless the identity is changed, then the recovering addict will be stuck in limbo and confused. While the activity of recovery is necessary, identity is paramount.
Join us next week when we continue this discussion further in the second part when we dive deeper into the Maze of Recovery, what it is, how we get lost in it, and how to find our way out.
Quote from "Align - A Modern Dissection of the Human Heart"
In the previous article, we covered the why and process of recovery. In this installment, we will tackle the actual maze, what it is, and how we get out of it.
There are several reasons why recovery programs and individual efforts often fail and do not lead to long-term change. While every person is different, we will attempt to cover a few universal constants regarding unsuccessful methods and unintentional errors.
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.
The Greek word most commonly used to represent sin in the New Testament is hamartia. And, believe it or not, this word literally means to ‘miss the mark.’ Where this specific word transcends from ‘accident’ or ‘mistake’ comes in the form of knowledge. Granted, there are situations where we may not know an action is a sin. However, when we are made aware that certain activities are sins, we become responsible if we continue pursuing them.
Regardless, in most instances of missing the mark, there is usually a definitive moment when the Spirit (some call it a conscience) detects an issue and signals a warning. If we listen and follow the suggestions of the Spirit, then we strengthen our receptivity to its voice and find ourselves having less ‘accidents’ and making fewer ‘mistakes.’ In other words (specifically my wife’s), when we listen to the Spirit, we learn to “make good choices.”
But, when we ignore the urgings of the Spirit, ‘missing the mark’ shows up in two very damaging outcomes—quenching and grieving.
Do not quench the Spirit.
1 Thessalonians 5:19
Quenching essentially means ‘to put out a fire.’ Quenching happens when we are given opportunities to demonstrate our faith and decide not to. In many ways, quenching is a sin of omission—If the Spirit tells us to “Go” and we say “No.” For example, when ‘divine appointments’ are booked for you, your schedule doesn’t seem to have any openings. Instead of being available for the Spirit to work through, we are either afraid or too busy to make accommodations. (A friend may need a shoulder to cry on, a co-worker may need to be encouraged, or a chance to volunteer to help the community.)
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
On the other side of the token, grieving is a sin of commission. It happens when we hear the Spirit telling us things like “stop, slow down, think about what you’re doing,” and we ignore the warnings. But grieving the Spirit is a rather distinct phrase if you think about it. For parents, recall the times you have told your child not to do something, but they did it anyway. If their rebellion was bad enough, chances are they got hurt. Although a parent’s reactions may vary between anger and sadness, the expression of caution originates from empathy—“Please, don’t do this. I don’t want you to get hurt or hurt anyone else.”
In another example, remember the pain and suffering of losing a loved one. When we first hear that a family member or close friend has passed away, a level of distress and anguish overwhelms us. I was in shock for a few days when my mother passed away. But I learned something significant during that time—we do not grieve for someone because they lost their lives; we suffer because we have lost something.
When we ignore the warnings of the Spirit, we are essentially creating moments of grief—that is how much the Holy Spirit cares for us. Think about it; we don’t normally grieve for someone we don’t know or care about deeply. And the deeper the connection, the more grief we would naturally feel. If that ‘someone’ cared enough about you to sacrifice themselves for your wellbeing, it stands to reason they would experience a substantial level of grief when we rebelled against their guidance and warnings.
So, where do all of these programs and individuals most often stumble? Where does the end begin? For starters, if you want to see a marriage or any business project go down in flames, try withholding communication of expectations and see how quickly it deteriorates. While this may seem obvious and shared knowledge, it must be said that “uncommunicated expectations sabotage relationships via assumptions.”
However, since humans are pretty inept at communicating despite talking all the time, a rather lucrative book genre has sprung up to capitalize on our blunders. Currently, on Amazon, over 30,000 books are available on communication—Workplace communication, marriage communication, effective communication, communication skills, and more. Sufficient to say clear communication is vital for preparation and application.
Regardless of our beliefs, everyone does not inherently hold similar values or view success through the same lens. ‘Standards’ are not standard. Some people just try to get by and get through the day. Other people require their noses to be at the grindstone and are relentless in their endeavors.
Recovery is no different. One version of doing ok may be significantly different than another. Or my ‘only had a couple of drinks’ may be drastically different than yours. Telling someone we are going on a trip to see the redwoods can be interpreted as “Shortly, we will either drive or fly to Northern California to see the land of the giant trees and maybe stop by the ranger station and get a souvenir coffee mug.” Not, “In 10 years, after we have pinched every penny we can, we will take a bus to Yosemite Valley, then hike the grueling 211-mile John C. Muir trail to see them.”
Clarity goes a long way in helping someone prepare for what they are about to undertake. Once again, this is why Jesus told His disciples, “In the world, you will have tribulation…” Jesus cared so much for His disciples that He spent His final hours communicating what He expected of them and what they should expect afterward.
However, emotions are typically high during the initial stages of recovery, and we are mostly concerned with just getting them out of the woods. Which, in itself, is a noble venture. But unfortunately, when we bring them in from the wilderness, they are often subjected to a maze with no clear path or identifiable exits.
Sadly, navigating the maze of traditional recovery typically yields dismal results. Instead of having a discernable path, the labyrinth more closely resembles a self-serving loop that only encourages relapse, program dependence, and confusion.
Obviously, detox is necessary because, just like sin, we can’t continue engaging in damaging behaviors and expect to do better accidentally. However, while getting someone clean is an essential first step, it is not the only step. Because, in all honesty, we cannot predict the person will remain clean or if we will ever see them again. That is why we must endeavor to share the gospel with them when we have the chance. We can only be in one place at a time, but the Spirit can be everywhere, all at once.
In the same way, quenching the Spirit extinguishes one flame; it ironically creates a spiraling culture of running around putting other fires out. To explain a little better, humans are both physical and spiritual. However, if we initially (and only) focus on the physical effects, we resolve to address half of the issue and not the most important half.
Instead of encouraging a recovering addict to pursue a relationship with Christ, many recovery programs focus their primary efforts on swapping one drug out for another. In many regards, ‘pacifier’ methods can be beneficial in the initial stage. Nonetheless, caution must be exercised—because this ‘diet’ method continues to feed the addiction. Instead of addressing the root cause, recovering addicts are encouraged to substitute one addiction for another with various options. In reality, the concept of addiction substitution has less than an 18% success rate.
“This concept is called replacement—and to a degree—it can help during the initial stages of recovery. But like many other aspects, it is not a permanent fix. Some practitioners even encourage synthetic replacements, like stepping down from certain narcotics or a gradual decrease in alcohol. At the same time, the end goal is supposed to be the complete removal of the vice, not to exchange one poison for another. In many cases, though, methods of prolonging recovery, like substitution, are simply just exchanging who their dope man is on doctor’s orders.”
(Excerpt from Align – A Modern Dissection of the Human Heart)
Repetitive loops and replacements indicate a side effect of addiction recovery—miserable complacency—originating from shifting priorities. Shifting priorities only leads to a tricky balancing act, precisely what a recovering person does not need. Imbalance in life beckons those in recovery to return to what they previously found ‘stability’ with—destructive or beneficial.
When the initial reason, or focus, is only valid during the beginning stages, individuals often become apathetic in later stages. If getting them sober is the main importance when they begin, then all we are doing is setting them up to repeat the cycle of addiction—potentially forcing them to remember and re-experience all the reasons why they even began using in the first place.
If keeping them sober is the goal in later stages, then that becomes their main essence, often resulting in an imbalanced, bitter, resentful, and begrudging life—all prime movers for a return to addiction.
Some programs and individuals naturally gravitate to or away from certain stages as priorities shift. Some want to settle in, and others are content with skipping components altogether. In either scenario, failure can and should be, expected. Whether stuck in the same sequence or attempting to audit foundational steps, the picture never fully develops, and the probability of repeating the process increases.
Staying stuck in one section stunts growth and increases the chances of sliding backward. Think of it like climbing a slippery hill. It is common to stop and rest for a moment. But many times, when we stop to rest, we get comfortable and start looking around. We may even turn around to see the view. We become too sure of our steps during this time and risk falling. While climbing, it is more advantageous to keep looking forward and upward while resting. The reason for this is we are able to consider the next leg of the journey and inventory potential spots we may have to navigate. And, if we do slip, we are already facing a direction we will be able to grab ahold of something and hopefully avert a more severe fall.
Throughout the years, ministries, organizations, and individuals have formulated methods that best help them achieve and maintain sobriety and abstinence and maintain a clean separation from addiction. Unfortunately, as the years pass, recovery eventually becomes an idol. Often, programs and support groups place too much importance on recovery and labels instead of focusing on a relationship with Jesus. While we believe this mistake is accidental, it does require us to determine which is more critical: sobriety or salvation.
Clearly, it is valuable to ensure relapses don’t happen. In this sense, prevention is an active step to remove themselves from triggers and ensure they have a plan and are prepared for future encounters. But this cannot be the only focus for recovery. As stated in the previous article, our identity must be transformed. And when the main focus is solely on the program, the step, or symptoms of activity, that leaves little room for the actual cure.
The fact is, relapse prevention begins well before our tenth-year ‘soberversary.’ And, in a like manner to sin, it is dealt with the same way—confession (acknowledgment of ownership) and repentance (a change). Perhaps one of the most visceral depictions of repentance is displayed in Luke 7:36-50. Although the woman who approached Jesus while He was in the pharisee’s house one day is never directly named (although it is suggested she was Mary Magdalene), her story is illustrative of how activity and identity are both necessary but not the same.
Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
While she was engaged in an activity—that of washing Jesus’s feet (with her tears and hair) and applying expensive ointment to them—her motivation was driven by a change in identity. Even though she knew she was a sinner and identified as one, sorrow and grief from her choices changed her relationship with her previous actions, thereby changing her identity. Although we identify ourselves by outward activities, our identity inwardly changes our actions.
Whether stuck climbing the hill or in the process of sliding down it, many just need something to hold onto. Programs, names, acronyms, and logos will change, hotlines don’t always pick up, mentors and sponsors will go on vacation, and new approaches and methods will replace the current trendy ones. That is why we cannot make recovery about ourselves, our ministry, or even recovery itself. It must be built on something more substantial. Recovery must be built on repentance and faith in Jesus.
As Jesus told the woman in Luke 7, faith is what saved her. Above any program or ministry approach, perhaps we should seek, hope, and pray to experience and embrace the same style of revelation that drove the woman from Luke 7. Because ultimately, that is the mark we must aim for.
So far, we have identified what addiction and relapse are, the process, and the pitfalls of recovery. Still, the question remains, how do you move an individual from active addiction to divine purpose? As we conclude our brief series on relapse prevention next week, we turn our investigation to inspect the true culprit behind either our eagerness to continue on the path or our hesitancy to continue going.
When we began this series on relapse prevention four weeks ago, we defined addiction and relapse while investigating why both occur. Then, we plotted the maze of recovery and noted many of the threats facing individuals emerging from addiction. As we conclude our brief series, we turn our focus toward acquiring a thriving recovery on the journey from addiction to purpose.
“We cannot be more connected to the method of enslavement than the outcome of freedom.”
(Excerpt from Align – A Modern Dissection of the Human Heart)
Over the years of writing and teaching, I have stumbled onto what some call ‘one-liners.’ These are short and punchy sentences with as few words as possible. At face value, more words may seem like a more challenging skill to develop, but this is not the case. As Mark Twain once said, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”
There are many arguments for writing frugally. But perhaps the most significant reason is our compressed and highly competitive attention spans.
As generations pass, reading has become an endangered species of sorts. Since condensed content tends to be more attractive than elaborate and articulate compositions, writers have adapted by reducing the volume of words to increase their potency. However, this ‘on to the next one’ culture indicates increasing levels of disconnection largely due to saturation.
However, brevity is not without its utility. A consistent one-liner most participants in my classes hear is “Embrace the awkward,” which means everything is awkward the first time you do it, especially sobriety or trusting in what God says.
In the earlier days, my audiences also heard, “Meet people where they are, but love them enough to not just leave them there.” Over the years, this one-liner became a mission statement for my involvement in addiction ministries. And at one point, I did rather well at it. But, as time progressed, efforts to ‘meet’ and ‘love’ receded, and I became more detached and reclused. In many ways, the schedule interfered with my mission.
“For those in recovery and the ones supporting those in recovery, it is easy to let chaos extinguish opportunities. It is also easy to let the methods and mission precede your commitment to one another. Once again, this isn’t a commentary in favor of enabling others and encouraging them to stay in wounded states. Instead, it is a resolve not to leave our own kind behind, even if the rest of the world is ok discarding them.
(Excerpt from Align – A Modern Dissection of the Human Heart)
In the spirit of embracing expediency, I will refine our closing article to two primary considerations: the heart and connection.
Ultimately, initial recovery and preventing relapses blossoms from a transformation of the heart. The mind naturally becomes more present as the body is purged of toxins (both chemically and spiritually). We are then able to contemplate our life choices and entertain new thoughts. As thoughts and considerations mature, revelations develop, encouraging patterns of realization and reflection.
As this sequence progresses, whispering sentiments of reconciliation inspire a deep desire to take action. When we experience a change of heart, our thoughts and emotions start to align closer to God’s, and our identity evolves. As they reorient, the entire trajectory of our life becomes significantly different: New paths provide unique challenges, new surroundings deliver distinct experiences, and new people foster opportunities to grow. All of these are responsible for a new identity—which can be frightening at times.
Merriam-Webster defines identity as “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual.” However, in mathematics, the term “identity element” more thoroughly describes what it actually is as “an element of a set which, if combined with another element by a specified binary operation, leaves that element unchanged.” In other words, even though the surroundings may change, who we are does not change. Why? Because the heart is the home of identity.
Unfortunately, heart change can go both ways. This is the primary reason why just getting someone sober or clean cannot be the main outcome. It can be a pitstop, but not the destination. Because anytime we remove something from our life, it will create an empty space. Nature hates emptiness and will always seek to fill the vacuum.
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.”
Sir William Osler once said, “The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.” The great physician understands the patient and the context of that patient’s illness. Essentially the difference between an emergency room attending physician and a primary care doctor is one of them must make decisions on the fly, while the other has a broader understanding of who we are and a better grasp on our medical history—One scans the back cover, and one reads the entire book.
In this medical analogy, immediate action is preferred for deep lacerations. But for a mysterious illness or nagging issue to be diagnosed and treated, hasty action may not be the best route. For an ongoing struggle, such as addiction, a trusted connection must be established. Connection in the sense that I know them, they know me, and they can be trusted. But, as we all know, trust isn’t free and doesn’t just happen in the blink of an eye. Getting to know people and building a trusted connection takes time and effort.
Clearly, both types of specialists are needed, not only in the field of medicine but also recovery. This is especially true when the topic of overdose is introduced. Regretfully, some relapses can be fatal, which is when ER doctors and EMTs are most needed. These physicians often get people out of ‘the woods.’ But then what? That is where the family doctor comes in, and the approach shifts from reactive to preventative care.
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
But all of them are essentially a care team. Since addiction is recurrent and ongoing, we will need a long-term plan. However, if we only focus on treating and preventing relapse, we stress over the symptoms instead of the root cause. To prevent relapse, we must begin with the heart, and the only way to get there is to establish a connection.
Since most people don’t “Wear their heart on their sleeve,” they are not just going to casually blurt out they have a crippling heroin addiction or binge drink one day at work. Instead, humans tend to embrace transparency and sharing when comfortable and safe, when we feel that the people around us understand our struggles and won’t judge us.
Every product you buy has a label on it. And not every label is 100% accurate or truthful. A label is supposed to be an informative advertisement representing what is on the inside. However, it is only after we open it up and use it, do we find out if that is the case.
Sometimes a can of green beans has been mislabeled and is actually split-pea soup. Other times, we buy kids a new toy that breaks within the first couple minutes of play—revealing our purchase to be a $5 piece of plastic garbage.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Ultimately, all significant life change must occur at the heart level and is prompted by our Heavenly Father. For example, many people in the Bible experienced life change when they were given new identities. Saul, who initially began as a condemner and persecutor of Christians, would eventually become Paul, a church planter and author of 13 books of the Bible. Peter, originally called Simon, transformed from a fisherman to the rock Jesus would build His church on.
While labels and advertisements can describe something with words and pictures, they fail to provide any actual experience or knowledge about the product. Both experience and knowledge are what drive connection. We can have copious amounts of clinical knowledge regarding relapse and recovery, but the more important knowledge is a genuine understanding of each other. Where labels only exist to differentiate between brands, identity focuses on the commonalities. And despite how extremely different we all appear to be, we share a universal affliction and remedy—the suffering of sin and redemption through repentance.
“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
Over the years, I have concluded that addiction is a byproduct of suffering and how it is handled. Typically, the root cause of this suffering is loss. Whether a loss of innocence, purpose, family, career, happiness, ideals, expectations, or structure—whatever it was, it was necessary to us. And when we lost it, emptiness and instability were left behind in exchange for something we valued as important to our identity.
Unfortunately, as despair builds over time, this traumatic event resonates and produces further suffering. Although we all may handle loss and grief differently (i.e., workaholic, shopaholic, alcoholic), ongoing addiction evolves as a response to the constant search to fill the void.
Where the heart and connection intersect is that we all suffer because of sin, whether self-inflicted or perpetrated against us. The truth is we all need the Great Physician. And when we decide to heed His call to repent, we are brought out of despair and given a new identity—a Child of God.
“At this moment, we can return from the path leading to eternal separation. At this moment, we can appreciate what Jesus’s sacrifice means for us; we can know that the Father sent His Son to bring us home. At this very moment, lives are being reclaimed, the afflicted are restored, captives are freed, the downcast are lifted, the dead in their sins are resurrected, the exhausted are renewed, the fallen are redeemed, the grieved are comforted, the lost are found, the oppressed are rescued, the prodigals are returned, and the tortured are revived.
All of this is only possible because Jesus embraced His moment. His final words, “It is finished,” still echo throughout the generations. They encourage us to press onward, embrace our own moments, and experience a divine alignment of our hearts. But this moment begins and ends with a single question and response found in the old 1876 hymn, “What can wash away my sin?”—“Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
(Excerpt from Align – A Modern Dissection of the Human Heart)
I hope you have enjoyed this series of articles on relapse prevention. In many ways, this is an extremely brief summary of Strategic Discipleship and the process of guiding an individual from active addiction to godly purpose. If you, or someone you know is currently struggling with addiction, please reach out to a friend, a local church, or even us here at Cabin and get the support needed.
If you are interested in learning more about Strategic Discipleship or any of the materials we have available for both support groups and self-study, begin here, then contact us and let us know how we can help.
Joshua Staton, author of Overcome, The Resistance, and Align.
A lot has happened since January 2019, and much of it we could have done without.
In fact, many of us would just as soon forget the last three years. However, if we are to prepare for anything like this again, we must rip off the old G.I. Joe Public Service Announcement and adopt a “Knowing is half the battle” mindset.
With that being said, let’s see how recent years have challenged us, how our habits have adjusted to meet this new opposition, and what we can do for the future.
This last fact is troubling, especially to us in the book-writing industry. And we believe—by addressing this one issue—we can fix a few of the other ones. Well, maybe not excessive coffee drinking or pajamas, but it's a start, right?
(The following has been a humorous marketing ploy. Although the numbers and statistics are factual, we just wanted to let you know about the release of the upcoming book Align - A Modern Dissection of the Human Heart and what you can do to prevent pandemics from upsetting your daily routines and habits.)
How the Pandemic Has Changed Us Infographic
The pandemic and the response to it took a severe toll on everyone’s sense of well-being. Notably, it affected people with substance use disorders (SUD) and addictions more severely. With many support services and structures paused indefinitely, numerous individuals in recovery were suddenly left on their own.
This got us thinking about what can be done to ensure those in recovery are not left abandoned in case something like this ever happens again. (We also recently began a survey, to get a local perspective.) But, before jumping in based on assumptions, we had some work to do. We needed facts more than speculation. After many hours and days of combing through reports and charts, we were surprised and shocked at what we found.
What does it mean to be addicted
Before we get too far, defining the current terminology based on medical classifications is crucial. Substance Use Disorder is a clinical term SAMHSA coined “when the recurrent use of alcohol and/or drugs causes clinically significant impairment, including health problems, disability, and failure to meet major responsibilities at work, school, or home.” In some circles, the term ‘Substance Abuse’ is often used. In other groups, ‘Drug Addiction’ is the go-to terminology. In yet others, ‘Drug and Alcohol Dependency’ is what you will hear.
Regardless, SUD is a particular disorder that shares many similarities with mental health issues. But they are not the same. Often individuals with mental health issues occasionally develop substance use disorders, in which case they are then classified as ‘dual-diagnosed.’
How the Pandemic affected Mental Health
During the first year of the virus, medical professionals at the World Health Organization reported an over 25% increase in mental health diagnoses. To put this into context, that is roughly 82 million US citizens.
Naturally, most newly diagnosed were classified as struggling with anxiety and depression. Both of these diagnoses topped the list across the demographic spectrum. But the Pandemic affected the young the most catastrophically—A near 60% increase in people ages 18 to 29.
The Deadly Effects of the Pandemic + Addiction
In 2019, the rate of drug overdose deaths spiked by 31%. Alcohol-related deaths increased by almost 25%.
In 2020, drug-related deaths increased overall by another 30%. But, out of the drugs identified as leading to death, 2020 marked the year of fentanyl (a synthetic opioid) prevalence, accounting for a 59% increase in drug-related mortality.
From 2020 to 2021, a 28.5% increase in overdose deaths was reported. While Idaho saw a 38.75% increase as one of the hardest hit American states, Alaska saw a crippling 49.71% increase in overdose deaths during the coronavirus.
As mentioned earlier, Fentanyl’s mortality rate grew exponentially from 1,663 deaths in 2011 to over 18,000 in 2016. But in 2021, this lab-manufactured drug claimed over 75,000 lives (more than double the lethality of the next closest drug on the list, methamphetamine).
What about the Rest of the World
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, some drug usage went down due to limited contact (cocaine and barbiturates). Still, other use increased significantly, namely alcohol, cannabis, sedatives, and synthetic opioids. Canada’s opioid overdose-related deaths jumped from about 700 to nearly 1600 from mid-2019 to mid-2020, and widespread drug use increased in Africa by 40% by the end of 2021.
What Created the Surge
Globally, almost 65% of all nations experienced a complete disruption of recovery and treatment services. Lockdowns and social distancing, unfortunately, placed an enormous burden on those in recovery, threatening the structure and stability they had found in their support systems. As a result of the services pausing, isolation, fear, burnout, and emotional fatigue wreaked havoc.
Several surveys have been conducted globally and in America regarding the reasons for the surge. Abroad, 60% of those who have reported relapses and accelerated usage cite “more time at home” as the main factor. In America, surveys are drilled down into finer detail. 53% surveyed said they “were trying to cope with stress.” Another 39% relapsed due to “boredom.” And 32% “were trying to cope with mental health symptoms, such as anxiety or depression.
The Psychological Toll
While nations and officials were forced into a difficult situation, hindsight has begun to reveal many side-effects of the heightened pandemic response—leading many to question if the ‘treatment’ was worse than the disease. While the Pandemic was still in its early stage, an 18% increase in overdoses was reported nationwide. And from referencing the above numbers, that trend is continuing. Not only has the stress from the Pandemic resulted in relapses, but it has also contributed to a 13% increase in new substance users.
Not all bad has come from Covid-19. 45% of Americans say their family bonds have tightened due to the Pandemic. While over 28% say, their faith has become stronger when faced with this adversity.
While the Pandemic revealed lacking areas in support systems, some novel methods did evolve. Although I’m sure no one wants to sit through another Zoom meeting, telemedicine has proven very beneficial due to its convenience. Hotlines and mobile outreach services have re-emerged, gaining fair use.
However, local infrastructure and Internet Service Providers have struggled under the immense weight placed on them to handle the additional burden. Unfortunately, technology cannot be the only alternative.
The Pandemic uncovered something inherent about addiction and relapse prevention. And, in many ways, people who were never addicts were forced to experience what many addicts face daily—alienation, isolation, and instability. But, the one factor that has proven to work is what was removed during the lockdowns—community. Local community and support are critical. Not just for those in recovery but for their family, as well.
Perhaps, we can find a solution at the intersection of tragedy and hope. For a few years, faith-based recovery programs have taken the initiative to meet the needs of those suffering from addiction in their local communities. Before the Pandemic, the recovery success rate was much higher than their secular counterparts (with less recidivism). But, during the Pandemic, faith-based programs continued to distance themselves from traditional recovery methods by almost 84%, showing that faith positively affects individuals struggling with substance use and recovery.
Whether you call it an addiction, substance use disorder, or drug and alcohol dependency, it is a national problem that must be handled locally. And unfortunately, many local governments are not financially equipped to provide much in the way of treatment. However, many local ministries do offer support and guidance. If you are struggling with addiction and recovery, I encourage you to reach out to them today. If you believe addiction recovery is a worthy cause to support, I would like to say “Thank You.”
PLEASE CONTACT ONE OF THE MINISTRIES BELOW IF YOU NEED HELP
First Contact Addiction Ministries and Back on Track Addiction Ministries are both located in Hendersonville, North Carolina. They offer guidance, placement, and support for those wishing to break the chains of addiction.
This article was written by author Joshua Staton, author at Cabin in the Woods Publishers. He has just released his latest book Align – A Modern Dissection of the Human Heart, the third installment of the Strategic Discipleship Series that deals specifically with relapse prevention and how much the heart plays a role in both recovery and relapse.