We all acted like we hadn’t heard it. To a man, the 15 of us just listened and nodded. But what we heard shook many in the group to their core.
“I’ve had a relapse.”
“Jeff” had been sober for five years – no slips and no relapses. Jeff is an active member of our SA fellowship. He has served as a faithful sponsor and leader within the group. But on this particular Thursday night, in the opening “check-in,” he admitted to a relapse.
While there is no reliable data on the frequency of relapse within the sex addiction recovery community, we know that slips and relapses can happen to anyone – at any time. So how do we avoid having a relapse?
First, let’s distinguish between a slip and a relapse. While both reset our sobriety dates, a slip is an unplanned, spontaneous, one-time event of acting out. A relapse is more intentional; it involves premeditation, planning, and preparation. But again, both slips and relapses are a return into our addiction.
So how do we avoid a relapse? While there is no full-proof plan (you can abort the plan and act out at any time), these three steps will secure your sobriety as much as possible.
Step 1 – Build a wall of protection.
In Old Testament days, cities built walls for protection. There are at least twelve Hebrew words for “wall” in the Bible. The most common word is chowmah, which is used to describe a literal wall 133 times, but is also used metaphorically. Solomon wrote, “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Proverbs 25:28).
The wall was built for separation. It kept foreigners out and protected God’s children from mixed marriages and compromised lifestyles. Similarly, we must erect walls of defense. To avoid relapse, you need to keep a “wall” in place, which stands between you and certain people, places, and situations in which you are most likely to relapse.
Step 2 – Stay connected.
God calls each of us into a personal relationship with his Son, but he does not call us into a private relationship with his Son. The Bible says, “Two are better than one. If either of them falls down, one can help the other up” (Ecclesiastes 4:9). In his marvelous book, The Man Code, Dennis Swanberg reminds us that even Jesus had an inner circle of three men.
Invariably, when we withdraw from our SA/SAA group, our sponsor, our church small group, or our accountability partner, we put ourselves at risk. I’ve seen it happen dozens of times over the past five years – a four-step process: a) addict comes into a group to get help, b) addict finds solid recovery, c) addict slowly drops out of his or her group, d) addict loses his sobriety.
Step 3 – Maintain specific habits.
We are a product of our habits. What we do – day after day – results in what we become. In order to avoid a relapse, you must continue to do the things that led you into recovery in the first place. Jesus said, “If you lay the foundations and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you” (Luke 4:29). It is not enough to begin a new lifestyle; you must maintain it.
One question I often hear is, “How long should I attend meetings?” This is my response. Let’s say you’ve suffered a heart attack, and your cardiologist has prescribed a healthy new diet. For how long should you eat healthy? If you have had an organ transplant, for how long should you take anti-rejection medicines? If your blood pressure is high, for how long will you take blood pressure medication? How long should you eat right, exercise, attend church, read your Bible, and pray? If you want to be healthy for a day, eat a good lunch. If you want to be healthy for life, maintain new habits – for the rest of your life. The same goes for attending meetings and engaging in other recovery activities. How long should you attend meetings? It depends on how long you plan to stay sober.
Dr. Milton Magness is right. While the temptation to relapse will always be with us, the benefits of saying no bring great strength. Magness writes, in Real Hope, True Freedom, “Each time a person resists the urge to act out, his recovery gets stronger, and so will yours.” Relapse is not inevitable, but it is possible – for any of us. Relapse avoidance must be a matter of proactive behaviors, not reactive. By following the three simple steps we have recommended here, you will give yourself the best chance to avoid relapse – and stay on the road to healthy recovery.