Preventing Relapse

In addition to introducing men and women to Christ, helping addicts to maintain sobriety is the primary responsibility of a residential recovery program. Learning to read, completing high school, and gaining other life skills are important. But, if residents cannot remain sober, we have only succeeded in creating smarter Biblically literate drunks. The act of using drugs or alcohol is an end result of a process that began long before. 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

A. Denial – inability to accept that one is indeed addicted to alcohol and/or drugs and that it is a primary cause of life problems.

B. Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome – inability tocope with a set of very stressful, physiologically-based symptoms that occur only after use of alcoholand drugs has stopped

C. Emotional Dysfunction – inability to cope with feelings such as grief, depression, stress, fear, etc., without mind altering substances.

D. Relational Dysfunction – inability to develop and maintain healthy relationships with others.

E. Temptation – inability to deal with the issue of sin in one’s life.

F. Dishonesty – the inability to maintain a commit­ment to rigorous honesty which is the foundation of a life of recovery.


Some Relapse Prevention Strategies

A. Scriptural Priority – 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.

B. 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 the client the impression that everyone has at least one drunk “in the bank.” We can be assured that they will use it!

C. 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. Education also gives hope that change is possible. Many resources are available: lending libraries, literature, videos, and local professionals who can speak at the mission. Contact IUGM’s Education Office for information on educational resources for use in a mission setting.

D.  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 to interrupt them before the process leads to actual use.

E. Support Groups – Good support groups provide recover­ing addicts with 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 valuable encouragement for them 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.

F. Relationships – One especially important area where those in recovery 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. New re­lationships with the opposite sex should be put off for the first year of sobriety.


July/August 1996

Once an Alcoholic, Always an Alcoholic?

What about those who say, “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic? Doesn’t that deny God’s ability to change a person?” I have been asked this question often as I have conducted workshops with rescue mission workers and people from other Christian groups.  Usually, though, it prompted by a failure to distinguish between the spiritual issue called “drunkenness” and the therapeutic/medical condition called “alcoholism.” Anyone working to bring real healing and lasing change to addicts and alcoholics, must have this issue clearly resolved in their own minds.

Here are a few issues to consider:

A. Release from compulsion is a reality Those who react negatively to this phrase usually interpret it to mean that an addicted individual is condemned to live under the constant danger of slipping into drunkenness against his own will.  This, of course, would be a definite denial of God’s power to change the addict and empower him to live a victorious life.  The truth is that many believers do testify of an experience where the power of the Spirit of God actually lifted  the compulsive desire to use alcohol and drugs from them.  Some others, though, do struggle with re-occurring bouts of intense temptation to use again.  In some cases, this actually has a physiological basis which has been called “post-acute withdrawal syndrome.”  If we are mindful of this, it can actually comfort someone struggling and help them through these times, instead of making them feel guilty.  Additionally, after an experience of salvation, the newly reborn addict still needs special support to assist him to contend with all the lingering consequences of a life of bondage to addictive substances.

B. The physical dimension of addiction – When God delivers an addict from the compulsion to drink, he is no longer a “drunkard” in the spiritual sense.  Yet, he is  still a recovering alcoholic or addict in the therapeutic sense.  What separates the “heavy drinker” from the addict is the lack of ability to stop using alcohol once drinking has started.  I often tell people,  “It’s not how much you drink, or how often you drink; it’s what happens to you once you start – you just can’t stop, even when you want to!”  On a physiological level, anyone who has become an addict will always be “sensitized” to alcohol and/or drugs.  Even very limited use of the “drug of choice” can “activate” the chemical mechanisms of addiction leading to compulsive use and behavior.  Total abstinence, therefore, is a must.  This physical aspect of addiction will remain with the recovering person until he is glorified by the Lord and receives his new body.  With the acknowledgment of this fact, the recovering person will be all the more diligent to abstain from drinking or casual drug use.  He or she recognizes the dire consequences of even “moderate” alcohol or drug use.  If the recovering addict remains abstinent, this physical consequence of addiction will not otherwise effect his life and Christian walk.

C. Overcoming the “fall-out” of addiction A life of addiction results in destructive attitudes, distorted emotions, and warped patterns of thinking.  These do not simply disappear when an addict experiences spiritual rebirth.  Calling a person a  “recovering” addict or alcoholic also implies that he or she is actively overcoming the lingering problems of an addicted lifestyle through involvement in a definite program of personal growth.  Some of the deep-seated attitudes that keep an addict locked in his addiction include; pride and grandiosity, rebellion against authority, dishonesty, manipulation, blame-shifting, resentments, procrastination, etc.  While these “character defects” are common problems with practically all addicts, unless they are “hit head-on” they will lead to defeat.


— Michael Liimatta is the former Director of Education for Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, where he served for 17 years.  For more of his writing and audio workshops online go to the Guideto Effective Rescue Mission Recovery Programs.


Secular Recovery Principles in Christian Programs

How can we properly use ideas, principles, and techniques from the secular treatment community in rescue mission recovery programs?

A. Stay true to the scriptures – Anything we use in rescue ministry — whether in the area of fund-raising, business practices, or rehabilitation — must be subjected to the light of the Word of God.  Therefore, we must throw out any principles or philosophies that contradict God’s Word!  Christian counselors must reject any philosophy or approach that lifts from a sinner his sense of responsibility for his own actions and his need for repentance and brokenness at the Cross of Christ. The Bible is perfectly clear on the fact that real, lasting change can only occur when an individual can experience true repentance — which implies a sense of personal accountability for his actions and their consequences.

B. Be discerning A creationist scientist will reach a set of conclusions on a certain geological formation that is very different from those of his evolutionist counterpart.  In a similar fashion, while dealing with factual data, conclusions reached by non-Christian researchers or counselors often reflect a godless “world-view.”  Despite this dilemma, we must not reject the whole body of factual knowledge about addiction and successful treatment approaches that is accessible and useful to us as Christian counselors.

C. Use what you can and discard the rest – Certainly, some of the ideas that are coming out of the secular treatment world do contradict the scriptures (especially on the topics of morality and spirituality).  Yet, many of the successful methods they use to establish addicts in a life of sobriety have their origins in the Word of God!  In a very real sense, they have re-discovered some deep spiritual principles that have been almost lost to the modern Western Church.  Some of these are: the power of accountable relationships, the healing nature of deep and intimate sharing between believers, the indisputable connection between rigorous honesty and true spirituality, and the principle of comforting others through sharing how the Lord brought us through similar situations (2 Corinthians. 1:3-7).  While secular and atheistic people may see these principles in a totally different light, we ought to be able to discern, with the Holy Spirit’s help, what aspects of this field of knowledge we can integrate into our mission programs without compromising on revealed truth.



Rescue Magazine Summer 1993