I’ve heard this quite a bit in other groups:
“Relapse is part of recovery…”
“If I pop a tire, I’m not going to go back to where I started, I’m going to fix the tire and move on.”
My initial questions are these:
Where do these ideas come from?
Who said these things?
Was it an addict trying to justify his behavior?
Was it a clergy or ecclesiastical leader who may have good intentions but doesn’t really have any idea what sexual addiction even is or what the addict is going through?
I ask these questions because I haven’t found anything in any of the recovery materials that I’ve read that mention concepts like these.
In fact, the White Book says that “Without sobriety we have nothing to offer anyone. [This program] offers sexual sobriety, progressive victory over lust, and recovery.” (p. 185)
So how can I be relapsing and still be “in recovery?”
The White Book states, in the Preface, that “This book is for those who want to stop their sexually self-destructive thinking and behavior.” (bold added)
Do I believe the White Book and what it’s trying to teach me? Or am I an exception?
It seems to me that the White Book talks about stopping and staying stopped quite a bit:
“Our situation is like that of the alcoholic who can no longer tolerate alcohol and must stop drinking altogether but is hooked and cannot stop. So it is with the sexaholic, or sex drunk, who can no longer tolerate lust but cannot stop.” (p. 3-4)
“We swear off-again and again. Something inside tells us we should stop. How many times did we say we had to stop? How many times did we actually try stopping? Some of us ‘stopped‘ every time we acted out!” (p. 30-31)
“To stop means we must face the truth about ourselves, and that is like the very threat of death. But unless we do stop and face the truth about ourselves, we remain in death.” (p. 56)
An equation seems to be in place then:
To stop = sobriety > progressive victory over lust > living in recovery
To relapse = no sobriety > continuing to lust > not living in recovery
Rhyll Croshaw, author of “What Can I Do About
Him Me?” and wife of a sexaholic with long-term recovery, shared her thoughts and experience.
This Q & A was originally posted on RhyllRecovery.com. It was also recently posted for the SAL women’s discussion group. Thanks to both Rhyll and the women’s group for sharing this information.
Is relapse an expected part of recovery?
There are those who minimize their behavior by saying they can’t be expected to “just stop” porn and masturbation and other acting out behaviors. In this case, they are giving themselves a pass and want others to let them off the hook. Giving them a pass is enabling.
Relapse is a part of the addiction cycle, not a part of recovery. A relapse occurs when a person is in the addict cycle (preoccupation, ritualization, acting-out, shame and despair). We could replace the word “acting out” with relapsing. The person may have long stretches of white knuckle sobriety, but every relapse does not indicate recovery starting again. . . it indicates a pattern in a cycle.
If the pattern continues to be the same, 3 weeks, 3 months, or even 3 years- THAT is not progressive victory over lust. My husband could be white knuckle sober for 3 years. That is not recovery, it is staying in the addiction cycle. He recognizes now that he was not in recovery, but most of the time was somewhere in the addiction cycle. There can be long periods of time with either shame and preoccupation with not acting-out. In this case, the individual is not in recovery; they are merely white knuckling.
Addictive Actions & Addictive Behaviors
For me, if I’m continuing to relapse, there can never be true clarity in my life. The fog of the addiction is still skewing my perspective.
Addictive actions (relapse) are one thing. But what about the addictive behaviors of anger, rage, resentment, blaming, shaming, minimizing, rationalizing, justifying, isolating, etc.?
If these behaviors are still happening, even if I’m “sober,” I’m not in recovery and need to reassess what’s off or why I’m unable to cope with these persistent negative emotions.
Addictive behaviors are synonymous with emotional un-health. If I’m emotionally unhealthy, I’m not well…
The Addictive Process
Relapse is part of the addictive process, not the recovery process. Here is a summary of the addictive process as outlined on page 37 of the White Book:
– It begins with an overpowering desire for a high, relief,
pleasure, or escape.
– It provides satisfaction.
– It is sought repeatedly and compulsively.
– It then takes on a life of its own.
– It becomes excessive.
– Satisfaction diminishes.
– Distress is produced.
– Emotional control decreases.
– Ability to relate deteriorates.
– Ability for daily living is disrupted.
– Denial becomes necessary.
– It takes priority over everything else.
– It becomes the main coping mechanism.
– The coping mechanism stops working.
– The party is over.
“For the sexaholic, the progression is relentless and inevitable. Within any given moment of our lives, however, we were unaware of the extent it had driven us and refused to see where it was leading. Like revelers riding a raft down the river of pleasure, we were unaware of the awesome power of the rapids or the whirlpool ahead.”
The Addiction Denial Statements
One of the best things I was made aware of early on in recovery was what my therapist called “Addiction Denial Statements.” If I’m honest with myself, I’m practicing many of these if I’m still acting out and thinking that “relapse is part of recovery.”
- False Compliance
- All of Nothing Thinking
- Eternal Optimism
- Opportunity vs. Scarcity
You can read all about these here and here.
Why Stop and Stay Stopped?
Since I can’t say it better than those who have come before me and have found sobriety and recovery in their lives, I’ll quote from the White Book directly. (see page 64-65)
We stop practicing our compulsion in all its forms. We can’t be “sober” in one area while acting out in another. There can be no relief from the obsession of lust while still practicing the acts of lust in any form.
“I can be masturbating to the image of a blank wall, and I’m still resorting to my drug.”
We stop feeding lust. We get rid of all the materials and other triggers under our control. We stop feeding lust through the eyes, the fantasy, and the memory. We stop relishing the language of lust, resentment, and rage. We stop living only and always inside our own heads. One of the fringe benefits of going to a lot of meetings is that it gets us out of ourselves.
As we become aware of other addictions that are part of our lives, we pray for willingness to surrender each one.
There can be no true recovery from addiction if we allow it to persist in any area, whether in our thinking or in our acting out.
What we are really saying when we start meeting with others is, “I have to stop; please help me.”
But we need some demonstration of trust, and hearing the stories of other members, we begin to let our guard down. Before we know it, we’ve crossed that line of doubt, mistrust, and fear, and have put down our drug.
The program doesn’t tell us how to stop-we had done that a thousand and one times-it shows us how to keep from starting again. We had it backwards; before, we always wanted the therapist, spouse, or God to do the stopping for us-to fix us. Now, we stop; and then, in our surrender, the power of God becomes effective in us.
Why Does This Even Matter?
The topic of relapse being part of recovery can be a triggering one to me, and I’ve had to ask myself why.
As I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized that, for most of my life, I’ve believed this too – that as long as I am “open” about my “little problem” and talk to the appropriate people about what’s going on, I’m fine; repentance is real and I’m “in recovery.”
Unfortunately, this false belief allowed my addictive behaviors and actions to progress to a point where I nearly lost everything most important to me. And I believed the whole time I was acting out that I was a “good person with a little problem.”
The topic of addiction was never addressed, mostly because it wasn’t understood by those I talked to or by me either.
I lied to myself and believed it for a long, long time and it almost destroyed my entire life and the life of my wife and family.
Interestingly, I read a scripture today in Matthew that seemed to really resonate in a way it never had before:
Matthew 7:15-20 (KJV)
15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
This passage of scripture reminded me of the statement, “Without sobriety, we have nothing to offer anyone.” Because, if I’m acting out in my addiction, I can’t bring forth good fruit: I’m deliberately rebelling against God’s will.
When I hear that “relapse is part of recovery,” it causes fear, fear that I’ll start believing that again, fear that others will jump on that bang-wagon and believe it too, and fear that it will cause a shift in what recovery really looks like and is.
I realize that this may be one of those things I can’t control, one of those things I need to surrender, but hopefully this context will help others see why the topic is such a tough one for me.
For me, relapse can NEVER be part of recovery.
This is not to say that a slip or relapse means complete failure. The longer I practice recovery in my life, the more I realize that recovery is indeed a practice. It is a choice I make one moment at a time. Each new moment, each new day, I have the opportunity to take it or leave it.
I have to stop and stay stopped and then and only then will the fog of my addiction start to clear. And it may take longer than I’d like for that fog to clear.
“It’s as though at certain stages, our entire system cries out: Stop! You’re killing me! Sexual sobriety opens the door to recovery, where the healing begins. We feel better physically, emotionally, and spiritually when sober and when the principles of the Steps are effective in our everyday lives.” (p. 33)
What’s been your experience with sobriety & recovery?
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17 thoughts on “Is Relapse a Part of Recovery?”
There was a program that I attended, the attitude was just that relapses were going to happen. It finally drove me mad. I hit rock bottom and started learning that relapse is NOT part of recovery! I’m grateful to now know the difference of actually working in a recovery process and progress versus just NOT acting out.
For me. as I sought true recovery, with real intent, I experienced some relapses. By definition that meant I had not found true recovery. But finding true recovery for me “was a process—not an event.” I kept learning about recovery and worked hard to implement what I learned. Eventually I was able to find “true recovery” which does NOT include relapses. So I would say that while relapses are NOT part of recovery, they may be an inevitable part of our recovery efforts until we arrive at true recovery.
Perfect recovery (I suppose) would mean deciding to recover one day and NEVER relapsing. That would be great. I personally am unacquainted with an addict that did this. I know many who started on the road to recovery, relapsed on their way, learning more and more and finally finding true recovery. That has been my path. I cut myself no slack, nor others, but I was patient with myself and appreciated the encouragement of others as I tried to find my way. We need to encourage those relapsing: encourage them in their recovery efforts, encouraging them to avoid toxic shame, encourage them to keep trying and moving forward and help them find true recovery: living in sobriety with no relapses; feet firmly established in the 12 steps and traditions. Again, recovery is a process, not an event.
Stephen, you said almost word for word what I wanted to say. No, relapse is not part of recovery but until I figure out what real recovery is relapse is likely to happen. Personally this is where I’m at. I have learned so much over the two years that I’ve been coming to the SA-L meetings and I think that is leading me to real recovery, I’m not there yet but I am working towards it. Even though I’ve relapsed through this process I’ve grown a lot over the last two years. My marriage is much stronger and my children enjoy spending time with me and I with them. I may not be where I want to be but I’m in a much better place than I was and for me that’s what’s important.
I think there is a lot of merit to the idea that when relapsing we are not in a recovery frame of mind. That said, I think there is a risk of oversimplification here. I think your analysis is spot on at the micro level — right now am I in a recovery state? However on a big picture level how often has somebody started recovery and never relapsed again? Rarely I would think. I’m pretty sure My counselor has used this saying with us before to communicate the idea that we don’t have a full understanding of recovery when we start recovery — and that understanding grows over time. Time that sometimes includes lapse. Each time we lapse, the pain of being “off the wagon” encourages us to dig deeper and work to understand what we’re missing. For example, for years I did not understand what was going on in my mind. Honestly I still don’t but each relapse has packed a punch of pain that forced me to dig deeper. So in my opinion relapse is not part of recovery in The Now but it can be over a longer period of time — creating a pain catalyst to push for understanding. If we as addicts had a perfect understanding of our broken thinking we probably would not ever relapse (or be addicted!). But having empathy for the man that does relapse and trying to help him make productive use of that pain (gain a deeper understanding of himself) is empathetic and might help him recover over the long run. What is clear to me is that to really reach a higher plane of recovery — to really make substantial progress — I have to stop and stay stopped. Relapse (and the thoughts that surround relapse) cloud my mind!
I’m on board with Stephen’s and Camerons’s comments 100% Thanks for your thoughts!
I completely agree that recovery and relapse aren’t mutually inclusive of each other, especially in the ways that you point out from your experience with SA literature, and in the weeds of recovery. Relapse is part of the addiction cycle (process), just as sobriety is part of the recovery process. Once the totality of a life of recovery is understood and accepted in full, relapse becomes an unacceptable option. That is what I believe the educational and practical aspects of SA and addiction recovery therapy aim to do for the addict – lead them to that point of humble acceptance and complete embrace of all that is required for non-relapse and lifelong recovery.
My experience with some of the quotes and statements around “relapse is part of recovery” comes from addiction therapists that recognize that the biological aspects of healthy sexual expression are often difficult to divest from addictive expression (lust) without a lot of practice. Like food addiction, sex addiction doesn’t hold a fully favorable or recognized place in the official Psychological lexicon (DSM-5) due to the messiness of how the healthy biology of these things is difficult to separate from the unhealthy, because both hard-wired for survival. As a personal example, I have recently felt an increase in normal physiological, un-lustful, healthy sexual response around my spouse, likely due to my improved health and elimination of various medications. These responses and their associated feelings make it somewhat confusing for me in the moment, and they’ve been interesting points of vulnerable conversation with my wife. While I did not consider any sort of acting out behavior as a viable option because of how long I’ve worked recovery, I know that without that practice and sobriety I would have been much harder pressed to stay sober. I understand that this is exactly what the adherence to the 12 steps is meant to address, but I also understand why many feel like the blurriness between healthy and unhealthy sexual expression makes the statement “relapse is part of recovery” more about where you’re at in the meta-process of recovery (what direction you’re aimed in) rather than an excuse for addict behavior.
At the risk of sounding like a detractor, I would caution anyone using absolutes—regardless of the authority, source, or experience—about what is or isn’t recovery as a means of categorizing someone else’s experience or behavior. There is no single right way to recover, but there are principles and processes that help or hurt the recovery process. That is what I believe is at the heart of 12 step, as it is as the heart of various other non-12-step therapies. If there is real accountability, vulnerability, and connection (to name a few), the likelihood that excuses or exceptions with our own thoughts, feelings, and actions will be tolerated is almost zero; and the process of time and practice in those recovery principles is all about getting whatever addiction tolerance is left down to zero. At least, that is my experience.
As part of the addition cycle, relapsing is a sign that my most recent attempt at recovery failed. What I’ve learned from my relapses has brought me to my knees; helped me see that I am powerless over lust and that my life has become unmanageable. My relapses pushed me to seek professional counseling; this helped me climb out of the depths of despair and shame, the self-hatred that kept me bound to my addiction so tightly. If it weren’t for my relapses, I would have no need for or interest in recovery. Relapse sparked my recovery, but the fuel that sustains my recovery, is recovery work. While I do consider relapse a part of recovery, it is only the beginning. While it provides the reason for recovery, once I’ve started recovering, relapse has no place. Relapse OR recovery, I can’t have both.
This is a great post. I’ve heard a number of addicts express this very idea, that relapse is a part of the recovery process.
I don’t know if they all were just trying to justify their behavior to themselves or others (spouse, etc), or if they were simply confused at what they were saying.
I’ve always felt that relapse was part of addiction, and that addicts who are in the early stages of recovery may experience relapse before they fully grasp what sobriety and real recovery should look like. But that in no way condones relapsing as an acceptable part of the recovery process.
If I’m in recovery, I’m not allowing lust to control me like I did before, and therefore I’m avoiding acting out. Relapses are great indicators that the addict is not in recovery…yet.
I believe that statements like “If I pop a tire, I’m not going to go back to where I started, I’m going to fix the tire and move on.” are actually very helpful in helping someone who has had a relapse get back on track in recovery. I agree that relapse shows you are no longer in recovery, but it doesn’t throw out what you have learned, and the progress you have made in other areas of recovery. I use the analogy of climbing a mountain. A relapse doesn’t mean that you have to go all the way back to the bottom of the trail and start climbing all over, it means that you’ve fallen off the trail of recovery and you need to get back on. Any time your recovery fails, or ends in relapse, it is important that you add lessons from that failure to move you forward into a stronger and more perfect recovery.
I had the mindset that each relapse meant starting all over for years, and it really hurt my recovery. Each time I put together some sobriety, I’d start to worry about having to start all over. It felt like I was building a house of cards, and it was inevitable that sooner or later it would fall. Once I learned that true recovery was working the steps one day at a time, I had a solid foundation to build on. Slips and relapses showed me where I was weak, and what I had to work on. I learned that I could recognize earlier and earlier when I was leaving the recovery path, and the slips and relapses stopped.
I agree that you are always on either the path of recovery, or the path to relapse, but I think they run tangent to each other, rather than in opposite directions.
Great comments. This is giving me something to build on. The program we had went bust about two years ago. I miss it badly. I need help.
It’s interesting that some addicts would associate “relapse with recovery”, Relapse: Willfully choosing to pursue addictive behavior and/or acting out behavior, and then hiding, lying or failing to honestly disclose the lapse to one’s sponsor within a pre-determined window of time. (Understanding Pornography Addiction & Betrayal Trauma 2nd Edition, page 153), which is like like the analogy of “If I pop a tire, I’m not going to go back to where I started, I’m going to fix the tire and move on” of which I agree, but not sure how its any different than, Lapse: Willfully choosing to pursue addict behavior and/or acting out behavior, and acknowledging the behavior to one’s sponsor within a pre-determined window of time. The sooner the acknowledgement happens to the actual behavior the better, but not more than 24 hours. (Understanding Pornography Addiction & Betrayal Trauma 2nd Edition, page 153); to me sounds like the addict is choosing to act out and lying about it versus choosing to act out and telling one’s sponsor about it, and thinking one is going to be able to get away with it still.
Does the fact that one hides the act in secrecy have any more or less value than one who tells another in confidence and honesty? Does confessing the act in openness, humility, honesty, sincerity, powerlessness, and vulnerability to another have a stronger merit than trying to lie about it? If one continued to openly confess a lapse to a sponsor, spouse, ecclesiastical leader, trusted friend, or family member, but still does it repetitiously, isn’t that just as bad as the one who is acting out in secrecy?
Is there value in transparency so much more beneficial to the addict and others surrounding the addict, than just the addict in secrecy lying about his recovery? The fact that more people know about it, still doesn’t make it right.
This reminds me of the misunderstanding or confusion I have felt about in my life as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regarding one being perfect, such as the scripture from Matthew 5:48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (In the LDS Version of the King James Version, footnote 48b says: GR complete, finished, fully developed). So Matthew 5:48, could read:
Be ye therefore complete, even as your Father which is in heaven is complete.
Be ye therefore finished, even as your Father which is in heaven is finished.
Be ye therefore fully developed, even as your Father which is in heaven is fully developed.
I used to think or thought many individuals in the LDS culture were teaching me when I needed to repent in the past, like in the same chapter of Matthew 5, 28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. 29 And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. 30 And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. Matthew 5:28-30.
“Pluck it out” and “cut it off” to me meant that one should be as a flawless person, and to do that meant cutting off all the bad parts of the self that would inflict sin to the addict, ie: hand, eye, etc; which I don’t think its talking about. Mostly in Scripture its speaking metaphorically or spiritually such as plucking out or cutting off the sin, behavior, idea, thought, pictures, URL, media, content, etc. The process of becoming complete, finished, fully developed, (perfect) as our Father in Heaven, on the road to recovery in openness, humility, honesty, sincerity, powerlessness, and vulnerability still is very challenging, even when one is genuinely trying to overcome the addictive behavior.
All I know is that I need help because my mind is in a shade of garbage, and trying to live a Christ-centered life as a member of the LDS faith with the perspective of pornography affecting every thought, has been very overwhelming. I understand its a day to day journey, and not an event; which is probably what endurance is all about. But if I had a time machine, and could go back in time and (whether or not I would believe myself or not), convince myself that not looking and being fascinated with pornography, self sex, and addict behaviors was not worth focusing on, I would. But I guess that’s why there’s the Atonement of Christ.
My opinion is relapse should not be in the vocabulary of a person in recovery. It is making an excuse before you have even given it your all. If you truly give into the recovery; you will succeed and relapse is a myth. I am only 1 day in recovery but just because my recovery in it’s infancy doesn’t mean my words cannot ring true. I will recover for myself, my kids and the important person I have had the pleasure of living with; my wife.
Relapsing is Never justified but it is wrong to expect that one will recover from an long held addiction without any failures or setbacks as they progress.
So is lusting a relapse?
Thank you for your question. Please see the response below to get a clearer understanding of how we define relapse at S.A. Lifeline.
SAL Definition of Sobriety
SAL defines sexual sobriety as follows: Sexual sobriety means having no form of sex with self; not
pursuing actions of lust, such as using pornography; and having no form of sex with anyone other than
the spouse.* Our goal is to live in recovery; to practice positive sobriety; and to choose to actively
surrender lust in all its forms to the God of our understanding. * SAL defines spouse as one’s partner in a
marriage between a man and a woman.
A slip, is when we choose to break a boundary or bottom line but not act out and break the definition of
sobriety. Street lust, objectification, dishonesty in all its forms are examples of a slip. A slip still requires
rigorous honesty with those we are seeking to rebuild trust.
Some people have a slip, but immediately return to recovery by being rigorously honest about
behaviors, feelings and emotions. A slip may actually strengthen our will to stay sober when we are
honest about it. However a slip can also turn into a lapse or full-blown relapse.
A lapse is when we choose to act on lust outside the SAL definition of sobriety and then honestly
acknowledge it in a timely way to those we must be rigorously honest with. Those who are part of our
community of recovery i.e. our spouse, our sponsor, our group our therapist, our spiritual leader must
be told the truth about our behaviors.
The immediate honesty then helps a person to avoid falling back into addictive behaviors once again. A
lapse can feel like a setback in recovery even if the person quickly regains sobriety. However, when a
person chooses to lapse but is rigorously honest about it, the lapses experience can be a productive
reminder that we have to remain dedicated to recovery. As we choose to be rigorously honest, God and
our fellows in recovery can help us and we can consider ourselves on the path of recovery.
However, if we lapse it can also be the start of a downward slide into relapse, depending on how it is
handled. Any dishonesty and hiding cuts us off from God and our fellows. Thus, a willing heart, rigorous
honesty and a dedication to continue in the work of recovery are vital.
Relapse entails a full-blown resumption or return to the unwanted addictive behaviors outside the SAL
definition of sobriety and choosing not to be honest about it. While a lapse is short-lived and
accompanied with rigorous honesty, a relapse is living a lie, which means the person falls back into using
the unwanted sexual behavior and hides it.
The word relapse actually stems from the Latin meaning: to slip back. This is used as a designation for
someone who has been sober and fell back into their unwanted sexual behavior and choose to hide it.
Lapse vs Relapse
At the onset, we should understand that a lapse can occur anytime during the recovery process. As long
as we are honest and willing to strive to live in recovery we are still on the recovery path and we will still
feel hope. However, relapse is not on the recovery path. The result of a relapse is isolation, feelings of
fear, shame, anger and resentment.