Relapse, Repentance and Redemption
We tend to think of relapse in terms of addiction, specifically returning to the addiction after a period of abstinence. Sometimes in recovery circles there may be distinction between relapse and “slipping up,” the latter being a one-time event, the former being a real return to the lack of control associated with the addition.
For loved ones of those who struggle with addictions, relapse can be terrifying. A loved one who worries about an addict, and who feels peace during an addict’s period of sobriety, may feel all is lost when relapse rears its head.
Addicts who are on the path to recovery may feel that relapse is part of a longer term process. That is, one does not “recover” out of the box all at once. One may have a long period of sobriety, punctuated with slip-ups or relapses followed by a renewed effort to seek recovery.
Many veterans of AA will honestly say that there are many ways to find recovery. The twelve steps are one way, but they are not the only way. Some people find recovery by quitting cold turkey and never looking back. Others use support groups like AA or the church’s ARP program. Others get medicinal help to reduce the cravings of addiction. And along each one of those paths to recovery, there are infinite possibilities as individuals stay in or drift out of sobriety, abstinence or recovery.
As faithful Latter-day Saints, we should get this. We are all in a continual battle with what King Benjamin called the natural man. We are regularly covenanting to subject ourselves to the will of our Father in Heaven. And we are regularly failing in that effort.
We know we cannot do it alone. We know that it is only by the grace of God we are saved, even after all we can do. We know that even if we obey every commandment, as King Benjamin teaches us, we are still in debt to God, still beggars in His eyes, still recipients of His great plan of mercy.
As we mature in the gospel, each of us confronts certain truths about ourselves. We are not invincible. We are not all-knowing. We make plenty of mistakes, sometimes repeatedly.
There is hope for us, of course, precisely because of the atonement of Jesus Christ. It is precisely because of our weakness as humans that the Savior offered His atoning sacrifice. Elder Packer has recently repeatedly taught (including here)that there is no sin of which we cannot repent, which the atonement will fail to cover. That is an awesome promise. And it gives me hope.
What is the relationship between the relapsing addict and the penitent, if inconsistent, natural man? It is this: both are on a journey of redemption, seeking to overcome a natural weakness, a disease of the flesh, a function of our human condition. And neither can do it alone. Both need the blessings of the atonement.
Relapse for the addict and repeat offenses for the sinner are awful bumps along the road of recovery. They can be devastating and demoralizing. But they can be overcome.
In recovery circles, one talks about being in recovery one day at a time. As faithful Latter-day Saints, we make life-long covenants, and we recommit to them each week as we take the sacrament. In both cases, our goal is to stay on the path rather than to arrive at a specific destination.
How do we, then, deal with a repeat offender? Either a sinner who sins again, or an addict who relapses? Some of that depends on how we deal with those people before the relapse.
In the case of addiction and other ills, sometimes loved ones are co-dependent. The loved one’s happiness depends on the behavior of the addict. If the addict is active in his addiction, the co-dependent cannot find happiness. If the addict abstains, the co-dependent finds peace.
That is not a healthy arrangement. There are, of course, 12-step programs for families of those who struggle with addictions. Those programs help loved ones free themselves of co-dependent behaviors. They do not help loved ones “support” their addicts in recovery. Instead they help the loved ones find peace regardless of the actions of their addicts.
So in some ways, whether the addict relapses or not is immaterial to the happiness of healthy loved ones. (Of course this sounds more simplistic than it really is; I can find peace and still be sad at the relapse of a loved one.) What it means though is that relapse does not spell ultimate doom for anyone’s recovery. The relapsing addict can return to recovery, and the loved one can continue in recovery despite the relapse. (Some loved ones find peace even if their addicted loved one never finds recovery.)
A loved one may need to use healthy boundaries to protect himself or herself from the consequences of the addiction, and there is nothing wrong with that. A loved one may quickly lose trust in one who has an addiction, and that is not surprising. But a relapse does not spell the end of recovery for either the addict or the loved one. Just as we each recommit to honor our baptismal covenants each week, just as we each see evidence of our natural man each day in our lives, so an addict (and his or her loved one) must step on the path of recovery each day, one day at a time.
To our good fortune, the Lord designed His plan to allow for us to be who we are: dependent upon Him and His mercy for our salvation.