Written by Ewan


One of the hardest things about recovery is relapse. That is, after enjoying a period of not engaging in crossdressing thoughts or behaviours, going back to it.

It’s frustrating: “Will I ever get rid of this in my life?”
It’s demoralising: “I just can’t keep a life of purity.”
It makes me lose trust in God: “Does God really mean that he will keep me from stumbling?”
In short, it can make us lose hope in the idea of freedom.

In a series of posts I want to answer a few questions: what place, if any, do relapses have in recovery? Do they mean we should lose hope of freedom? What does relapse look like for you? What to do after relapse? It is too big a topic to do in one post!

Today’s question: What place, if any, do relapses have in recovery?

I believe relapses should be included in our understanding of addiction and recovery. For me they have the same place as a mouse has in your kitchen. You don’t want it to be there. But if you would leave cheese, fruit and seeds out every night, you would likely find a rodent making its home in yours. It is in your house, but it is not of your house; it is certainly not welcome!

Relapses are in recovery models, but they are not of them.

One of the most helpful models I have found is Prochaska and DiClementi’s Cycle of Change. I have used it in many parts of my life; crossdressing, exercise, sugar addiction, self-harm. Others have found it helpful over it’s 30 year life. It is easy to find online. It goes like this. Contemplation – you think about needing to change; Planning – you work out what you need to do; Action – you take those steps; recovery – you live life in freedom; Relapse – you go back.

I think it is very wise to have relapse mentioned in the model. It recognises “the potential for the person” to go back to those behaviours (https://americanaddictioncenters.org/the-addiction-cycle). The National Institute on Drug Abuse claim that relapse rates for addiction are at 40-60 percent. Intriguingly they also highlight relapse rates for Asthma and Hyptertension (both 50-70%) (https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery)

These high rates for drug abuse (I couldn’t find workable data for sexual addiction) alongside physical medial conditions demonstrate what the Bible clearly states; we live in a fallen world. Ever since The Fall in Genesis 3, humankind has been trying to live life without God. Jesus’ assessment of humans was to not to trust them because he knew them (John 2:24). This pattern is so in-dwelt with us that when people come to faith in Christ, and are given the Holy Spirit, they have to still fight the sinful part within them. Paul’s call to Christians in Ephesians is one of war: “to put on the whole armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (Ephesians 6:11)

In addition, James writes that we sin when we are each “lured away by our own desires.” Jesus says as much as well, when he says that “it is within you that makes you impure. All of the evil desires come from inside of you.” In Revelation, the letters to individual churches all carry the word ‘repent’. Although they are for different things, it strikes as a warning that repentance is an ongoing need for Christians – and that it is possible to grow lukewarm toward Christ, and to turn back to former ways of living.

For the sexual addicts, that means that relapse is very possible.

Now, some would argue that there is no logic in having relapse in a recovery model as the very words are incompatible. Recovery is about going forward; relapse is going back. I think this is a naive assessment of how foolish we can so often be, how many temptations there can be in a day, how strong the addiction is, and therefore how much we need to fight. Including relapse in there isn’t saying you like it there. It’s acknowledging it as a threat.


But is relapse inevitable? Maybe, maybe not.

But think about the question in reverse: Do you think recovery is totally achievable in this life? That question is one for you to make your own mind up on. There are some in the prayer group who believe it is; I have read others who think it is possible for other addictions. I don’t like that I think this, as I long to be rid of this scourge, but I don’t believe total recovery is possible in this life. I believe one reason God hasn’t gotten rid of it for me might be so that I learn to trust him more and more with it.

Our view on what recovery looks like – whether we can achieve full recovery in this life or not – has a bearing on what relapse looks like. I don’t think Christian growth can always be on an upward trajectory of greatness and holiness. We do stumble. We do waver. We’re often like the stock market. Yes, overtime we grow in trust to God and faithfulness and holiness, but there are times where we dip and waver – hopefully without crashes. But is this growth inevitable? No.

There is a great term theologians use to describe the means by which we grow: “the ordinary means of grace.” Ordinary, because they’re right in front of us and easily accessible; grace, because God has given them to us; ‘means’, because they are the mechanisms which God uses to help us grow. But we need to use them: bible reading, prayer, the sacraments, church, fellowship! Otherwise we will, like the church in Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22) grow lukewarm.

Relapses are on the other side of the coin of this Christian growth. When we willingly engage in sinful behaviours, over time we increase the likelihood of relapse. Schaumburg says it well: “As we honor God, we’ll move to honour others. As we dishonor God, we dishonor ourselves and others” (Harry Schaumburg – False Intimacy: Understanding the Struggle of Sexual Addiction, p.66). Therein is the tension between freedom and relapse.

Relapse is a real threat. When we understand that, we can move to trust God and take each moment or warning to Him. We need to include the concept in our thinking about this addiction and our recovery. If we don’t, we are unlikely to take the steps required to lessen it’s likelihood and will be even more shocked and despairing if it does happen.

Next time: the relationship between relapse and hope.

Written by Ewan