By Ewan


Since my last post about relapse, I stated that we need to be very aware that they could happen. This might not sound like good news, because when we are healing we want to keep moving forward. Saying that a relapse could happen does not sound very hopeful. You may have just relapsed, in which case you are feeling like you’re in a low place. Right now you need to know if you can crawl out of this mess.

But there is a good relationship between hope and relapse. When we see this relationship we are better able to cope when or if they do occur. I want you to be like the guy in the photo, feeling the darkness with all its weight and yet looking out to the light.

There are three thought processes to take hold of, which I’ll look at in turn:

  • Relapse is going backward.
  • Relapses are teachable moments.
  • Christ’s forgiveness in relapse.

Relapse is going backward.

The first thing to consider is that if relapse is going back, you’ve already moved forward. Recovery is not a straight path up the mountain. In every mountain there are steps down as well as up. There are tricky moments through a bog, or diversions round fallen trees. Recovery is a case of two steps forward, one step back, two steps forward, one step back. You can not relapse until you’ve had growth. You cannot go back unless you have already gone forward.

So think about where you’ve come from. If you’ve sensed you’ve relapsed, take courage. It means you’ve been able to live for however long without those thoughts and/or actions in your life. It may not feel big. It may be one day, half a day. But that was half a day longer than last time.

When you realise this it means you can take hope that recovery is possible. Why? Because you have shown yourself you were able to live without dressing for a certain period of time. This gives you hope you can extend that time. A whole day. Two days, a month next time – maybe two, or three!

I’ll admit, it isn’t very profound, but it has encouraged me after every relapse.

Relapses are teachable moments.

I work with children. The moments I love best are the ones which the children just present themselves in ways that allow you to teach them something truly valuable. I had a good discussion about kindness with one boy who was worried he was not kind, so I was able to point out what kindness is and how he had shown it.

We can let relapse teach us about our triggers, emotions, behaviours, patterns.

This gives tremendous hope because with each step of learning, we can take wiser choices in the future.

After every relapse we have a choice: to ignore it or to learn from it.

Trust me on this: ignoring relapses means going back to that behaviour time and time again. You’ve probably heard George Santayana’s quote “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There is a proverb which says “as a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly” (Proverbs 26:11, NIV). This proverb is not made up but based in reality; I have seen a family dog do this very thing! Do you suppose a dog uses higher reasoning to think about the choice of eating its vomit? “shall I go to the super deluxe bowl of goodies my owners got for me, or shall I eat what I’ve just spewed on the floor?” Or does it think to itself after it’s eaten the vomit “hmm. That wasn’t very nice… I wonder what I could do differently next time?”

Friends, we have been given a brain with higher reasoning. We have been given the ability to think differently and make good choices. We have a mind. We can study the relapse. Now, there is a caveat here; we will never know ourselves as fully as God will. Psalm 139 speaks of the numbers of hairs on our head, and how God knows we’ll stand before we do.

However, we can look at a great number of things to do with our relapse. By asking these questions we move from “I messed up and sinned again” to a deeper level of repentance and faith.

  • Where was the relapse?
  • When was the relapse?
  • What were the behaviours?
  • What was I feeling?
  • What was making me feel this way? What was going on just before and in my life in general?
  • What was I thinking?
  • What was going on in my life before the relapse?
  • Where was I on HALT? Hungry, Alone, Lonely, Tired.

These can be very hard to answer. And you can’t ask all of them with every relapse. That would get exhausting. But over time, they record patterns of behaviour and occasions which you can then begin to change to either avoid those situations altogether, or reduce temptations when certain situations are unavoidable. Especially when you write it down in a journal, either in a notebook, online or in our prayer group.

I’ll talk you through my last relapse as an example.

I bought some clothes at a local charity shop. It was shortly after work, on a Thursday afternoon. I drove there, rather than going straight home. I was feeling tired and hungry, and was beginning to feel lonely as my wife was going to night shift that evening. I felt pretty comfortable with my plan and had set my heart on it. I was thinking that I would nip in quickly, get something that would make me happy, and enable me to work well that evening. My life in general – work had been tiring, and I had not really been able to focus at work or in my studies. My wife is also suffering from exhaustion and sickness, so I’m looking after both her and my toddler with very little respite. When my wife left, I put the clothes on. I dressed more fully than my relapse before. I then watched some triggering videos on YouTube – not sexual, but arousing. These did not satisfy, so I eventually sought out porn and sex chat websites. I masturbated and orgasmed.

I could do a similar piece for the next day. The addition would be that I was experiencing the chaser effect. I was also anxious about coursework and also missing it when I put the clothes away.

This learning gives us hope because it means we can take the right steps for us. I know that I need, for example, to pack more snacks in my lunch box than I actually need, in case I get hungry. I also know not to have cash in my wallet unless it is for a specified reason e.g. paying for a meal with friends. Before I got a dumbphone, I shared my location using WhatsApp with my wife and a friend until I was home; I now just text them. I did this very thing very successfully two weeks ago. I woke up hugely tempted to dress (my wife and I argued the night before and hadn’t fully made up). I texted a friend and said that I knew I would be tempted to go to a shop and buy something. So I said I’d share my location with him. I did. It worked, to the extent that when I made an unscheduled stop I felt the need to text and let him know that I was stopping just to get some lunch!

This learning is incredibly painful and difficult. It might be good to do so within the context of counselling. It was through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that I’ve learned to do this for anger management, and I’ve applied it to porn and crossdressing. Be aware though that some therapists might just say that crossdressing is not harmful.

So, relapses give us hope because they provide a learning tool for us to view ourselves in a new light. They are a mirror with which to see what drives us, motivates us, makes us worried or fearful; and therefore what actions we need at certain times to keep us making healthy choices.

Christ’s hope in relapse

Even greater than the CBT is the courage that Christ gives to do this work. I would go so far as to say I could not do it without Christ. I would have neither the motivation nor the safety of love in which to do it.

Just after relapse I can not begin to look at myself. What I have done is unspeakable. I have tried to share top-level stuff, while hopefully not triggering you. That darkness is wretched. I’m guessing you know that, seeing as you’re here looking for hope. But He came to rescue us all from that darkness. Not when we climb out of it – but when I was still in it: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8)

This is kinda scary. But Christ is perfect and “perfect love casts out fear” (Colossians 3:14).

I know that he has seen it all. He took all that pain and darkness and rebellion on the cross, so that I could be united to Him. I have hope that looks to eternity.

Friends, knowing that he knows it all and still loves me anyway means I can hang all pretense up and begin looking deeper. He has a love that will not let us go.

It comes down to trust – do I trust his opinion of me, or my opinion of me?

So this is the third aspect of hope. There is hope in a relapse because they show us how lost we are, and how much we need Christ. We feel unlovable; yet He is love. We feel unworthy; He is worthy. We feel disgusting; He clothes us in righteousness.

Does this mean we look to relapse and want relapses to happen? No. But we can use them as a stepping stone to look again to Christ, and put our faith once again in Him.

Think back to the image of the man looking out to the light. I hope you can begin to do that, whether you’ve just had a relapse or are doing pretty well. I hope that you can use these tools to chip away at the wall and walk toward the light.

And do you know the marvellous thing? The LORD is our shield for the battle. Not a small one, either, just in our hands. When we put our trust in Him, we can say with the Psalmist “you, LORD is a shield around me” (Psalm 3:3). One that surrounds us is one used for attack, not defence. We can walk forward with hope, and the LORD is with us.

There is more work that we can do. Next time I’ll look at relapses and action plans.