Day 28: Learning to Wait 5: Relapse is ok.

I have written a few posts this month called “Learning to Wait”, which mostly have to deal with getting used to the fact that it often takes years for people to change. But I haven’t addressed the dynamics of why it takes so long, and why that’s ok.

I just got a message from “Boon”. He sent photos of his 3 sons and photos of gifts he is taking to them this week. The boys are in a boarding school in northern Thailand, and we have helped him earn enough income to go visit.

Boon is one of those nice guys that rocks when he is clean, but has trouble staying on the wagon. He can do very well for months at a time, then fall apart. Each time we have been able to help him and his wife and mother of his three sons reunite. But after a hard relapse this year, the marriage appears to be over.

Sometimes I like to call Boon “teacher”, only half joking. He is intelligent, and has good insight when studying the Bible.

But Boon’s is another one of those stories of the nearly inevitable slide to destruction that we see repeated so often. After his parents died at a young age, Boon was “raised” by his older brother, who according to Boon mostly led him into delinquency. Without a healthy role model anywhere, he never really had a chance.

One of my favorite paradigm words in looking at mental health and recovery is ‘self-regulation’. We begin as infants with none, and when all goes well, we are able to take care of our own needs by adulthood. We can solve problems in steps, even when under pressure. But getting to that point requires a combination of safety and challenge. A growing mind needs to feel safe, and it needs stimulation, including by coercion as necessary. With kids like Pon, these are either absent or unbalanced.

I remember very well the transition as a teen from dreading hard farm work to enjoying it. It was the same with physical conditioning and studying. You get there through doing it, plain and simple. But teens who lack healthy environments that are introduced to drugs and risky, addictive behaviors never arrive at that point. Their brains never develop far enough to get the cleansing feeling that comes from a difficult job well done. Instead their brains learn to calm stress with addictions.

So just as the process to healthy self-regulation takes time in a growing teen, it will also take time in the recovering addict, only with the added handicap of relapse triggers. Their brains will scream for calmness in the ways they know how, and it is only normal that they should sometimes give in.

Given this understanding, I no longer consider relapse a setback. Each month that someone is clean and sober is a month that he learns to handle stress. And indeed we do see progression. Boon has been clean for a couple months now, and is showing extra diligence in his life and work. I still believe God has a plan for him to teach others.

One day at a time.