Relapse = to deteriorate after a period of improvement
“Homes of Hope, what is your success rate?”
We have been asked that question hundreds of times throughout the years. My answer has always been,” How do you measure ’success’ in a human life?” We all have our ups and downs. We all look like a shining star at one moment, an utter failure at the next. But when you scrutinize successful restoration of an individual who has been a victim of sexual violence, their ups can be overshadowed by what appears to be their downs. Out of the thousands of victims[i] Homes of Hope has worked with throughout the years, many of them have far exceeded their own expectations of restoration while they were in our programs or training's. But then…they were reintegrated back home, they concluded the training, they got married – life happened – and they “relapsed” into their old lives of forced sex. Why does a woman[ii] who has been a glowing resident of Homes of Hope leave and willingly re-enter sex work? Why does she make wonderful progress with counseling, learn about her rights and the power of assertiveness, have great hopes and aspirations for her future, then reintegrate home only to be sexually used again by the men in her life simply because she can’t say “no?”
Sera* came to Homes of Hope at the age of 16, pregnant. Her father had “given” her to his boss so that he could retain his job. It was repeated sexual abuse for years. Sera progressed very well while on campus, gaining confidence, healing, and learning to be assertive. Then one day, Sera’s father showed up on campus and demanded that Sera return home with him because he had arranged a marriage for her (note that the father gained a dowry from this arranged marriage). Sera made the choice to leave HoH and return with her father to be married to a stranger not because she was unhappy or eager to be married, but simply because she was expected to obey her father. She submitted. Yet again. She lost all confidence, withdrew into silence, returned to be subservient, and became a victim again.
When discussing relapse, it is important to remember that it is not any one event that determines a trigger for a relapse, but the individual’s experience of that event/trigger and how they process it. Relapse triggers can be a memory, a smell, a look, a person, a felt need, fear, loneliness, the sight of a father; the list is endless. It is important for all of us to understand that relapsing is a natural part of healing from sexual trauma. As people who care and love for those who are recovering, it is important for us to realize the sense of shame and regret that often accompanies those who are relapsing. It is okay to relapse; it is common. It is merely a stage in the process of healing. Some people will struggle with relapsing for the entirety of their life (Barnardos, pg. 30). That doesn’t mean they are not a success story. If we look back again at Sera*, time went on, she matured and remembered many of the things that HoH had taught her and instilled into her heart. She grew back into a woman who could speak up for herself and make decisions regarding her own life, telling other women about their rights and the gift of assertiveness, and saying "no" to her own father.
Recovery can be measured in many ways (Barnardos, pgs. 24-25); it is unique to each individual. The more healthy relationships a survivor has, the more likely they are to push past the shame of relapse and move back into resilience. Relationships are the agents of change; relationships matter. But for an individual who has suffered abuse, there are often problems in forming attachments. The abuse has led to feelings of distrust, betrayal, and abandonment and has caused a disconnection from other human beings. (Whitfield, 1984). That means that we all must try harder to come alongside people who have suffered. After Sera* left our residential campus, she continued to receive support, acceptance and love from HoH through regular visits; she also continued with many of the friendships she made while staying on Campus. Trusting relationships helped Sera rebuild trust and move from relapse back into strong recovery.
People, not programs, change people. Will you be part of a solution in someone’s life? Look for those individuals at your church, neighborhood, sporting group – who might be hurting. Help others establish trigger mechanisms in the brain to evoke deep warmth, joy, harmony, calm by helping them to experience nature, art, with children, animals. If you have a spare bedroom, invite someone to stay for a while just so they can get their feet underneath them and establish some normalcy. If you would like to take a volunteer missions trip to Homes of Hope Fiji: https://www.hopefiji.org/volunteers or donate to: https://www.hopefiji.org/donate .
[i] Homes of Hope has worked with over 1,000 women and children on our residential campus throughout the last 22 years. We have also conducted training's and awareness in villages, communities, Early Childhood centers, secondary and tertiary schools, churches – to thousands of men, women and children.
[ii] Homes of Hope residential campus works with young single mothers, their children, and young single girls under the age of 18 – all of whom are either victims of or vulnerable to forced sex.