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Relapse Recovery: Case Study

Lukenotes, Summer 2016

Pastor of a large suburban parish for over a decade, Father Tim was highly respected by his fellow priests for his ability to balance pastoral and administrative responsibilities. He was known for putting people first and had an open-office policy for staff and parishioners.

He often shared his personal story. While in his 20s (before he became a priest), he gambled, rationalizing it as stress relief that didn’t hurt anyone. A successful sales executive at the time, his income became consumed by gambling debts until he was forced into bankruptcy. He lost his home and job.

Having hit “rock bottom,” Fr. Tim joined Gamblers’ Anonymous (GA). He started attending 12-Step meetings regularly and saw a therapist for a while. He also reconnected with his Catholic faith, which led to discovering his vocation. Parishioners and staff felt a special connection with Father because of his vulnerability in sharing his struggles.

“Cured” of his Addiction

As his ministry responsibilities increased, Fr. Tim cut back on 12-Step meetings, eventually attending only sporadically and losing contact with his sponsor. He considered himself “cured” of his addiction.

Ready to slow down, he recently was assigned to a small rural parish where he lived alone. That same year, he lost his mother and then his brother.

Fr. Tim told friends that he was enjoying the quiet of his new assignment. Yet, his brother priests and friends noticed changes that worried them.

Fr. Tim had begun missing key events, including the annual priest convocation. He stopped going to priest support group meetings and cancelled plans with close priest friends.

He began buying new furniture and other expensive items for the rectory. He routinely was unavailable for his staff and parishioners, unusual given his past open-door policy, and was seen leaving a casino in a nearby state.

Word got to the vicar for clergy, who asked Fr. Tim to meet with him. When Fr. Tim made excuses, the vicar stopped by the rectory. He told Father he was concerned and asked if he were still attending his 12-Step meetings. Father said, “There are no GA meetings here in the country and I cannot afford a half-day round trip for a meeting.”

During his visit, the vicar also noticed several bottles of pain killers on a kitchen windowsill, which Fr. Tim attributed to a flare-up of back pain.

The vicar called a therapist at Saint Luke Institute, who identified that Fr. Tim was showing signs of relapse. They worked together on how to approach Father and he agreed to go for an evaluation at Saint Luke. This included a medical consultation, testing and assessments by a psychologist and a spirituality team member.

The evaluation confirmed that Fr. Tim was relapsing, apparently triggered by the loss of his family members and change to a more isolated assignment.

Building New Skills and Awareness

Fr. Tim entered the three-month Visitation Program, which addresses relapse of addictions and mood disorders. He learned that he was using alcohol and gambling to self-medicate an undiagnosed depression. He reconnected with his previous 12-Step work through daily attendance at Alcoholics’ Anonymous or Gamblers’ Anonymous meetings.

Fr. Tim participated in multiple group sessions each week in which he improved his emotional awareness and gained new self-confidence in sharing his feelings in an open manner. He reintegrated 12-Step principles into daily activities and learned to identify the emotional triggers for his addictive cravings.

Intensive individual and group therapy helped Fr. Tim develop awareness that his gradual slide back to addiction was the result of significant unprocessed grief from losing family members and presiding at numerous funerals. During spirituality sessions, Fr. Tim found new energy and creativity to develop prayer practices that incorporated recovery into his daily meditation.

He participated in education programs where he learned about the neuroscience of addiction and developed mindfulness skills to de-escalate cravings through controlled breathing and guided imagery. Finally, he developed a relapse prevention plan and identified members for a support team.

After returning home, Fr. Tim found new joy in simple things like taking walks, a book club and guitar lessons.

He worked hard to implement the steps in his relapse prevention plan and spoke regularly with his Continuing Care therapist. He requested a transfer to a parish closer to 12-Step meetings and near the parish of a priest friend who was part of his support group.

He learned to let his 12-Step sponsor or a support team member know immediately when he had addictive cravings. Fr. Tim also learned to prioritize his recovery and practice being assertive in sharing emotional needs with support team members. He realized that the program helped him recognize that he can manage his addictions and depression with daily vigilance by including supportive companions and God in his journey of recovery.

Stephen Carroll, Ph.D., LCPC, is coordinator of the Visitation Program of Saint Luke Institute. To ensure the confidentiality of our clients, names, identifying information and treatment details have been altered.