How to Support a Newly Sober Loved One

Photo by Milan Popovic

At Freedom Institute, we often hear clients in treatment confess to feeling discouraged by a lack of support from their family or friends for their recovery efforts.  They struggle with well-meaning loved ones, who on the one hand are encouraging them to get well and stop using, but on the other hand they do not understand what this involves.

Friends and family may not like it when their newly sober loved one is unavailable to spend time with them, unwilling to hang out at a bar, unable to watch the game with the gang.  The client genuinely wants to get sober, and they know they cannot follow their usual routine or continue unhealthy habits. They now find themselves second-guessing their decision because they don’t want to disappoint their friends.

Creating this conflict is of course not the intention.  Friends and family have seen the aftermath of a night of hard partying, the self-hatred that ensues from a bender, or waking up with a mind numbing hangover. They see first-hand the pain that their friend is in, and they will do anything to support them. Sometimes, supporting a friend or a loved one through the recovery process is a simple matter of listening and being mindful of what they say.  And sometimes, it means sacrificing one’s own social plans for the betterment of their recovering friend.

Below are some tips on how to support a friend or loved one who is in early recovery or considering treatment:

  1. Keep it to yourself.

Don’t complain about losing a “party friend.” It’s wonderful that your best friend decided to change their life for the better. You might be truly excited and supportive of them, but aren’t quite ready to change YOUR whole social life, too. It just doesn’t seem fair…These feelings are normal and do not make you a bad friend. But, it’s important to try to keep them to yourself, or share them with someone else who won’t be discouraged by your feelings.

  1. Find ways to socialize without alcohol (or other drugs).

Let’s not go grab a drink. So much of our culture of socializing is centered around the cocktail hour and drinking.  It is not uncommon for newly recovering people (and their friends) to complain that there is “nothing to do” that doesn’t involve alcohol. In fact, there is plenty to do, including a whole host of sober events. Some of these may be a little intimidating at first, but it’s good to know that there are things to do in all parts of the country that are geared towards the sober community. You might even suggest going with your friend to one of these events!

  1. Be aware of and sensitive to triggers.

This may sound like a tall order. I mean, how are you supposed to know what might trigger your friend? Especially when you do not have a drinking problem yourself.  It’s hard to know all of the things that are going to upset your newly sober friend, but keep in mind that the first 90 days of abstinence from substances can be emotionally exhausting, and urges to use can arise in a variety of ways.  So consider not talking about the wild bachelorette party you went to last week, or suggesting hangout time at your regular sports bar. Also worth noting is that newly sober alcoholics are often sensitive to products that have alcohol in them, such as hand sanitizer, mouth wash, cologne, etc., so even things like switching to hand soap and an au-naturale scent can be helpful when you are with them.

  1. Allow space and time for new friends

When someone in early recovery makes the decision to stop using, they often need to change their social environments. This might mean avoiding the bars and restaurants that they used to go to, going to support groups or substance abuse treatment, and establishing a new community of non-using friends.  The quality of a person’s recovery can be improved if they have a supportive sober social network.  Allowing your friend to explore new, healthy relationships can be one of the most supportive things you can do for your recovering pal. And, don’t take it personally.  Early recovery can be scary and confusing.  Your friend needs all the support they can get – from others as well as from you.

  1. Don’t play cop or act like a monitor of your friend’s sobriety.

It is wonderful that you helped your friend get into treatment, accompanied them to 12-step meetings when asked, and answered their calls at 1am when they were having an anxiety attack.  But following them around the party making sure that they are drinking water is crossing the line. Your friend needs to monitor his or her own sobriety.  There is a saying in AA, “you have to chase your sobriety like you chased a drink.” The recovering person must want to be getting sober and no amount of you hovering or guarding them from a drink or a drug will help them in the long run.  It also damages the relationship and creates resentment on both sides.  Let them be in charge of themselves.

  1. Don’t pry into things that are the business of sponsors or treatment professionals – don’t take it personally if your friend needs to share with somebody with more experience.

This is a new journey for your friend, one that can be difficult to navigate initially. Treatment professionals and people in the recovering community have experience working with people in your friend’s shoes.  Leave the advice giving and suggestions to them. Even though you are trying to be helpful, it could actually compromise your friend’s recovery. The mental health aspect of addiction is tricky, because there is a part that is always trying to convince an addict that it’s ok to use, “just one more time.” Anything that you say that can be misconstrued probably will be at the most opportune time for your friend.  You will be doing your friend a huge favor by not taking this personally.

Remember, the beginning of recovery is all about relearning how to live life in a sober way and addressing the issues that got them there in the first place. Give your friend as much room as they need to find their footing.  Being supportive is more than just being there. Taking an active role in helping the recovering person change their life for the better, even if you don’t fully understand it or it requires some change in your own life, is the best thing you can do for them at this time.  And if they don’t know now, they will soon realize how lucky they are to have you.
(previously published 2015)