Getting sober is like walking a tightrope. Behind you, your lifelong drinking buddies sing a capella: “C’mon! Have one.” In front of you, an intimidating but necessary change pleads for your shaking hand. Below you, your past relapses lick their lips, hanging around for you to leap back in. You look ahead and wonder, Are my friends up there, or are they part of the choir behind me?
It’s a question everyone in recovery faces, and the answer isn’t always what we want to hear. “A degree of separation from the so-called people, places and things — or the playmates, playgrounds and playthings — that have been connected to a person’s using is really valuable and valid,” says 14-year sober veteran Dan Mager, author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction. “It’s always helpful to err on the side of being more conservative and risk averse, especially early in a person’s recovery.”
As a result, losing friends is frequently an unavoidable part of sobriety. But the goodbye can be a bittersweet one. “I didn’t lose any friends that I didn’t need to lose,” says Loz, creator of the @brutalrecovery meme page. “I got sober for a better life, so the friendships that nurtured me grew in closeness, and the ones that were keeping me in old patterns naturally came to a close. That’s not to say it wasn’t painful. It’s an awkward grievance to realize you have nothing in common with the person you sobbed in club bathrooms with after 10 martinis.”
Keep in mind, however, that sobriety is a major lifestyle change, and you may need to spend a while working on yourself before you even start thinking about friends. “I definitely stopped seeing a lot of people when I quit drinking, but that was mostly by my own choice,” says Max, founder of the @fucking_sober meme page. “I had no real interest in going out to the bars and clubs anymore, so a lot of people slipped away. Were they real friends? Probably not. My closest friends either didn’t live in the same country as me anymore, or I’d drifted away from them already. To say I had an identity crisis while getting sober is an understatement. I had to relearn how to do the most basic social things. I needed to be around other sober people who’d already been through what I was going through because I was (a) terrified of relapsing and (b) so self-conscious and socially awkward during this phase that my anxiety was out of control.”
Once you do start thinking about friends, while uncomfortable, figuring out who will stay and who will go is usually a simple process of communication, elimination and knowing your own boundaries. “A lot of people didn’t really know how to react to my sobriety and weren’t sure whether to still invite me to things, so to avoid drifting from my friends, I made it clear that I was sober, not dead, and still wanted to spend time with them,” Loz explains. “One of my closest friends from Scotland came to visit me when I was living in America, and I panicked, because most of our friendship involved one or both of us being drunk. I told her that I was sober now, and I wasn’t going to drink when she was here, and if she didn’t want to come anymore, that was okay. She instantly replied, ‘Thank fuck, you were a fucking nightmare when you drank,’ and we had an incredible time together.”
The people who don’t understand your sobriety, on the other hand, should be easy to spot, and you can make of them what you will. Remember, their misunderstanding doesn’t necessarily mean they’re unsupportive, maybe just naive. “Some friends don’t understand how addiction works whatsoever and are convinced one day I’ll be able to have one,” Loz says. “I don’t think it’s personal. I think it’s more they just haven’t experienced it or had their life touched by severe substance abuse issues. I try to be happy for them, because that must be really nice. Sometimes, I’ll explain to them the true nature of what addiction means for someone who suffers from it, which can make me a helpful resource if it ever crosses their path again in other interactions. I try to be understanding: It’s hard for me to remember that not everyone knows addiction as intimately as I do.”
You may also need to accept that many people, including close friends, will never understand, especially if they themselves are heavy users of drugs or alcohol. “I didn’t really have anything to say to my friends who didn’t believe my intentions when I told them,” Max says. “Given my history, they were probably right to not trust what I said, anyway. It’s hard to put into words, but the confidence that I’ve gained from not just abstaining from alcohol, but the recovery work, lets me just not give a fuck if a friend doesn’t believe this is a serious decision. What’s that old saying? What someone says behind my back is none of my business. The same goes for what someone thinks. It’s none of my business what you think of me. Of course, I’m not perfect at this, but if I catch myself worrying what someone thinks of me, I’m just like, fuck that.”
If someone keeps pressuring you to partake “like old times,” the best thing you can do is be blunt. “When someone close to me asks if I’ll ever drink again, I’m just pretty frank and say that I really hope I don’t,” says Loz. “Despite all of my extensive research, I couldn’t find a way that didn’t leave me broken. I’ll usually explain that in my life, there’s no experience alcohol can give me that I can’t get in sobriety — apart from maybe getting chlamydia, being locked out of my house and wetting a stranger’s bed all in one night. If someone is taking offense or uncomfortable about my sobriety in their presence, I don’t have to explain or defend myself. That’s something they need to process.”
Depending on how comfortable you are in your sobriety, Mager says you may also need to stay on your toes about what kinds of situations you put yourself in, even if you’re surrounded by supposedly supportive people. You might not be able to handle tagging along to the bar, for instance, or you’ll need to come up with ways to keep your mind busy. “If everyone’s enjoying a drink, I make sure to have something to occupy my senses, like something to eat or a fancy fucking fizzy drink,” Loz says. “Rather than drink alcohol, I’ll nurse my mozzarella sticks and ask strangers about aliens or whatever their passion is.”
If it gets awkward, and you feel like you need to leave, leave. “Life on life’s terms invariably puts everyone — whether they’re in recovery or not — in all sorts of situations where we have to choose among options, none of which are great,” Mager says. Sometimes, that means leaving your friends behind in favor of being sober and uncomfortable at some brewery while everyone else is wasted. “If I’m out and people cross that invisible line from just having a few drinks to getting shitfaced, I’ll leave,” Max says.
Of course, you should also feel comfortable suggesting activities that don’t revolve around drinking or doing drugs. “I had an unrealistic expectation that people would instantly know how to navigate my sobriety without me communicating any of my actual needs,” Loz says. Don’t be afraid to put something out there, because if your friends really are friends, they’ll be more than happy to have a sober hangout. “A really good friend who gives a shit might not understand or necessarily agree, but they’ll be willing,” Mager explains. As another option, he notes that making new sober companions is one of the “phenomenal benefits of 12-step programs.”
So, if you’re balancing on that tightrope and tired of hearing the same demanding a capella, don’t look back, don’t look down, and remember, Mager, Max, Loz and I are all waiting for you just up ahead.