Being friends with someone in recovery is fraught with pitfalls. It is really easy to inadvertently be a dick to a recovering alcoholic. Here’s how not to.
1. Don’t try to tell them they are NOT an alcoholic.
One of the hardest things about getting sober is telling people in your life that you are getting sober. Here are some of the reactions I encountered when I quit drinking at 23.
1. My family, boyfriend at the time, very close friends: About fucking time, thank GOD.
2. My other friends (who had no idea how much I drank and used): You’re not an alcoholic. Don’t be so dramatic.
3. My drinking buddies: Oh come on, you weren’t THAT bad. If you’re an alcoholic, what does that make me? (There is no good answer to that question).
4. Everyone else: You don’t have to give up completely, like, forever though right? Can’t you just have one or two drinks? Aren’t you too young to be an alcoholic?
5. My grandparents: Please do not refer to yourself as an alcoholic.
They all have my sympathy, because it’s hard to know what to say in this scenario. The least helpful one EVER is “You weren’t that bad.” NEVER say that to someone who is in the process of quitting drinking.
For starters, it’s not your place to minimize their experience with substances. Chances are if they are quitting drinking, it got bad enough FOR THEM. Assume that they feel dreadful and bewildered. I have never once seen someone skip gleefully into their first AA meeting singing, “I think I’m an alcoholic!” with jazz-hands.
One of the many weird things about the disease of addiction is that it tries to dupe the sufferer into thinking they actually don’t have it. The journey from “Maybe I drink too much,” to “Fuck, I’m an alcoholic,” is such a difficult one that many die an unglamorous alchie death before they reach the destination. One ignorant person saying, “Hey, you weren’t that bad, you’re not an alcoholic” can lead a person out of sobriety, back to denial and into the nearest bar.
Also, most people, including those with medical degrees, have no idea what being an alcoholic actually entails, so please, don’t assume you can diagnose a person when you see one. Say something supportive and buy them a freakin’ OJ.
2. Don’t always meet your newly sober alcoholic friend in a bar.
In the first couple of years of recovery, it was really hard to be around alcohol, not because I necessarily craved it, but because it felt like I was going back into the lion’s den every time I went anywhere that served alcohol.
Not drinking, for someone like me who drank every moment they were awake, is a massive, seismic adjustment. The smell of booze frightened me and I’d watch people get loose after a couple of drinks and I’d long for a way out of my discomfort. I’d have to leave, feeling like a weirdo.
Be patient. After a relatively short time in sobriety I stopped noticing booze. Nowadays, a few years down the line, bars, gigs, festivals, restaurants are all fine. However watching you do shooters, get sloppy and talk about your impending hangovers is DULL AS SHIT. Suggest a walk, a coffee, a trip to the cinema...there’s plenty of stuff to do without alcohol.
3. Don’t say stupid shit about AA.
Going to AA is weird. I’m allowed to say that, because I have first-hand experience of it. You are not allowed to say that, because you have only experienced the televised version of an AA meeting. (Most accurate TV portrayal: "House of Cards." Least accurate: "The L Word"/all British attempts.)
On hearing that I am in AA, do not assume any of the following things.
a) That I’m religious, or even spiritual.
b) That I’m in a cult and have been brainwashed.
c) That I love AA and think it’s perfect.
d) That I talk in cliches and enjoy a group hug. I’ve not lost my sense of irony because I’m clean and sober, y’all.
AA is like anywhere else when a microcosm of society come together. There are people of every type in meetings. Rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight, young and old. Some people piss me off, some people are crazy, some people are fantastic, others are arseholes. I don’t have to like it, I just have to attend it.
Above all though:
DO NOT FEEL SORRY FOR ME BECAUSE I CAN’T DRINK AND I GO TO MEETINGS.
In my job as a musician, I don’t really worry about my anonymity. If people ask why I don’t drink, I tell them, because I did enough lying about who I really was when I was drunk all the time. Also, sometimes fellow problem drinkers who know I’m in recovery ask me for help when everything goes tits up. Some people I tell cock their heads to one side and look at me with acute sympathy, which really pisses me off.
I’m healthy, and my life is awesome because I don’t drink and go to meetings. In the US, sobriety and 12 step programmes are widely recognised and pretty much everyone knows someone in a programme. In the UK, not so much. A close friend of mine once said to me, “Uou’ve swapped your addiction to drink and drugs to being addicted to meetings,” which was stunningly ignorant, but a widely held opinion here in the UK.
Being in recovery is hard enough without having to defend the treatment of it to someone who doesn’t know what the eff they are talking about. Again, keep it to yourself and be happy that your previously wasted friend is now clean and sober.
4. Don’t talk about willpower to a recovering alcoholic.
Alcoholism has nothing to do with willpower. Drinking and using is the symptom of a mental illness called addiction. The aforementioned head cockers also say things like: “How do you resist alcohol? You must have SO much willpower. It must be SO difficult.” I think they are trying to compliment me, but it’s an infuriatingly simplistic thing to say.
If by sobering up ,I had to live the rest of my life resisting a powerful urge to drink, like I was on some kind of fad diet, I would kill myself. Or just drink, because it is easier.
The change in someone that stops them drinking and using has nothing to do with willpower, otherwise loads of people that should stop drinking would just do it. It is way more complicated than that. If all of us recovering alchies walked around white-knuckling it, nobody would stay sober. I have no desire to drink, the smell of booze makes want to barf, because I know enough now to know that alcohol is my kryptonite. I’m useless when I drink. That’s not to say that I think I’m immune from drinking again, as alas, once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.
I have to take care of myself to avoid a relapse. The process of relapse is not a lack of willpower, it’s a symptom of an illness. Similarly, if you give up booze for lent, or for the month of January, don’t tell me about it like I will relate. It’s NOT THE SAME THING.
5. Don’t micro-manage the feelings of a recovering alcoholic.
This may contradict what I’ve just said about being considerate towards the alcoholic, but it’s possible to go too far the other way. Once I arrived early at a restaurant to meet some old school friends of mine to discover them all already sitting at the table with a bottle of red wine.
“Wow!” I said, pleased to see them, “We’re all early. That never happens.”
One of them looked apologetic and said, “Oh sorry, we were trying to drink this before you arrived.”
My friends thought they were being considerate and clearly trying to save me from any discomfort, because they are lovely. In doing so, however, they made me feel like a freak and an outsider. My dad has been known to protectively ring ahead on family occasions, reminding whoever is hosting the shindig that I don’t drink, so could they please provide a nice non alcoholic alternative.
On one hand, is just so heart-squeezingly caring of my dad, trying to do the right thing and put me at ease. My parents are beside themselves with pride that I’m still sober. Again though, the fuss makes me feel controlled, and like I have a neon sign on my head saying “LUSH.” I’m honestly capable of grabbing a ginger ale without embarrassment, even if, horror of horrors, there’s a toast.
6. Don’t give a recovering alcoholic non-alcoholic beer or wine.
Most people with alcoholism didn’t drink for the taste. They drank for the effect, so if they’re not going to drink booze, they’re honestly just as happy with a lemonade, especially since non alcoholic beer and wine contain a little bit of alcohol, the taste of which could set off a pyschological craving that pre-empts an alcoholic binge.
7. If you’re cooking for your recovering alcoholic friend, don’t cook with booze.
Some recovering alchies are cool with a well-cooked coq au vin, reasoning that the alcohol has evaporated off during the cooking process. I’m not one of them, because I don’t really want to taste red wine. A dash of wine in a gravy is probably no big deal, but I’d rather not ingest alcohol. It freaks me out. Pears in brandy, tiramisu, any kind of liquor based dessert is obviously an absolute no no. Come on.
8. Do not open a conversation with the mention of a famous alcoholic celebrity.
When a famous person gets sober, don’t ask me if I have seen them at a meeting, I can’t tell you. It’s ANONYMOUS in AA. I can say that I’m an ex-lush, I can’t say if anyone else is. And no, I’ve never met Lindsay Lohan.