When you’re in the early stages of recovery, navigating your social life may feel scary and overwhelming. How do you deal with your old friends? Should you make new ones? What will you tell people? Here are seven social life strategies from addiction experts and people who’ve been there.
Be Willing to Let Your Old Friends Go
“I think one of the most challenging things about early recovery is figuring out how to replace that dysfunctional, unhealthy group that you used to have with something that’s more supportive and encouraging,” says Laura Longville, a licensed addiction counselor in Rapid City, SD, in this exclusive interview with The Canyon. As you build your new social life, you need to find supportive people whose focus is also on living a life of sobriety, Mark Blakeley, a licensed addiction counselor in Englewood, CO, also tells The Canyon. “Part of the problem is a lot of people think they can do the same old thing they’ve always done, and you can’t because you’re going to end up falling back into the same behaviors,” Blakeley says.
Depending on the relationships you had, you may have to ditch your former pals, but that often happens naturally anyway. “I found I felt really weird in social situations that weren’t with other sober people,” says Britni de la Cretaz, who has been sober since 2011. “I tried to hang out with old friends, but just by nature of us being at totally different places in our lives, we drifted apart. It was weird for them to hang out with me when I wasn’t drinking, and I didn’t feel all that connected to many of them without booze.”
“The people we partied with can no longer be a part of our lives,” agrees Kim Hillman, who has been in recovery since 1998. “If you want to change, you have to change all your people, your places and your things.” Spending time with the people you used to get high with becomes too tempting and can cause dysfunctional relationships to form, Longville says. “I think that’s the hardest struggle for people in recovery because this has been their life for, usually, many years, so they have a pretty ingrained system that they think is a support system, but it’s really not.”
Letting go of your old friends isn’t always necessary, though it tends to be the norm. Irina Gonzalez, who has been in recovery for two years, was able to keep her friendships. “I was lucky enough to have friends who weren’t addicts, but who were extremely careful around me and very much went through the effort to understand my disease and help me in any way they could,” Gonzalez tells The Canyon.
Try not to take it personally if you do lose friendships over your new sobriety, both Hillman and Gonzalez say. “That’s one thing I’ve learned…I can’t save anyone else,” Hillman says. “If I’m not well, then nothing around me is well and no one around me is well, including my family.”
“I was really hurt in the beginning when a couple friends seemed to not want to hang out with me anymore,” Gonzalez says. “The people that continue to be my friends were worth it and stuck by me during the hard times. Those are the friends you want in your life after entering recovery, and they’re the friends that will socialize with you sans alcohol happily.”
Consider a 12-Step Program
Not only are 12-Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery wonderfully supportive, they are a great place to start rebuilding your social circle. “The biggest benefit of a 12-Step program is being around people who have chosen to live a life of abstinence for recovery. It’s what makes the biggest difference,” says Blakeley. “Once you have made the decision to stay sober, you have those positive support people with you.”
De la Cretaz found going to AA meetings to be “indispensable for meeting other sober people my age,” and Hillman built what she refers to as her “tribe” in her 12-Step program, noting that she still has a support system beyond that with people she can call at any time. “There are opportunities to really learn how to have fun in recovery and hang out with people who are clean,” Hillman tells The Canyon. Many 12-Step programs also host multiple activities, giving members a chance to be social and stay busy.
Reach Out and Stay Connected
The temptation to stay isolated can be strong, particularly in early recovery. The reality is that everyone needs other people in their lives, particularly when they’re vulnerable, and isolation can lead to relapse. “Be the one to set up plans,” Gonzalez advises. “I know this can be hard for a lot of addicts . . . but you will soon find those people who will stick by you and those who don’t.”
Hillman says when new people join her 12-Step program, they immediately receive a list of phone numbers filled with people of the same sex they can call for help any time. “We encourage them to call every person on that phone list,” she says. “That’s accountability because the hardest thing to do when we come into the program is pick up the phone, but it’s the phone that saves our lives. I sleep with the phone next to my bed because there may be somebody that is hurting at 2:00 a.m.” Maintaining connections with others is vital to both your recovery and your social life.
Figure out what brings you joy in your life, Blakeley says. “Do you want to go to rock concerts? Go to concerts. You just have to stay sober,” he says. “You want to go whitewater rafting? Go white water rafting. Stay sober. There are a lot of people who think you can’t have fun anymore when you’re in recovery, and that’s just not true.”
Staying busy and active creates fulfillment and promotes connection. “What kind of hobbies have you given up that you’d like to get back to?” asks Longville. “Are there new hobbies that you’d like to give a try?” She also believes that getting involved in church and/or community volunteer programs is a wonderful way to get out of your own head and focus on giving to others.
Gonzalez didn’t let her recovery stop her from her love of dancing. Hillman fills her time with the many activities her 12-Step program puts on, as well as regular get-togethers with her pals. She also volunteers as a mentor in her program. “Go to everything you can possibly go to, everything you’re invited to,” Hillman says. “Call the people on your list often and if there’s not something going on, spearhead that and be the one to say, ‘Hey, I want to have some people over to my house.'”
Don’t Be Afraid to Speak Up
Gonzalez says her best piece of advice is to not feel shy about not drinking. “I’ve found that speaking up confidently about not drinking, even if I don’t reveal the reason why, has helped,” she tells The Canyon. “It makes a few people awkward, sure, but that’s their problem, NOT yours.” She advises simply telling people you don’t drink and if they ask why, you can say you’re in recovery, you’re allergic, you’re on antibiotics, or whatever reason you want to give. “It’s definitely a personal choice in what you tell people, but I think being honest has really helped me to keep and improve the friendships I had since before recovery and the friendships I have made since,” Gonzalez says.
Be Aware of the Potential for Cross-Addiction
You may feel like if you have a drug addiction, it’s okay to drink, or vice versa, but “addiction is addiction is addiction,” says Blakeley. “It’s really not the substance that’s the problem, it’s the disease.” Stay around sober people who are supportive of your recovery and who won’t pressure you.
Remember, It Will Get Easier
Don’t give up on a sober social life, even if you’re having trouble getting started. “Everything is temporary,” Hillman tells The Canyon. “That social life will come. It’s just a different social life. I have had more fun in recovery than I ever did partying because I wake up in the morning with no hangover. I remember everything I did the night before. We laugh and laugh because our true selves are shining today. They’re not blunted by drugs or alcohol.”
De la Cretaz says her social life takes no thought anymore. “It has become so natural for me to be sober that I hardly notice if people are drinking,” she says. Gonzalez also feels her social life is much easier to manage now. She tells new friends that she doesn’t drink and if they ask why, she explains that she’s in recovery. “Over time, the biggest change has been in having the confidence to admit to my problem in this way, to let people know firmly that I don’t drink, and it has allowed my social life to continue to flow smoothly,” she says.
Written by Sarah E. Ludwig