When Allen Berger came home from rehab newly sober, most of his buddies avoided him. But he remembers a friend named Bill who showed up at his house wanting to hear all about Berger’s new life. “He was curious — how did I end up in rehab? Did I miss the drugs and alcohol? What was my life like now? I appreciated that. Very few people wanted to open up that door,” says Berger. “A lot of people I had partied with were probably thinking, If Berger has a problem what does that mean about me? Bill was the exception.”
Offering a thoughtful and supportive comment to an alcoholic or addict new in recovery can make a positive impact at a time when that person needs it most. So what should you say? Here, two experts share offer suggestions:
- “Hey, I haven’t seen you in a really long time – what’s going on?”
“Take an empathetic tone of voice and ask open-ended questions,” suggests Nicole Kosanke, PhD, coauthor of Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change (Scribner, 2014). “If the person responds with ‘I’ve been under the weather,” then you know that talking about rehab is not really an option, not a door they’re opening to their soul for you.” Recovering from an addiction is painful. “It’s a personal issue for a lot of people, not a public conversation,” says Kosanke. Think through your level of intimacy with this person – and what they know you know — before jumping in with a statement that could be taken as tactless or crass.
- “If you’re open to it, I’d like to say something about your recovery.”
“Ask permission before crossing that boundary – this puts the other person in control,” suggests Berger, who has 43 years of sobriety and is the author of 12 Things to Do When the Booze and Drugs are Gone (Hazelton, 2012). “You could say, ‘I’m aware that you just came out of rehab. I don’t want to overstep boundaries, but if you’re open to it I would like to say something to you about it.’ Many people in the early stages in recovery are struggling with a tremendous amount of shame,” says Berger, “and this approach honors their decision to talk about their experience, or not.”
- “I really respect that you stepped up and did something about your problem. That takes a lot of courage; you’ve got my support.”
Once you have the other person’s permission to talk about his or her recovery, offering a supportive comment – but only if you genuinely feel it – will mean a lot to the newly recovering person, says Berger.
- “Want to take a walk?”
A recovering alcoholic or drug addict is likely to feel uneasy in social situations where there’s drinking or using going on. “If you’re at a party and you know someone is in recovery and that person looks isolated and seems to be awkward, walk up and offer support,” says Berger. “You could say, ‘I’m aware of what’s going on — want to go out and take a walk?’ Early in his sobriety, a friend did this for Berger and it meant a lot. “I was getting antsy and I wanted to leave but didn’t want to get caught [leaving early], and this guy came up and said, ‘Let’s take a walk.’ I felt so much relief.”
- “Now that you’re in recovery, I hope there’s a chance for us to talk about what happened.”
What if the newly sober person lied, cheated, betrayed your friendship or even stole from you in the past? You don’t have to pretend it didn’t happen, but there are sensitive ways to acknowledge the damage that was done. “Often, people get too concerned about taking care of the alcoholic,” says Berger. “Let that person know that you’re open to talking about [whatever happened] at an appropriate time or place,” he says. A person in 12 step recovery will eventually need to make amends for misdeeds; he or she will probably welcome that you’re available for that discussion, he adds.
- “We’ve been friends a long time, and a lot of stuff has gone down. Honestly, I need a break.”
“Ask yourself, Where am I with this person?” says Kosanke. “If you’re still feeling enraged, you might need to take a break from contact with him or her. Communicate that directly, but in a non-punitive way.”
- “I miss the time we spent together. Is there a way we can start hanging out again?”
Maybe you and your friend used to drink together, and while it didn’t become a problem for you, you want to continue the friendship and also show your support. Think of new activities to share to replace the drinking or using, suggests Kosanke. “You could say, ‘I would love it if we could spend time together, like play squash or have coffee every week.’” If you know the times of day that are particularly hard for your friend, suggest an outing that might compete with the urge to drink, use drugs or do the problematic behavior, or will simply distract your friend. Ask if he or she wants to see a late movie or go jogging together on weekends. “You’re helping the person restructure their life and develop different habits,” says Kosanke.
- “What can I do to help you?”
If the person is in recovery from alcoholism, don’t bother asking if the he or she minds if alcohol will be served at a get-together. “Half the people will say it’s fine, when it actually isn’t fine,” says Kosanke. “If somebody is trying not to drink and you’re drinking in front of them, especially to excess, you’re making it more difficult for them.” A better idea? Ask what strategies will help this person, she says. Maybe they need to arrive to the party late, leave early, hang out with the pregnant aunt or keep seltzer in their hand. “Talk about it before the party. Work with the person directly — loved ones can really help. It’s not your responsibility to help, but you can if you want to.”