One of the key things that I had to realize during my journey into recovery was the my “friends” from my addiction days were all superficial relationships.
That was very difficult for me to accept at first. In fact I flat out rejected the idea when I was first trying to get sober.
Because invariably what happens is that you try to sober up, you go to rehab, maybe you go to AA meetings. And everyone in these places is basically trying to convince you that your old drinking buddies were never really your friends, and that they don’t matter, and that it is time to move on.
Well….they are right and they are also wrong.
The truth is that I went through some serious emotional loss when I sobered up. I walked away from my “drinking buddies” who I counted as real friends at the time. Looking back today I have gained a lot of perspective, and I can see the truth a bit more clearly.
The truth is in the middle, but it leans heavily towards what the AA folks were telling me in the beginning: that those drinking buddies were really just drinking pals, and that the relationships were pretty shallow. Of course there was still some real value in those old friendships and so walking away from it all definitely still hurts. For me there was no way around that.
But I think it pays to think about your relationships in terms of your addiction so that you can learn from it all. When I look back, I learn quite a bit.
Your “friends” in addiction become drinking or using buddies
My friendships in my life started to evolve the moment that I picked up my first drug and my first drink.
If I go back and mentally follow along with how my life started to change, I realize that my addiction started to take over my life. My real friends were people who never used to get drunk or high, and I slowly drifted away from such people and lost contact with them after I started drinking.
By that same token, I also started to associate with new people who were into the “party scene.” In other words, people who drank or used drugs like I did.
This did not just happen overnight. It happened over the course of a few years. I slowly drifted away and lost contact with real friends. And I slowly started to hang out with the people who drank and used more drugs.
Perhaps this even spilled into my employment somehow, and I must have done this consciously. I ended up at a job where nearly every coworker either drank or used drugs. Or perhaps that was just how I defined all of my relationships at the time: “He drinks every day, she drinks on the weekends, he smokes pot and drinks, he doesn’t drink but he smokes pot, that manager will do lines of coke with me,” and so on and so forth. Every single person in my life now had this little mental filter that went along with the relationship. The filter was my brain figuring out if I could drink, smoke, or use drugs with the person, and if that was an appropriate thing for me to discuss with them or not.
And so I was running around in my little world and I had all of these connections and it was so much easier to be around people who accepted all of my addictions. It was nice to find people who played along. Who shared in the misery, so to speak. So I either consciously or unconsciously started to associate more and more with alcoholics and drug addicts. Or as I like to say back then: “People who partied.” But in reality it was not about partying, it was about self medicating and being dependent on chemicals. Let’s call it what it really is and not try to dress it up! I was addicted and so I liked to hang around with other addicts.
You can tell how deep and meaningful your “friends” are in your life if you suddenly become completely clean and sober and start building a new life in recovery. Make that leap and then watch what happens with your old drinking and drug buddies. That shows the true depth of your friendship.
The transition into sobriety reveals who your true friends are in life
When I became clean and sober I had a few friends who still used drugs and alcohol. And these people wanted to maintain friendship with me even though I was pursuing sobriety. But it slowly dissolved over time and I never really thought consciously about it. I am not sure if they did either. I think they just realized that our friendship was no longer a good fit. I was trying to abstain and they were going to continue to self medicate. So we just drifted apart.
In one case I made the decision myself to walk away from the relationship. The other person was willing to continue but I realized that doing so would tear me apart. When you drink and use drugs with a person for a long period of time, I don’t think it is realistic to believe that one can get sober and for the relationship to survive. There is just too much history there that is based entirely on getting drunk and high together. So this can come down to a tough decision but it is also something that heals over time. This is especially true given the nature of recovery and the need for new support systems. You are meeting new people who are willing to help you on your journey, and so this can help to ease the transition away from losing your old friends.
But no one wants to hear that in early recovery. I can remember feeling this myself, the anger at people who were suggesting that I could just replace my old friends with new people that I met at AA, or at rehab. I didn’t want to hear that. I was afraid and I was hurt.
I was hurt because I really felt like I had real friendships with some of the people from my addiction. Losing them was going to hurt. I did not care that we were no good for each other. I was still going to hurt to lose them. Pain is pain.
I was afraid because I did not want to be alone. And leaving all of your drinking buddies was a smack in the face. Suddenly you were all alone, you had no friends, you were starting over from zero.
And the guy who would later become my sponsor said “in recovery and in NA you are never alone. You never have to be alone again.”
And I thought that was BS at the time. I was angry at that. I did not believe him. Because I was hurt and I was scared and the idea of meeting new people in AA or NA was scary as well. I did not want to face my fears and I was also hurt from the loss of my friends.
But ultimately he was right. Of course he was right. If you leave your old world of addiction behind and you start associating with positive people, start attending meetings, go to rehab and meet new people who are on a positive path, then of course you are going to make new friends.
But I did not want to hear that. I was too scared and I was still wounded.
What it means to find help and support in your recovery journey
When I first got clean and sober I moved into long term rehab. There I formed some relationships with other people in recovery, at least one of which still continues to this day over 13 years later.
I went to meetings. I met people in recovery. I asked someone to sponsor me. He is still my sponsor to this day (I should call him!).
I found people in recovery who could help to challenge me. People who wanted to see me grow and do better.
I used to worry that I did not have dozens of friends in recovery, because I believed that everyone else must surely have dozens of friends. But I had a few close friends and I think that is what really works for me. It was about quality rather than quantity. And that was OK.
I also found different ways to socialize in recovery other than just going to AA meetings. I think this was an important step for me. I had to get out of the meetings and into “real life” recovery, so to speak. One way that I did that was by going back to school. Another way that I did that was by working in a treatment center. And I also found a way to branch out by coming to the forum here at Spiritual River.
“We are each other’s eyes and ears” in recovery
There is a saying in the NA literature that “we are each other’s eyes and ears in recovery.”
This is important in early recovery. Our own ideas are not generally enough to allow us to solve the problem of addiction.
Think about that for a moment. If you could solve your own addiction problem then would you need outside help? No, you wouldn’t. And shame would prevent you from looking outside of yourself. The path of least resistance is to keep your problem a secret, to hide it from the world, to take care of it on your own.
But for real addicts and alcoholics, this didn’t work. So we had to break down at some point and ask for help. We had to open ourselves up to a better way. We had to make ourselves vulnerable and be willing to follow a new path in life, one that was not of our own choosing.
No man is an island, especially in addiction recovery. If you isolate yourself from others then you are at least ten times more likely to relapse. OK, OK, I made that statistic up out of thin air. But I can bet that the reality is that this is not far off the mark. Any addict or alcoholic who is isolating is in serious danger of relapse.
Why? Because when we pull away from other people then we start to depend on our own crazy ideas. And at least some of those ideas always lead back to self medicating. We need other people in our lives to help keep us on the new path, on the healthy path.
If I am screwing up in my recovery then I need to have other recovering alcoholics and addicts in my life who can call me out on it. If I am surrounding myself with positive people like this then they have a chance of catching me before I spiral completely out of control.
When we are making a personal mistake and headed for disaster, we are usually the last one to know about it. Think about it for a moment: How easy is it for you to watch another alcoholic who is screwing up their life, and to be able to realize that if they could just stop drinking long enough then everything would straighten out for them? It is easy for us to see the flaws in others, but difficult for us to see the same flaws in ourselves. This is because we tend to judge others a bit more harshly (by their actions) whereas we give ourselves much more leniency and judge our own outcomes based on our intentions, rather than our actions. This disconnect can get you into big trouble in the world of addiction recovery, so it helps to have other people around you who will judge you based on your actions!
A true friend will confront you when you become complacent!
We can measure addiction and recovery in terms of one single principle:
First, the assumptions. You get clean and sober. Maybe you go to rehab. You dry out. You are, at the very least, “temporarily sober.”
I did this three times in my life. The first two times I did not really embrace recovery. I simply wasn’t ready, and I relapsed.
The third time I was ready. I was at the point of surrender. I embraced recovery and I did the hard work. I am still sober today.
Yet I have peers in recovery who started that journey with me, and they remained sober for a time, but then they relapsed.
What happened? They got complacent.
The reason that social connections are so important in recovery is that we cannot detect our own complacency. We just can’t. We are blind to it.
You know how they say that “Addiction is the only disease in which you tell yourself you don’t have a disease?”
The same thing applies to complacency.
Complacency makes you tell yourself that you are not complacent. It’s a trap!
Of course if anyone knows–really knows–that they are complacent, then they can simply take action and fix it. They can climb out of the hole. Because now they know it is a problem.
Really there are two steps to the solution when it comes to the complacency problem.
The first step is to acknowledge that you are complacent.
The second step is to take corrective action.
But obviously you cannot get to that second step if you don’t do the first one. If you don’t even know about the problem then you certainly can’t fix it.
And this is where your social connections come in.
Consider: If you know about your complacency then you are not fully complacent! It’s not a true problem if you already know about it and really believe it is a threat.
“We are each other’s eyes and ears.” We help to point out complacency.
No one wants to hear that they are being lazy, of course. No one wants to hear that they need to take inventory, that they need to do some work on themselves, that they need to kick things into high gear and take action.
No one wants to hear those things, especially from their friends.
But this is what a real friend will do for you in recovery. They want to see you healthy. They want to see you sober. And they want to see you on a path of personal growth. So if you are not currently on a path of growth, they might nudge you, they might inquire, they might poke you a bit.
We don’t always like being poked like that. But you should do your best to surround yourself with people who will call you out like this. Because over time it will create a lot more personal growth in your life, and this will compound greatly over time.
If you “coast” through recovery for several years then you won’t get much reward from it. But if you are constantly pushing yourself to improve your life, to take action, to get to that next level, then the level of reward that you get from your recovery will skyrocket in the future. Success builds on itself when you take consistent action in life. The positive effects of personal growth will compound over time.
We all know the old saying “You are the average of the five people you hang around with the most.” This is as true in addiction as it is in recovery. Surround yourself with “winners” and you will force yourself to “up your game.”
At one time I thought it was a great idea to get an “accountability buddy” in recovery. But my experience with this idea is quite mixed.
The problem is that if you and one other person rely on each other for sobriety and try to hold each other accountable, this may or may not turn out well. If one person relapses then it really calls the method into question. On the other hand, if you have a group of people who help hold you accountable (such as a sponsorship group or an AA meeting) then that is much stronger because not everyone will suddenly relapse at the same time.
I noticed this problem first hand when I tried to quit smoking cigarettes once using the “buddy system.” Long story short, it just never worked out. Either I smoked first or the buddy relapsed, which sort of gave me permission to do so. When I finally quit smoking cigarettes I did it by myself, for myself, without any accountability built into the process at all. I had been looking for a way to “cheat” somehow by bringing a quitting partner into the fold, but it just never worked out like I hoped it would.
Anyone who goes through the transformation of getting clean and sober is bound to notice enormous changes to their social life as well. I don’t think this is avoidable. But I also don’t think it is a problem, once you get past the fear and the hurt that comes along with early recovery.