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  • Amy Liz Harrison

10 things to Say (and 10 things NOT to say!) to a Newly Sober Person

Being newly sober is tough and you can feel like it’s an uphill climb for many days. As a friend, family member, or support person for an NSP (A newly sober person), it can be so difficult to know what to say and how to hold space. Here are some suggestions of things to say, and later, some things to avoid saying.

Suggestions of what to say to an NSP:

1. “I’m Always Here for You.”

2. “You’re Brave.”

3. “You’re Strong.”

4. “I’m just here to listen if you want to talk.”

5. “You’re Such a Fighter.”

6. “I’m so Proud of You.”

7. “You’re Amazing.”

8. “You Inspire Me.”

9. “I’m here to support you *NO MATTER WHAT.*”

10. “Nothing Can Change My Love for You.”

Ten Things NOT to Say to A Newly Sober Person

Why Did you Drink So Much?

I’ve been asked this. It’s usually coupled with some other super non-helpful phrase like “You have everything going for you, why risk losing it?” They don’t know why they became addicted to alcohol when other people can leave half a glass of wine on the table and never think of it again. Genetics, exposure, and other factors all play a role. Ultimately it’s like asking someone who had food poisoning why they had acute diarrhea. It’s because they were SICK. The same is true with the alcoholic. Their body developed an allergy to alcohol and toward the end, they were both bodily and mentally sick.

“Maybe You Should have Prayed More and This Wouldn’t Have Happened.”

I hope this is obvious but please don’t ever say this. Christians, a gentle note to you: (I can talk to you candidly like this because I was once a practicing fundamentalist, then a pentecostal and everything in between). Please, please, do not quote Bible verses or otherwise spread some Jesus and think you’re helping. You’re not. The Newly Sober Person is going to be finding a Higher Power of their own understanding through Steps 2 and 3. You don’t need to help them with this.

“You Should…”

Don’t Offer Unsolicited Advice. Period. The people who are most “qualified” to suggest coping mechanisms to ex-drinkers are other ex-drinkers. IF you are an ex-drinker who is currently sober, you can ask the NSP if they would like to hear you share your experience, strength, and hope. If the NSP says yes, go ahead and share your story but remember not to focus too much on what it was like! (Translation: keep the drunk-a -logues to a minimum!) Focus on what happened and don’t leave out the emotions you felt during that time. Then tell them how your life has changed and what it’s like as a sober person now.

“I know you can’t drink, but do you mind if I do?”

Yes, they mind. They will not come to a place of neutrality around alcohol for a while- usually after being sober a year or more. If asked this question, newly sober people who are full of shame and guilt for messing up so many lives will probably say they don’t mind, but they do. If your relationship with the person stands the test of time, you’ll see them come around to the point where you’ll recognize a strength in them that you’ve never seen before- they will literally be a new person. They will be so centered on who they are becoming, that they will not care if you drink or if you don’t. But in those early fragile days, don’t even bring it up.

“I feel sorry for you/I am sorry you can’t drink.”

Even if you’re sorry, you don’t need to say it. An NSP has literally let go of the only security blanket they have known since childhood. Alcohol became the only tool they had to cope with life’s challenges. In many cases, they have had to write a goodbye letter to alcohol as if going through a breakup. They may want to talk about it and they may not want to. They are usually only most comfortable talking about alcohol to other friends in recovery.

“If I had your life (or circumstances or your situation or married their spouse), I’d drink too!”

So, this is not helpful. Moving forward in recovery is about taking responsibility for one’s own actions, and seeing one’s on part in every circumstance. Even when a true victim, many of us held onto that badge and never worked through it, mostly because it was too scary, or sometimes because we received sympathy for it, and that helped us to feel validated and justified in our anger. So it doesn’t help the NSP to move forward if you think you’re siding with them and having a blaming session where someone else becomes the target for what IS in fact the newly sober person’s responsibility regarding the incident(s): which is to get therapy and work through it to the best of their ability so that they can move on.

“Can you really never drink again?”

They can pick up a drink anytime they want to. They are sober “just for today.” And piling up those “just for today” over a few 24 hour periods equals a few weeks, and then pretty soon a few months. A newfound hope enters in and soon it’s years. By the time that happens, it’s really not a question of “Never picking up”, it becomes a lifestyle and they don’t crave or desire to pick up. But for now, they need to just focus on today, not 10 or 20 years from now, or think about whether or not they can drink champagne at their daughter’s wedding. That’s all too overwhelming, so it’s just one day at a time.

“You Don’t Seem Like Yourself.”

Of course, they don’t. They’ve been to hell and back with the disease of addiction. They are standing around looking at the shattered pieces of their lives, with no clue how to rebuild them. They

have ruined sweet relationships, they may have lost their job, and they may have worn out their welcome at the home of the very last person who would tolerate them. They may be in trouble with the law. They have been beaten down by acute alcoholism, and their self-esteem has been crushed. They usually hate themselves and they may mask it with an arrogant attitude. Many times they seem depressed and have a broken spirit. The last thing they want is to be told they aren’t acting like themselves.

“Is it OK for us to still hang out at the bar?”

See the first question. Even if they say yes, they don’t mean it. They’re trying to be cool about it for your sake, but they know they are going to be miserable. It’s like taking a person on a diet to a bakery. Find some great new coffee shops and be excited and upbeat about it. If you go to a restaurant, when you are seated, you can just kindly request the menus only, and tell them politely you’ll pass on the wine list.

“Remember the time we______?”

Your newly sober friend does not need to relive the “good old days” or any sordid tales from your past drinking escapades together. There will eventually be a time and place for this, and it will happen organically. For now, reassure them that you’re excited to make new memories together.

After the person has successfully been sober for a year or so (a year is a good amount of time because it’s given the person a chance to settle into a new lifestyle), you can always ask them how they feel about any of the above questions. Generally, they will be on a more solid footing at that time if they have actively been working in a spiritual or 12 program of some kind.

Act normally, but let them set the tone. If they bring up rehab or going to meetings or not drinking, just listen to them talk. Hold what they are saying as sacred, listen intently, and look them in the eye. Don’t mess around on your phone or get distracted, even if you’re uncomfortable. (If you’re uncomfortable, multiply that by about 100 and then you can imagine how the newly sober person feels.) If they talk about it, just listen and let them process. If they start crying, don’t swoop in and rescue them with a hug and run around trying to find a box of tissues. Don’t interrupt them. Don’t try and finish their sentences. DON’T say you understand and act like you’re the sober savior.

DON’T OFFER ADVICE. When they are done speaking, you can thank them for sharing that with you. DON’T make moral judgments on what was said.

IF they do share about their experience in rehab or what life is like for them right now in the wake of quitting drinking, DON’T rush off and report back to your other friends how the newly sober person is doing. Substance use disorder comes with a huge coat of shame and embarrassment, and if you blow the newly sober person’s trust, that’s like a knife in the back and the guts at the same time. Imagine what you would feel like if they took a bunch of non-sexy pictures of you naked and then sent them to all your friends and relatives.

Your newly sober friend or family member probably won’t be the life of the party for a while. They might seem insecure, unsure of themselves, or uncomfortable. OR they may act like “they got this”. They may vacillate between the two. This is all normal, and all to be expected, and the best thing to do (I’ve found anyway), is just to act normally, but optimistically. Be upbeat, positive, encouraging, and full of hope. Reassure them that you’ll be there for them and they don’t have to worry about entertaining you.

If you can’t remember any of the above suggestions, just remember these 3 keys:

  1. Don’t Drink Around Them.

  2. Be Positive and Affirming *Without Giving Advice.*

  3. Love them Until they Can Learn to Love Themselves.

Lastly. And maybe most importantly. DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY AND MAKE IT ABOUT YOU. Try to remember as they say in some 12-step rooms that “YOU didn’t cause it, YOU can’t control it, and YOU can’t change it.”

*Please remember the content mentioned here is the author’s opinion and 11 years of recovery experience only. The author is not a representative of any 12-step group.

Blog Post Written by Amy Liz Harrison and appeared first on The Sober Curator


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