How to Talk to a Newly Sober Person

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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What Should You Say to a Newly Sober Person?

When a friend or family member seeks treatment for substance use issues, you can be excited about their fresh start. However, new sobriety can make interactions a little tricky. Even though you are happy that your loved one is finally taking care of their health, you might also feel nervous about talking with them afterward. Here are some tips that can help facilitate conversation when you are talking to a person who has recently gotten sober.

Be Respectful of the Person’s Preferences

Everyone prefers to handle addiction and sobriety differently. Some people may want to avoid the subject entirely when they get out of rehab while others might want to use the opportunity to have a lot of deep, meaningful conversations.

In some cases, you can infer your friend or family member’s preference. Try to follow their lead and keep the conversation on subjects they introduce. It’s also perfectly fine to simply ask if they want to talk about their substance use issues or not. Some people are in a place where they want to discuss it while others might prefer to just keep their mind off it for a little while.

Remember to always approach conversations from a place of empathy and respect. Accept that it can be a little awkward at first, and it may take a few chats for your relationship to get back to normal. When talking to a newly sober person, it might be impossible to avoid a few little conversational blunders. The important thing is just to approach them with love and respect and avoid letting fears of awkwardness keep you from communicating.

Don’t Use Language That Stigmatizes Addiction

When you talk about addiction with your friend or family member, try to be sensitive. There are a lot of words used in day-to-day conversation that can be quite offensive. Don’t use obviously offensive words, like calling a person a junkie, a user or a drunk. However, keep in mind that even words like “addict” or “addiction” can be hurtful to some. Whenever possible, use wording that frames addiction as a mental health challenge, and try to use person-first language such as “person in recovery” or “person with an alcohol use disorder.”

Avoiding stigmatizing language is about more than just not hurting your loved one’s feelings. It is also a valuable way of showing support. You don’t want to accidentally make your loved one feel like sobriety is useless because they’ll always be seen as an addict. Instead, your language should show that you recognize the person and have sympathy for their struggles. Try to use phrases like “substance use disorder” and “people in recovery” to show you don’t look down on those dealing with substance use challenges.

Remind the Person of Your Love and Support

During recovery, people often struggle with feeling isolated or ashamed. They may fear that past behavior has pushed all their loved ones away, or they might feel that they are no longer worthy of love. Because your friend or family member will be feeling so vulnerable, they can benefit from a little extra reassurance.

Try to find ways to let the person know you love them and are thinking of them. Depending on your relationship, you might want to chat with them and let them know you still care, or you might want to keep things more casual. Regularly reaching out to the person, asking how they are doing, and arranging times to socialize with them can be a subtle way of letting them know you care.

Continue to Maintain Firm Boundaries

If you were in an enabling relationship with the person before they got substance use treatment, the early days of recovery can be a challenging time. It can be tempting to immediately assume everything is fixed and that you no longer need to worry about enabling. However, even after recovery, it is important to maintain healthy relationships.

Healthy boundaries look different for everyone. It might mean things like not giving money to the person or not spending time with them while they are high or drunk. Remember that it is perfectly fine to be accepting and supportive, but you don’t want to make the person feel like it is okay to relapse. Even after a person is sober, it is important to be clear about boundaries and refuse to support any problematic behavior.

Acknowledge Their Hard Work and Positive Results

When a person is feeling vulnerable, encouragement is more important than ever. Even if you aren’t having lengthy conversations about sobriety, it is still helpful to give the person in recovery a few compliments. Try to let them know that you recognize how hard it was to get sober and that you appreciate their hard work.

You can also find ways to encourage your loved one to continue with sobriety. Take the time to mention positive things you notice, like better health, a more positive attitude or a renewed commitment to career goals. Think of little ways to let the person in recovery know that you admire their journey and notice how they are improving all the time.

Share Your Own Struggles

It is often helpful for people in recovery to hear stories from other people going through similar things. If you have struggled with substance use issues in the past, now can be a good time to open up to your friend or family member. Just keep in mind that newly sober people can feel a little sensitive, so you don’t want to sound like you are bragging about your own sobriety or minimizing their struggles. Instead, try to phrase things sensitively and focus on your own challenges.

Even if you have not dealt with substance use problems, it can still be helpful to be open about struggles you deal with. Remember that substance use disorders are a type of mental health issue, so people often face things like depression or anxiety. If you have ever dealt with mental health issues, your loved one might find it reassuring to know your challenges. This can help to keep the person in recovery from feeling like they are the only struggling person surrounded by a bunch of people who have their life together.

Avoid Trying to Monitor the Person’s Sobriety

Unless your friend or family member has asked you to be their accountability partner, you need to avoid micromanaging their sobriety. Don’t use conversations as an opportunity to quiz the person about potential drug usage, question them about their whereabouts or learn about relapses.

Likewise, it’s also important to avoid snooping in the person’s cabinets, following them or otherwise trying to check up on them. You need to avoid this because it can greatly impact your relationship. When your newly sober loved one feels like you are always judging and monitoring them, they can feel stressed and resentful. The only reason to add this dynamic to your relationship is if the person needs an accountability partner. Otherwise, it just puts more strain on your relationship during an already tense time.

Be Supportive of the Person’s New Friends and Activities

Recovering from a substance use disorder often requires people to entirely change the way they live their life. Unfortunately, these changes can be tough for friends and family members. They can feel like they are being ignored for new friends, and they might worry that they no longer even recognize their loved one.

However, trying to hold your loved one back is never a good idea. It is important to accept that their personality and behavior may never return to what it was before their substance use issues. Undergoing such a major trauma changes a person, and many people may start to find interest in new hobbies, careers or types of friends.

Try not to feel hurt or offended when you see your friend changing. Remember that the new friends and activities are not a criticism of what you offer to your loved one. Instead of replacing you, your recovering friend is just trying to widen their support group and rebuild their life. Being supportive and eager to interact with their new friends can help ensure that you have a place in the person’s new life after substance use.

Try Not to Discuss Substance Use

One of the big worries people have about post-recovery conversations is that they might accidentally trigger a relapse. Unfortunately, there is a bit of truth to this concern. You mentioning the word “alcohol” once probably isn’t going to destroy months of sobriety. However, research does show that people are more likely to relapse if they are around friends who discuss substance use in a positive manner.

You never want to put your friend in a position where they feel like sobriety is making them miss out on the fun. Therefore, it is a good idea to avoid pushing your friend to talk about substance use. They don’t need to hear about the fun bars you went to over the weekend or hear about the new cannabis pipe you bought.

Instead, it is a good idea to avoid bringing up substance use in the conversation whenever possible. If possible, try to talk about other sober activities instead. Things like hiking, video games, television shows or delicious meals can all be better topics to discuss with a newly sober friend. To support their sobriety, it is helpful to remind them there are plenty of fun things to do besides using substances.

Ask What You Can Do to Help

Every person’s recovery journey is different, so everyone needs to take charge of their own sobriety. Asking how you can help the person is a good way to let them know that they are still in control of their life. It also expresses your willingness to support the person as they continue their path to sobriety.

Keep in mind that there are many different things your friend or family member might need during the early days of sobriety. For example, some people might want you to remove potential triggers from your home, like a cup they used to drink from or a display that contains favorite liquors. Others might need more concrete types of help, like transportation to appointments. Try to be flexible and find ways to assist the person when possible.

Find Ways to Learn More About Substance Use and Recovery

Communication is a lot easier when you are aware of the various challenges your loved one has faced. You might want to do a little research on your own or ask your friend or family member about what they experienced. This can help you avoid saying anything accidentally harmful, and it can help you better empathize with the recovery journey.

Particularly helpful resources are open Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Open meetings are a special type of meeting where anyone who wants to learn about substance use can visit. You get to hear the stories of other people in recovery and ask questions to learn more. Open meetings usually aren’t held as often as the closed meetings meant for people in recovery. Check with your local AA and NA meetings to find out when the next open meeting is.

If you have any other questions about how to help a friend or family member with their sobriety journey, turn to the experts. At Defining Wellness Centers, we are happy to answer questions you might have about sobriety, and we can even mediate meetings between you and your loved ones. Contact us today to learn more.

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