What NOT To Say to Sober Friends

You may be completely supportive of their decision! But some comments, even if well-intentioned, can be intrusive or demoralizing. All Sober's Merrick Murdock shares tips on talking sobriety

September 21, 2022
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Everyone, it seems, is curious about sobriety these days. And that’s terrific: An overall attitude of open communication and stigma-erasing helps people who choose sobriety feel supported and respected, whether they’re actively pursuing recovery or simply reevaluating their relationship with alcohol and drugs. Perhaps you know someone who has trusted you to share their experience of sobriety; perhaps you are someone who benefits from opening up about your own.

But sobriety — and, of course, addiction — are still deeply sensitive and personal matters for many people, especially those who are newly sober. It’s great to be able to discuss sobriety meaningfully with someone you care about, but remember that the subject is complicated and language matters. Merrick Murdock, All Sober’s director of addiction and recovery, recently shared some tips with PureWow on comments you should avoid, along with more constructive and compassionate ways to engage:

1) “I didn’t know you had a problem.”

Just because someone hasn’t publicly displayed difficulties associated with drinking doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling, and saying you wouldn’t have known they were struggling, Murdock tells us, can make the sober person feel awkward or defensive, or like they need to share deep and dark secrets that are uncomfortable. Beyond that, telling someone that you never would’ve known they had issues with drinking could make them second-guess how serious said issues were and are. Murdock explains, “The longer someone has been abstinent or sober, the greater the chance that doubt might set in, causing someone to think their use was not that bad. Minimizing risk can be a setup for relapse or return to use, and that is dangerous for someone who has a substance use disorder.”

2) “Do you feel like you’re missing out?”

Murdock explains that FOMO often prevents people with a substance use disorder from seeking help in the first place or, in the case of someone newly sober, creates a sense of doubt about their choice to abstain. “Addiction causes people to see themselves as different, not fitting in, not being able to be like others, and a question in the form of a judgment can further test a sober person’s sensitivities or insecurities,” she notes. “It also sends a message that drinking or doing drugs is the only way to have fun or loosen up in social situations.” Being sober, she tells us, is about discovering that life experiences are just as fun minus the negative effects of alcohol or drugs, adding that learning how to navigate life sober is like learning a brand-new coping skill set — hard but rewarding on many distinct levels.

3) “So you’re an alcoholic?”

There are many reasons a person might choose not to drink, meaning it’s important not to make assumptions. “A question like this might put someone in an uncomfortable position to discuss issues they are currently struggling to address,” Murdock says. “For those questioning their alcohol consumption or in the early phases of addiction recovery, they may have yet to come to terms or have fully defined what they perceive as a problem.” She also explains that labeling someone as an alcoholic can be very stigmatizing — especially if they’re early in their sobriety journey. “Even though sober curious trends have arisen and dialogue about alcoholism and addiction has become more open, labels such as ‘alcoholic’ and ‘addict’ are still associated with a negative bias. It’s important to remember that shame and stigma comes from labels placed upon people.”

4) “Will you ever drink again, or do you have to stay sober for the rest of your life?”

“[This] is a complex question, and no one can be expected to predict the future,” Murdock admits, noting that it’s the equivalent of asking someone after a bad breakup (because, yes, giving up drugs or alcohol is breaking up a relationship) if they’ll ever want to fall in love again. “Someone may enjoy being sober and hope it continues, but putting too much pressure regarding permanence of commitment may provoke anxiety.” Unsurprisingly, there can be a number of emotional challenges when first navigating sobriety, which is why she says phrases like “easy does it” or “one day at a time” are common in recovery. If a friend or acquaintance is sober, focus on the present rather than asking them about hypotheticals.

5) “How long have you been sober?”

Murdock explains that questions like this can make a sober person feel the need to justify personal decisions. “Recovery from addiction can be a tough road [that’s] often filled with false starts or relapses before a measure of sustained sobriety can be achieved,” she emphasizes. “Relapse does happen, and many struggle with the associated pain of perceived personal failure.” Someone’s day of sobriety might feel like a triumph to them but could be judged by the outside world as not good enough or worth celebrating yet. It’s more helpful to think about another person’s sobriety as quality over quantity: “It takes a lot of ‘one days’ to add up to a period of significance, and it really comes down to the quality of how someone feels and experiences life as a measure of what has transpired because of staying sober.”

Read the full article from PureWow for more tips on being a sober ally and all-around thoughtful pal.

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