Getting sober can be one of the hardest challenges to overcome in life. Living sober can be just as challenging. We experience a new reality — everything looks and feels different. Through this fresh lens of recovery, everything can appear magnified, brighter and louder. And we feel life’s experiences more intensely — because we’re no longer numb. This new intensity means that we have to find ways to cope with stressors and learn how to navigate life without using substances. But just how do you explain this new reality to friends? And how do you respond to their questions?
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The Challenges of Being Newly Sober
I asked a number of friends about what they’d tell their friends being newly sober meant. Initially, their response was that true friends would just get it and wouldn’t query it — if they did, it was more a reflection of their problem than yours. While true — some friends instinctively know how to be compassionate, considerate and respectful of their friends’ lifestyle choices — what about those who have had no exposure to substance use disorder? Some of my friends (perhaps it’s a British thing) feel very uncomfortable about it and don’t know whether to exclude me from events.
The reality is that when we’re newly sober, we often find ourselves not only coping with this new life — trying to stay sober, navigating life without substances and slowly taking on more responsibilities — but we don’t know our identity without being inebriated. So how do we tell our friends and loved ones what we need, how to support us, and what being sober means? It took me about a year of trial and error to figure out what I needed, what I was capable of doing and how I would be living my new sober life.
Explaining Sobriety to Friends
In my experience, the obvious change is adjusting to life around alcohol and drugs — and that may take some adjustment for your friends. A sober life can mean many things to different people, depending on their comfort level and their coping strategies. The main challenges, changes and need for support are:
Explaining that you no longer drink. It is entirely acceptable to say just that you don’t drink anymore, and that you don’t wish to discuss it — unless you feel comfortable doing so.
Changing your playground. For some, that means not going to places that serve alcohol and staying away from friends who use drugs. While not recommended in early recovery, others are entirely comfortable still going to bars with friends and don’t feel tempted in the least. It has been my experience that you have to do what is right for you, depending how you feel in that moment. For my first year or so, I avoided bars and pubs but eventually they no longer bothered me because I am going there to see friends or eat, not to drink. I have no desire to sit in a pub or bar for hours on end anymore — that just isn’t my idea of fun.
Sober activities. I want to experience all that life had to offer now. That means new experiences that don’t involve alcohol: days out, arts and crafts, trying new restaurants, day trips, yoga retreats, meditation classes, concerts, art galleries, cooking workshops, afternoon tea, going back to school. The options are endless. So when friends ask what you’d like to do, have a list ready of things you’d like to try because, frankly, there is a whole world of things to do that don’t involve drinking or using drugs.
We may experience things differently. I remember being more vocal about how much more intensified life was sober. Some friends seemed surprised by this — telling me (essentially) to get over it. What they didn’t understand is that things affected me more now that I was sober — it felt more profound. While it may seem like I’m overreacting, I needed a little more space and support without judgement to process life’s experiences.
We need support and compassion, not judgement. Being sober is incredibly hard and people who haven’t struggled with substance abuse may not understand that — some even think it is a matter of willpower. While it isn’t other people’s responsibility to understand sobriety, loved ones will take time to try and support you through any of life’s challenges whether they understand or not. For those that do not support you, it may be time to spend less time in those friendships.
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