One unexpected benefit of finding your way into recovery is that you pretty quickly learn who your real friends are. During active addiction, you are ironically both socially isolated and part of a drug-abusing community. You may spend a lot of time together and feel a bond based on your shared preoccupation with drugs. But that doesn’t mean those people are your friends.
Not surprisingly, when an addict gets clean, their “friends” don’t always have their back. In fact, some become downright toxic to their recovery. Here are a few reasons the people you thought were your friends may end up sabotaging your recovery efforts:
• Addiction drives away most of an addict’s true friends.
• Whether they use drugs or not, your friends may not understand the disease of addiction. Even if they want to be supportive, many are in denial or don’t know how to stop enabling.
• Your sobriety spells the end of the friendship. Drug-using pals don’t want to lose a friend, but even more, they don’t want to stop using drugs.
• Your recovery holds up a mirror that shows them the reality of their lives – a vision they may not be ready or willing to see of themselves as an addict who needs help. They may be afraid that you’ll start preaching to them or rat them out to family, friends or law enforcement and put an end to their lifestyle.
• They have tried to quit unsuccessfully. It can be disheartening to see someone else succeed in what they can’t do so themselves.
• They don’t have a drug or alcohol problem, but want to continue to enjoy an occasional beer during a football game or glass of wine with dinner without worrying about their influence on you.
• A romantic partner or spouse may be concerned that your efforts to improve your life will lead to separation, divorce or finding someone else.
Early in recovery, it can be difficult to separate the supportive relationships from the malicious motives of would-be saboteurs. How do you know when people are toxic to your recovery?
Pseudo-friends and even some family members may discourage you from getting help. They’ll tell you that you don’t really have a drug problem, recovery is a waste of time or relapse is inevitable. They may try bullying you to party with them, or use drugs in front of you.
Others may employ more subtle tactics, such as using your past behavior as leverage against you, holding onto resentments, making it difficult for you to get to meetings or therapy appointments, or belittling your efforts to get well. They may make hurtful comments that play into your doubts and fears or spread rumors among your social or professional circles.
Even non-drug-using comrades can be enablers. People who are unsympathetic to the difficulties of drug cravings may encourage you to meet them at bars, parties or other temptation-filled environments. When family members refuse to work on their own issues, they may stay stuck in old patterns of minimizing, rescuing and enabling without realizing that they are sabotaging the person they most want to help.
Addicts with toxic relationships must be proactive in taking steps to safeguard their recovery:
Cut Ties with Negative Influences. There is a general rule in recovery to stay away from the people, places and things associated with past drug use. Maintaining relationships with people who drink or use is strongly associated with relapse.
Cutting ties with old friends who continue to use and people who are not supportive of your sobriety is one of the hardest parts of early recovery. This may mean ending relationships with people you have relied on as a source of emotional or financial support, changing jobs if your drug-using circle extended to work, or getting out of an abusive relationship or unhealthy marriage – all of which can have a dramatic effect on your daily life.
These difficult decisions have to be made right up front. At a time when you have already lost your routines, your coping mechanism and your sense of identity, parting ways with your social circle can be agonizing – but it is an important part of creating a new life and ultimately, brings a profound sense of relief when you’re surrounded by people who truly care.
Of course, not all relationships have to end. You can reconnect with people you may have alienated during active addiction and you may have quality friends who are in their own recovery process or who are willing to join you on this journey. Often, family members are willing to grow and change with their addicted loved one by participating in therapy, learning about the disease of addiction and attending Al-Anon or Nar-Anon meetings. One close connection is all that’s needed to build the foundation for a social support network.
Make New Friends. Early recovery is also a time for making new friends and establishing healthy bonds with people who care about you, are willing to confront your addictive thinking and help you get the support you need. Positive friends, which can include people you meet at work, doing sober activities or attending self-help support groups, will not only avoid drug use but will be enthusiastic about your efforts to improve your life and lead balanced lives themselves.
Join Self-Help Support Groups. Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, SMART Recovery and LifeRing offer regular meetings that not only keep you focused on your recovery but introduce you to a group of people who are working toward similar goals.
The people who are most successful in recovery embrace the attitude that they will do whatever is necessary to protect their sobriety. Sometimes this means making difficult decisions and losing people you care about. But in truth, anyone that doesn’t have your best interests in mind was never really a friend at all and has no place in your new life in recovery.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. Dr. Sack served as a senior clinical scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) where his research interests included affective disorders, seasonal and circadian rhythms, and neuroendocrinology. He currently serves as CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction treatment centers that includes Malibu drug rehab Promises, The Ranch in Tennessee, The Recovery Place drug rehab in Florida, and Texas rehabs Right Step and Spirit Lodge.
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Last reviewed: 5 Dec 2012