Since getting sober I’ve noticed a lot about other people’s drinking habits. I’ve become hyperaware of how others use alcohol, why and how they drink, and if their patterns are destructive to their lives or not. I believe this is a natural byproduct of sobriety. We seek comfort in seeing our own patterns in others and we offer support by telling others we’ve been where they are. I have many different types of alcohol-drinking friends. I have some that know their alcohol use isn’t the healthiest, others who know their drinking is a problem and are trying to quit, and others who have no idea that their alcohol use is destructive. A question I am so often asked on my blog is this: how can I help my friend who is still drinking?
My number one answer for this question is, provide encouragement. I’m sure you’re thinking, but how do I do this? It’s not unusual to receive messages from society, the media, and outdated addiction resources that say you need to show “tough love,” to anyone in your life who might still be drinking or using. I don’t necessarily think that’s a great way to support your loved ones. I believe we need to be moving towards the harm reduction viewpoint of addiction and recovery and this includes sending love and encouragement to those people who are still in the thick of their addiction.
Why is sending encouragement to your friend who is still drinking so important? Because they need it now more than ever. When I was stuck in my addiction I was in a deep spiral of self-loathing. It’s this self-loathing that led me to the scary situations I ended up in, decisions I would have never made if I was sober, and questionable morals and values I held about myself and the world. I hated myself enough to not care what happened to me. I thought I deserved the bad things that came my way, as many people with a substance use disorder do. I needed someone to tell me that I was worth asking for help, that I could get better and do better because I didn’t believe it myself. I believe we are our biggest critics, and no one hates us or our destructive behaviors more than us. That’s why being given tough love, or being told to “just stop,” doesn’t normally work.
When addiction and being out of control of your life in general, are frowned upon and shamed in our society, there isn’t a lot of encouragement to find help or work towards being your best self. Society tells us we should have it all figured out already and if we don’t, then maybe we’re bad people. But this message is wrong, and it keeps people stuck in their unhealthy cycles.
What people who are still drinking and using need is our non-judgmental support and unconditional love. We can do this by having clear, healthy boundaries, being an active listener, checking in on them, and not criticizing or offering judgement if they aren’t engaging in the actions we deem “correct.” We can send a comforting note, email, or text message. We schedule regular coffee dates or dinners with these important people in our lives.
Some of you might think I’m suggesting you should ignore a substance use disorder and its consequences, but I’m not. I think there is a difference between forcing someone to talk about something they aren’t ready to dive into yet and providing care and comfort until they are ready. This does not mean enable a person. This does not mean sacrifice your own levels of sobriety, comfort, or safety for your loved ones. You must first keep yourself and your recovery safe. Then, when you are comfortable you can offer this non-judgmental support to others. Personally, it took me a few years to be able to come from a loving place and be there for others who are still drinking in an unhealthy way. My first natural coping mechanism was to avoid any problem drinkers and I even held resentments towards a few friends I used to party with. Eventually I stopped taking everything personally. I knew that their drinking and using didn’t have anything to do with mine, that they were on their own journey, and in fact, if I was loving and kind, they might see me as a healthy example of sobriety they might someday want for their own lives.
If a friend asks you for help with sobriety or resources to help get them sober, by all means give them everything you have, but if your friend is still struggling, has returned to using, or is in the stage where they are unable to recognize their patterns, they need encouragement. I let others lead me to where they want to go. If they want to chat about certain aspects of drinking, they’ll ask me or let me know. Otherwise I strive to create an environment where they feel loved and worthy.
What I’ve found in my own experiences, and hearing the countless experiences of others, is that a person needs to feel like they are worthy of getting help and staying sober. If we can help others by laying this foundation of love, we can have a hand in planting the seeds of sobriety and encourage them to ultimately change their lives for better.
Kelly Fitzgerald Junco
Kelly Fitzgerald Junco is a sober writer based in Southwest Florida who is best known for her personal blog The Adventures of a Sober Señorita. Her work has been published across the web including sites like The Huffington Post, Thought Catalog, Ravishly, SheKnows, Elite Daily, The Fix, Brit + Co, Addiction Unscripted and AfterPartyMagazine. She is currently writing a memoir.