“Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.”
While those words work well when sung around a campfire, the reality is that we can’t keep each and every friend we make throughout our lives. As we grow more solidly into who we are ultimately becoming, some friendships refashion themselves to accommodate our changes, some friendships have to fade away, and sometimes new and healthier friendships emerge when we let go of a toxic relationship.
“When I was using, it was very clear who my friends were; they were the people I could get high with and the folks who provided the dope,” said a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. “Now that I’m sober I realize I never really had any true friends. I learned through AA that friendship takes work and it’s not just about me.”
Friendship should be treated as a verb — a process of finding out how we want to relate to others and how we want others to relate to us. Friendship takes practice being with other people and learning from our interactions. It is a mutual bond of respect, trust, and vulnerability that encourages healthy growth and acceptance.
For people in recovery from alcoholism, a healthy friendship can be a lifeline to sobriety, just as an unhealthy relationship can be a threat to hard-won abstinence. “It is crucial for recovering people to discern between relationships that are affirming and those that keep them stuck in old roles,” said Rosemary Hartman, supervisor of Hazelden’s Family Services. “If one friend is in recovery and one isn’t, there’s a power differential.”
People who are chemically dependent themselves often feel threatened when a friend enters recovery, because they may be encouraged to look at their own drug or alcohol use, said Hartman. “They may argue against the person’s belief that they have a problem, or pressure them to go to social events or places they know will have drugs or alcohol.”
It’s often harder for older people in recovery to let go of unhealthy friendships, because friends may have a long history with each other that includes many positive memories, and it’s harder in later years to meet new friends, said Hartman. She said recovering people of all ages should ask themselves, “When do I spend time with this person? Have I always used with him or her and do they encourage me to use more? Does this person affirm my efforts to stay sober?”
Hartman said you need to be assertive yet kind, compassionate yet honest with friends, and set new boundaries that honour and insure your abstinence. If your friend cannot support your recovery, you should take a break or end the relationship. “Behave with integrity,” she suggests. “Although we can’t control how someone else will behave, we are responsible for our own behavior.”
Saying goodbye to a friend can be painful, but members of a recovery group can often help because they are also working to maintain healthy relationships in their sobriety. Hartman suggested that, in addition to their regular groups, men and women might benefit from attending an all-male or all-female group where they can meet new friends.
“If you started using at age 14, most of your friendships will be based on using and you’ll have little practice on how to make friends,” she said. “Recovery groups are safe places to practice new skills. Focus on forming friendships that allow you to be the kind of person you want to be.”
Recovery means change, not just for the person who embarks on the recovery journey, but for his or her friends and loved ones, too. Choosing whether to continue a relationship is an important part of recovery, but the better the choices are, the more solid recovery — and friendship — will be.