When Friends Relapse
It’s not easy to watch the people you’ve been sober with decide to leave. But I’ve learned to not make it any harder than it already is.
Relapses happen. We all know it and many of us fear it. But watching a friend “slip” can be almost as hard as going through it yourself.
It might seem like the toughest part of a friend’s relapse would be watching the person revert to sad, old behaviors and seeing her life grow smaller and darker. But for me—and maybe this is selfish—the hardest part has been the fear it stirred in me: fear for their well being, of course, but also fear for the fate of our friendship and an anticipatory sense of mourning for the closeness we’d had. Somehow I just know, deep down, that nothing will ever be quite the same between us.
Miraculously, I’ve had only two good friends “go out” over the course of the seven years I’ve been in and out of program (but mostly in). The first was a high school friend, Miriam, when I had about a year of sobriety. It was difficult but I observed it from a distance of 3,000 miles, which helped soften the situation somewhat.
The sanest thing to do when watching a friend relapse is to try to gently disengage from your feelings about the matter.
After five sober years in AA (she’d been tossed in rehab after trying to kill herself with pills), Miriam simply decided she was…done. She’d never embraced the program despite the fact that, from an outsider’s perspective, it had visibly changed her life for the better by making her less anxious and self-destructive. She couldn’t see those changes in herself—at least not the way I could (even from 3,000 miles away)—and she started drinking and popping pills again. Within months, she had gotten a bunch of plastic surgery, had a scary car accident after passing out behind the wheel and decided to dabble in becoming an escort on Craigslist.
That all sounds extreme, I know, but it happened. Still, I don’t want to use Miriam’s story as a moralistic cautionary tale; I don’t actually subscribe to the AA party line that all addicts who go out are damning themselves to an inescapable future of jail, institutions, or death. That was not Miriam’s fate. She had a bad few months (um, see above), but eventually she resumed a life of non-sober pseudo-normalcy and she’s still alive and kicking—if not exactly a fount of serenity and bliss.
Miriam’s decision to leave AA freaked me out, as you’d expect, because in some ways she had been a sober role model for me. I tried to convince her not to walk away; I tried to articulate all the positive changes I had observed in her from afar but she wasn’t having it so I was forced to let go of the outcome I wanted. We remained friends and we’re still in regular contact, but I miss the shared sober common ground we used to have.
My experience with Miriam taught me perhaps the most important lesson to be gleaned from friends’ relapses: No matter how hard we try, we can’t change their minds, so we might as well stop trying and instead step back and try to be an impartial but supportive observer. Friends’ sobriety or lack of sobriety is not up to us. In fact, it has nothing to do with us. It doesn’t matter how much begging or pleading we’re tempted to do; the sanest thing to do when watching a friend relapse is to try to gently disengage from your feelings about the matter. (Easier said than done, I know.) But unless it directly threatens your own sobriety, being a good friend means being there for your relapsing buddies—even if it’s just to listen—during their weakest times.
I learned that lesson the hard way after going through a relapse myself. In 2010, after almost four years of sobriety, I decided to try “moderate” drinking again. My father was dying of cancer, I lived on the opposite side of the country and I felt like I absolutely couldn’t go on without something, anything, to numb my constant, all-encompassing anxiety. I was a mess and in the worst kind of fear I’d ever known. I talked about my decision with my therapist and told my friends I was thinking about drinking. It wasn’t sudden; it wasn’t like I suddenly gave in to a random urge for wine with dinner. Regardless, I was disheartened to find that some of my sober friends seemed to vanish when I started drinking again. A few of them did stick around and continue to hang out with me, never judging me or pushing me to come back; they just stepped back, listened and we continued to do the old ordinary things we used to do: dinner, coffee, movies. The gentle support and lack of judgment I got from those friends meant so much to me, especially because I felt super-disconnected and isolated without a program to tie my days together. After about six months of supposed “moderation” (um, or not), I stopped the experiment and rejoined San Francisco’s sober contingent..
And then I had to re-learn the lesson of disengaging from my own feelings about a friend’s relapse again when another friend, Lisa, decided to pick up. We both had about two years of sobriety at the time and were both prone to anxiety, depression and discomfort. We were close: we texted each other all day long, about stupid things, big things, “meh” things, life. During the period when we were the closest, we were both between jobs and lived just a few blocks away from each other. So we would meet up often, grab coffee and aimlessly walk around San Francisco, taking her dog up to Bernal Hill, snapping dumb photos of each other posing in the park or hovering beside weird signs. She was one of the few truly close friends I had in the program—one of the only ones I could imagine having been friends with in my old life, before I got sober.