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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.

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By Laura Barcella

02/04/13

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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.

I didn’t crave alcohol anymore. But I struggled with the program: I never felt fully at home there. The God stuff was gross to me; I felt like I was faking it. I smiled and nodded when people talked about faith in a Higher Power; I didn’t share that faith but I knew I was “supposed to” so I kept my ambivalence hidden. Lisa felt the same way. I felt less alone when I was with her. 

One night she called me, telling me she was suicidal and wanted to drink. She had recently gotten out of a painful relationship with a guy who’d betrayed her. I knew she was having a rough time but I couldn’t fathom the idea that she might turn her back on sobriety altogether. That night, Lisa sounded…bad. Desperation rising, I begged her to stick around, telling her that no matter how shitty she felt, she would absolutely not feel better by drinking over it. I believed wholeheartedly that alcohol would only make her problems worse. She wasn’t buying it and my sense of panic—“I’m losing her!”—continued to build as she explained that she needed to drink to avoid killing herself. By the end of that phone call, she had begun drinking again. That was about four years ago. She’s still out there.

Our friendship changed after that, of course. At first she made feeble attempts to stop drinking again; I’d pick her up and take her to meetings while she reeked of booze. But soon it became clear that Lisa didn’t really want to come back. She’d chosen alcohol and her old, crazy, more exciting version of life. I tried to hold onto our friendship but she didn’t call or text as often; within six months or so, we were barely in touch at all. That wasn’t my doing or my intention; she just suddenly seemed so slippery and impossible to pin down. So eventually I gave up and let go. She abandoned almost all her sober friendships—looking back now, I imagine it must have been hard for her to stay close with her AA friends while drinking and using. I’m sure it felt at least a little bit awkward and I suspect she worried about being judged (or 12-stepped). Hanging out with her when she was drunk—even if it only involved taking her to a meeting—felt weird and somehow wrong to me, too. I haven’t seen her in a couple of years now.

And yet, despite all my initial fear and doubt about my friends’ decisions to drink, it never really made me question my own resolve to stay sober. I’ve been hovering around the rooms long enough now to realize that though it will never be easy to watch a friend go out, it’s not about me and it’s in my own best interests not to make it that way. I can stay supportive without letting myself get too attached to one specific outcome. I may be upset, even devastated, when friends leave sobriety behind, but that doesn’t mean I have to do anything about it. 

Laura Barcella is a freelance writer and editor. She’s the author of The End: 50 Apocalyptic Visions from Pop Culture That You Should Know About...Before It’s Too Late and the editor of the anthology Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop. She's also written about the fear of missing out and social networking addiction, among other topics, for The Fix.

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