The Buddy System

By Laura Barcella 10/15/12

Just because you’re sober and in a program doesn’t mean that all your interactions will be easy. Welcome to the sober friendship.

Clique-ing in sobriety Photo via

So you got sober. You cleaned up—mind, body, soul—and hopefully for good. If you have more than a few months of continuous sobriety, you’ve probably already started to notice some changes and reap some rewards: the simple pleasure of no longer waking up hung-over and in strange places; remembering what—um, or who—you did last night (and the night before that, and the one before that)...And perhaps most significantly: that reassuring sense that you’re doing the right thing, learning how to take care of yourself in a Big, New, Important way. 

Now for the hard part: Life. Sober. Day in, day out, through anything and everything. Thankfully, if you’re in 12-Step Land, you’ve got a fellowship to help guide and support you along your sober adventure. You have big rooms teeming with potential friends you’ve never met but are expected to instantly bond with because you share a common problem, a common pain, a shared purpose. Making friends in the program should be easy, right?  Er...Maybe for a calm, cool, self-confident few, but for the rest of us, socializing and making friends in-program can take time, effort, and patience—especially in the early days, but sometimes, well, forever.

Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, Senior Clinical Advisor to Ocean Drive at Caron Renaissance, explains that most people who come into AA “only knew how to connect to other people through alcohol and drugs.” Absent this social glue, newly sober people can be overwhelmed by social uncertainty. Hokemeyer stresses that newcomers can feel “incredibly vulnerable, unsafe and insecure” in their interpersonal relationships, both in and outside the rooms of AA. So what to do? The doc advises, “Don't get all crazy about fitting in or being one of the boys or girls. You suffer from the disease of addiction; you've lived as a stigmatized minority; you've probably felt like an ‘outsider’ your whole life. This may change over time or it may not.”

The myth is that somehow the friendships you make in sobriety are more solid, more pure or more ‘real’ than the friendships you had before, with ‘normies.’

Wise words. So why do some people (that aforementioned lucky few) seem to experience a social renaissance once they land in AA? Why do the rooms sometimes bear a striking resemblance to the clique-ridden rooms of, well, high school?  “I noticed the cliques right away,” remembers Andy, 30, of Colorado. “I quickly began to learn which meetings to avoid based on how many hipsters were squished together smoking outside. AA is supposed to be open to anyone with a desire to get sober but some people just aren’t friendly or inclusive at all. I didn’t stop drinking to go back to high school or relive my adolescence.”

So how to navigate a particularly clique-ish scene? In a word, Dr. Hokemeyer says, “eff ‘em.” He explains, “If a group or a clique feels uncomfortable, trust your instincts and keep away from them. You don't need their approval and validation. Your goal as a sober person is to be happy, joyous and free. There are plenty of other people in the rooms who will accept and support you.”

He’s right, of course; there are plenty of other people, both in and out of 12-Step land, who can love and support you. But some program folks seem to have tunnel-vision, hanging out exclusively with other addicts, almost assuming that “normal” folks won’t understand or support them the same way. “There’s this myth perpetuated in AA,” says Sandra, 28, of San Francisco. “The myth is that somehow the friendships you make in sobriety are more solid, more pure or more ‘real’ than the friendships you had before, with ‘normies.’ But I just don’t know if that’s true.” But is that actually true or just an AA party line? Hokemeyer feels it’s valid—for the most part. “In AA, people connect to one another through their vulnerabilities,” he explains. “Friendships there are based on sobriety, not fabulousness or pretense. This provides a strong and healthy foundation where meaningful relationships can grow.”

Liane, a 30-year old sober alcoholic from California, agrees. “The friendships I have in AA are more meaningful than any others I have had in my life and all I ever wanted growing up was to have close friends who would do anything for me,” she says. Theresa, an alcoholic in North Carolina, concurs, saying, “With sober friends, there is more of a sense of a shared struggle and a shared purpose. We speak the language of recovery and don't have to explain certain things to each other.”

But both women acknowledge that their program friendships are, well, different than their relationships with “normal” folks, in both positive and negative ways. Despite the level of closeness and connection Liane experiences with her AA friends, she admits that the looming specter of a potential relapse is always there—and there’s nothing quite like the first time you watch a friend suddenly (or slowly) decide to try “doing more research” at the corner dive bar. “I'll never forget the first time a friend relapsed,” Liane remembers. “I was devastated. And part of the devastation was that ‘normal’ people do not have to worry about their friends suddenly disappearing to shoot heroin in a motel for a year, which is a reality for most all people in recovery.”

Jenna, 32, of New York, recalls her own relapse and the painful truths it exposed about some of her closest sober friendships. “When I decided to try drinking again, I lost most of my friends,” she says bluntly. “Except for one or two people who still bothered to talk to me and hang out with me, most of the ‘fellowship’ dropped me like a hot potato when I went out. It made an already painful time that much more painful, and it really brought home the fact that AA friendships are pretty much contingent on both parties staying sober. All bets are off if you have a slip or leave the program. You might find yourself friendless.” 

That feeling of abandonment during a relapse sounds admittedly excruciating but Dr. Hokemeyer suggests that it’s not really abandonment—or that it shouldn’t be seen that way, in any case. He considers temporarily abandoning a drinking or drugging friend not a rejection but an act of self-care and an attempt to safeguard their own sobriety. “The best way to help another person is to model self-care and self-love,” he says. “By judiciously protecting our own recovery, we set examples of hope for those who stumble along the way.” So what does he recommend doing if you find yourself in the terribly uncomfortable position of having to stand by and watch a friend go out? “If your friend's slip in any way threatens your own recovery, run for cover,” he advises. “Tell them you care for them and want them to recover but you must take care of yourself first.”

Laura Barcella is a freelance writer and editor. She’s the author of the new book 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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