Talk The Talk

7 Supportive Things To Say To Someone Who’s Stopped Drinking

First thing’s first: Instead of guessing what a friend might need, ask them what you can do to help.

by Adam Bulger
Originally Published: 

Talking about abstaining from alcohol shouldn’t be tough. After all, there’s a strong argument that everybody should stop drinking. New research indicates that there’s no healthy level of alcohol consumption and evidence is mounting that even moderate drinkers risk damaging organs, blood pressure and even DNA. But this is alcohol we’re talking about. It’s woven tightly into our lives. We turn to alcohol when we’re sad, reach for it when we’re happy, and receive constant ambient reminders of its existence via liquor billboards, TV beer commercials, and social media influencers. When Homer Simpson calls alcohol the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems, it’s both acutely funny and achingly truthful.

When we hear someone is drying out, it’s easy to be a bonehead, usually by running to one of two extremes. We either congratulate the abstainer on doing something difficult and reinforce the difficulty or treat it too lightly and set them up for failure.

Treading the middle ground and offering a truly helpful response is difficult. As clinical director for California substance abuse rehabilitation center Renaissance Recovery Diana Vo notes, even lighthearted conversational approaches can be missteps. “Don’t say anything that might make them feel shameful about it or like they won’t be or have fun without it,” Vo says. “Even if it’s a joke, it’s not really the time or place if they are looking to make a change in their life.”

We spoke to addiction experts like Vo for advice on navigating an often difficult conversation. During those talks, one piece of advice appeared often: ask your newly sober friend for what they need from you. “Rather than guess what a friend might need, ask them what you can do to help,” says Phoenix Adams, Executive Vice President of Florida Programming for Caron Treatment Centers. “For example, some people may not want to be around alcohol. If that’s the case, then by all means, don’t have alcohol around them. For others, that might not be an issue.” Here are some more things to say to be supportive of their journey.

1. “You Have My Support Regardless of Motivation”

People go dry for a variety of reasons and it’s a good practice to know the person’s personal history before you weigh in with your commentary. If they’re putting down the wine glass for health reasons, you come off as extremely insensitive by assuming they’re coping with addiction, for instance. As Adams says, assuming the reason someone’s stepping away from alcohol can be counterproductive. “There are a lot of reasons why people stop drinking alcohol,” Adams says. “It doesn’t mean they have an alcohol use disorder. It could be that they want to lose weight or try something new. We should be supportive of our friend’s or loved one’s effort and not assume or judge what their motives might be.”

2. “Be Patient And Take It One Day At A Time”

John Delatorre, psychologist at Resolution Forensic and Consultation Services notes that cutting out alcohol is a long process that doesn’t often yield results quickly. “If someone came and asked for guidance about maintaining sobriety I would encourage them to be patient,” he says. “No change happens overnight.” As Adams notes, if someone’s been drinking for years, their brain has adapted to the regular presence of alcohol to associate alcohol and relaxation or “taking the edge off.” Prying apart those kinds of associations takes time. “The brain’s reward system has been rewired to seek out alcohol to the exclusion of all else,” he says. “If we’ve been drinking for years, it’s not going to get better in three days.”

3. “Don’t Get Discouraged If You Slip Up”

Over time, people trying to stay sober tend to slip up. It’s not inevitable but it’s common enough to treat it basically like it is. When slip-ups occur, particularly for people new to sobriety, they’re usually followed by self recrimination and shame, emotional states that often drive people to drink more. Vo recommends encouraging newly sober friends to cut themselves slack. “I would say be kind to yourself,” she says. “If you slip up and have alcohol don’t let it prevent you from continuing your break.”

4. “This Is A Great Opportunity To Reflect On How Alcohol Affects You”

Dry January can pass by without making any impact or offering any meaning. When February rolls around, the chore of abstinence is gone, alcohol is back on the menu and nothing changed. But, Vo says, when you’re taking a break from alcohol, it’s possible to gain valuable perspective on the role alcohol plays in your life and use those insights to drive positive change. “This is a time to be mindful and reflective on the role alcohol plays in your life and adjust accordingly,” she says. Encourage your friends testing the non-alcoholic waters to experiment with new things and keep an eye out for benefits. “It’s very possible that you may notice improvements in your overall health,” she says.

5. “Being Alcohol Free Has its Benefits”

Dr. Jay Serle, Clinical Director of the Ohana Hawaii Addiction Treatment Center, says that conversations about cutting out alcohol shouldn’t solely focus on the negative aspects of alcohol. He says it’s helpful for friends to focus on the positive aspects of living alcohol-free.

“Equal emphasis should be placed on engaging in positive replacement behaviors,” he says. “Alcohol can keep people from doing things they want to do. Sobriety opens up possibilities for enjoying quiet, pleasurable activities including reading and meditating. “Look at activities that you have wanted to engage with in the past but never completed,” Serle says.

6. “This Won’t Be Easy But It’s Worth it”

Quitting alcohol isn’t going to be easy and underselling the difficulty doesn’t do the quitter any favors. As a friend, acknowledging the effort of the task can be helpful. “One thing people should hear is that it’s going to be difficult, but that’s okay,” Vo says. “If alcohol has become a normal part of your routine, quitting alcohol, even for a brief time, may be harder to do than you originally planned for.” Adams says that casual drinkers can have physical discomfort while quitting for short periods like dry January. “No matter how much they have been drinking, they may experience some level of withdrawal symptoms – difficulty sleeping, irritability, sweating, increased feelings of anxiety.”

7. “We Can Still Hang Out And Have Fun”

Supporting a friend who’s going dry doesn’t always mean you have to delve deep into the state of their mental health. It can be very helpful to simply suggest social alternatives to alcohol. “Instead of going out for drinks, if that’s what you usually do, find an alternative with more sober-friendly options,” Vo says, adding that the conversation doesn’t need to be a big deal; it can just involve suggesting a new place to try. Maybe something along the lines of “when’s the last time you played mini-golf?” or “have you ever done an escape room?” What matters is they know you still want to with the person they are when they’re not drinking.

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