It’s a human need to have friends, and that need is no different for those who are in recovery for substance abuse. You might even say that friends and loved ones are more important for people who are in recovery. Making friends during rehab could even make the critical difference between relapse and long-term recovery.
But the answer to the question, “Should I make friends at rehab?” isn’t just a simple, unqualified “yes.” It’s also critical to select the right kinds of friends — friends who will support your recovery and the associated changes you’re making in your life, without impeding your progress or sidetracking you. Having a cheerleader by your side to keep you walking the right path and celebrate your achievements with you will make the victory of your recovery even sweeter.
Table of Contents
- Pros and Cons of Making Friends During Rehab
- What Is a Healthy Friendship?
- What to Avoid
- Building Relationships From the Ground Up
- Being a Friend to Someone in Recovery
Pros and Cons of Making Friends During Rehab and Recovery
We know from research that social connections — the customs and traditions of community and support from family and friends — are actually determining factors of good health. Social relationships help to ease stress and provide emotional support during times of difficulty, and they promote a sense of belonging that helps to give you a greater sense of satisfaction with life.
This lower stress and increased happiness are linked not only to better health and quality of life, but also to longer lives and lower levels of relapse among addicts. Studies have shown that social support strongly correlates to a better quality of life and greater rates of recovery among substance users and those with mental disorders.
And, it seems, the wider your social circle, the better. The U.K.’s National Child Development Study found that middle-aged adults who regularly meet up with 10 or more friends have better mental health than those with five or fewer friends.
It can be intimidating to set out alone as you create a new, healthy life for yourself, and it can be tempting to gravitate toward people who feel familiar. Additionally, fear of a backslide may paralyze you, keeping you from reaching out to anyone at all.
As you recover from your addiction, you will relearn so many things, and making friends may be one of them. But where do you start? And how can you trust yourself to make lasting, healthy friendships?
What Is a Healthy Friendship?
Healthy friendships surround you with feelings of love, support, and understanding. They won’t stir those cravings to use, and they won’t stand in the way of any aspects of your recovery. They’ll remind you frequently of your end goal and will cheer on that growth. They’ll motivate you to stay strong when you’re having tough times, but they won’t make you feel pressured or add to your stress.
Will your friends always understand exactly what you’re going through? Not necessarily. However, they should like, respect and accept you as you are, even as you undergo significant changes in your life. They should want you to be yourself, and you should feel comfortable being yourself in their presence. Their friendship should allow room for you to grow and change, and even occasionally to make mistakes. They should be interested in what you have to say, and willing to listen to and share with you, whether it’s good or bad. They may offer good advice or help when you need it, and in turn, are willing to accept it from you. And they’ll help you arrive at solutions when you need that, too.
You should also like, respect, trust, and accept them in return, feeling confident in the knowledge that they will keep personal matters confidential. You should want to be with a good friend, but not be obsessed with them.
What to Avoid
Although friendship and social connections are key to recovery, remember that your personal healing must take precedence over that of others or of healing your relationships. If you aren’t strong on your own, you won’t be capable of being a good friend, family member, or, down the road, romantic partner. There’s no need to put pressure on yourself to spend time with anyone or do anything that doesn’t feel right. It also may mean disengaging yourself from people, and you may need professional help in doing so.
Part of the problem for those who suffer from addiction is that they lack confidence and coping skills, which have contributed to their desire to use. Addicts mask these painful feelings with drugs or alcohol because, deep down, they believe they aren’t worth much and they deserve to suffer. As an addict, learning to nurture yourself and acknowledge, not cover up, your feelings is a new and uncomfortable experience.
Typically, the substance becomes your “cruise director,” the driving force behind your emotions, your decisions, and your social activities. It gains such a powerful hold that, without it, you may feel naked, unsure how to behave around people or what to do with yourself. The drugs or alcohol keep you from learning how to just be yourself, sober, out in the world, and relating to other people.
All this is to say that making friends can be hard, and you may find yourself attracted to friendships that are toxic or deter your recovery.
Here are some tips for avoiding toxic friendships:
- Practice Honesty — If you find yourself hiding things about yourself or your recovery, that’s a sign you aren’t fully committed to the process, and you could be entering into a detrimental relationship.
- Practice Saying No and Setting Boundaries — Say no to using, and say no to activities that drain your energy or place demands on you that you aren’t ready to accept. Say no to anyone who isn’t accepting of you as you are, or of your recovery. Establish clear boundaries about behaviors you can or can’t tolerate, and follow through with the consequences when those boundaries are violated. Boundary-setting is a skill that many addicts have not yet learned, and they can be a contributor to the addiction. Learning how to set boundaries effectively can be key to recovery in many areas of your life.
- Cut Toxic Friends out of Your Life Now — Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, binge eating, cutting … any addictive behavior is toxic for you. Commit to removing these people from your life right now. Lose their phone numbers, unfriend them on Facebook, and stay away from the places and events where you could encounter them. Even if they don’t intend to be bad influences, a relationship with them can put you at risk to associate with people who minimize your efforts, disrespect the recovery process, or treat addiction lightly.
- Avoid Drama Queens and Narcissists — People who can’t take responsibility, who constantly have a swirl of negativity and drama following them, who are perpetually dissatisfied or who simply seem too focused on their own lives and uninterested in yours are all to be avoided. Healthy friendships involve give and take. Stay away from a relationship where you are constantly the giver.
- Start Seeing Yourself as a Non-User — View yourself through a new lens. You are not an addict now — you are a non-user. Being someone else demands that you have new social connections and activities. Remind yourself often that you are not who you were, and you deserve to have good, healthy friendships. It is not selfish or indulgent to want and expect this.
- Avoid Romantic Relationships for a Time — Especially during the first year of recovery, dating and romantic relationships should be avoided, as they’re one of the greatest threats for relapse. It can be tempting to enter into one during this highly emotional time, but the prospect of romance can bring out behaviors that are counterintuitive to your recovery. These include efforts to hide your flaws and keep secrets about yourself, the risk of sexual addiction replacing substance addiction, the potential for contracting STDs, and the desire to do whatever your partner wants to do — whether or not it’s healthy or positive behavior.
Any relationship that causes you undue stress or pain should be avoided until you’re able to work through those issues in therapy and over time in recovery. Sometimes even a short break can make a world of difference.
And give yourself time to mourn the loss of those old social and emotional ties, even if those people were ultimately detrimental to you. You will likely feel shock, loneliness, anger, and sadness, and it’s all normal to feel this way. Allow yourself to experience those emotions, and know that every day of this process will get better and easier.
Building Relationships From the Ground Up
Starting from scratch to build up a social network can be a frightening and intimidating process, and it’s hard to know where to even start. Resist that temptation to wallow in loneliness and succumb to low self-esteem. Putting yourself out there is a crucial step in the rehabilitation process. Doing so can help to make you accountable to others and yourself.
Here are some strategies for meeting people and making friends during your recovery:
- Join and Regularly Attend a Support Group — Though logically you may understand that others are going through similar struggles as you, it may not feel that way sometimes. However, others do understand, and they share the same goals. It’s important to spend time with people who will listen and empathize, and who can offer honest feedback to you in a non-threatening environment. This kind of outpatient therapy can be very rewarding and motivational. Make meetings a priority and attend the meetings regularly.
If you’re in a group that doesn’t feel particularly supportive or isn’t a good match, speak to a counselor or group member about other possible options.
- Take Part in Activities That Put You in Contact With Others — Enroll in a class, join a club, sign up for a committee, or join a gym. Routines can help you become familiar with people you see on a regular basis — hopefully, people who share similar interests.
Your local library may have a listing of book or scrapbooking clubs in your area, or maybe you’re more interested in outdoor activities — look for local running, hiking, rock climbing, scuba diving, or other outdoor groups. You could join a city sports league as well. Yoga or art classes can also be very therapeutic and offer opportunities to meet friendly, like-minded people in calm, healthy, creative environments.
- Volunteer — Working with someone to accomplish a goal through a shared passion can be a great foundation for friendship. In and of itself, volunteering provides you with a sense of purpose and belonging, which, on their own, are valuable to the recovery process. Research shows that volunteering makes people happier. Plus, it brings fun and fulfillment, not to mention benefits to your career. But among its greatest benefits is the fact that volunteering helps you to connect with others. It helps you get to know more about your community and the people in it, strengthening your ties to the world around you. It’s also a non-threatening way to regularly interact with a group of people who have common interests, allowing you to practice your social skills. Additionally, doing good builds confidence, giving you a sense of pride. When you feel better about yourself, you’re more likely to feel confident in approaching others. If there’s a cause or issue you feel passionate about or drawn to, take this opportunity to devote your time to it, and you may reap the rewards of a few new friendships.
- Get Online — Blogs and social media make it easier to approach people when we’re feeling shy or lacking in confidence. There are numerous sober support networks available online, which offer you a great opportunity to talk to people who are going through the same things you are. While online connections shouldn’t be your only social outlet (Practice face-to-face interaction whenever possible!), they can be a great way to combat loneliness. Also, check out free recovery apps that offer tips and daily affirmations. Many provide a customized recovery plan that can guide you through your daily recovery. It offers regular connectivity to a support team and communication about alumni events.
- Reach Out — While you definitely want to cut unhealthy influences out of your life, you may have family members and old friends who are supportive of your recovery and would love to be there for you. Take the opportunity to reconnect with these people and lean on them. Make amends for behavior that may have caused you to be disconnected from them, and demonstrate your commitment to recovery and repairing that connection. Show them you’ll do what you say you’re going to do, and make a real effort to stay in touch and be honest with them about what’s happening in your life. Yes, it’s possible your relationship has been damaged beyond repair, and you may have to accept this fact, as well as the fact you cannot change it — an approach that’s an integral part of your integrated recovery program. You can only control your own behavior, but taking this important step may help you to gain confidence. You may find you are surrounded by love from people who long to be close with you again.
- Engage With Others — The only way to overcome social anxiety — a common problem among recovering addicts — is to face it head-on. Seize opportunities to engage with others. Take people up on invitations — if you turn down too many invitations, they may stop coming! And why wait for others to suggest get-togethers? Try suggesting a few yourself. Invite someone on a hike or to meet up for coffee. Suggest a trip to the movies or a local festival. Healthy friendships involve give and take — make sure you’re doing a little bit of both.
- Make Friends With Yourself — You can’t be a good friend to others if you aren’t a good friend to yourself. Now’s the time to be kind and gentle with yourself. Be sure to maintain balance in your life. Don’t let social activities drain your energy. Learn to be comfortable and happy on your own. Take walks, go for a run, practice yoga, hit a coffee shop with a good novel, write in a journal, take yourself to a matinee movie, try some coloring therapy or bake some cookies. Whatever it is that makes you feel happy and secure, do it. Learn to relish those times you are alone, and let them fill you up with satisfaction and confidence. Be your own best friend, and your chances for long-term recovery will significantly improve.
Being a Friend to Someone in Recovery
We know that, statistically, motivation from family and friends and their support of recovery efforts, are factors that improve the chances of long-term recovery. Being the right kind of friend to a recovering addict — whether you understand everything about addiction or not — can be tremendously helpful. But how can you be the right kind of friend?
- Understand Addiction Is a Disease You Can Recover From — The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) says that one of the main reasons people don’t seek help is that there’s a stigma associated with mental illness, which includes addiction. And studies show that most people with mental illnesses can and do get better. Your understanding, support, respect, compassion, and belief in a positive outcome can be hugely beneficial in your friend’s recovery. Avoid using destructive label words associated with addiction, such as “abuser” or “junkie,” which make no distinction between the person and the disease and imply judgment; “habit,” which denies the medical nature of the addiction; or “clean” vs. “dirty,” which associates illness with filth.
- Learn What You Can About Addiction and Substance Dependence — Compassion comes from understanding. Consult authoritative resources such as the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc., SAMHSA, or the National Institute on Drug Abuse. You might even offer to help and support your friend by being willing to attend support groups, with or without them.
- Avoid Codependence — Don’t let yourself fall into the trap where you take responsibility for the addiction or a potential relapse. It’s not your fault, and codependence can become a vicious cycle that helps no one. You don’t have control over the addiction. Your friend’s job right now as they are going through recovery is to practice setting and maintaining boundaries and keeping their behavior in check. It’s not your job to do this for them.
- Be Yourself — You’re human, and you’re not perfect. Everyone has flaws. You’re allowed to have them. In fact, it might help your friend in recovery to know that you do. You’re allowed to have misunderstandings, to be upset sometimes, and to be occasionally confused by an addict’s behavior, just as you would with anyone else. Your friend shouldn’t hold you to any unreasonable standards, and you shouldn’t hold yourself to them, either.
- Don’t Preach — Hold your friends up. Don’t tear them down. Don’t lecture, threaten, bribe, or demoralize your friend. Doing so only exacerbates a person’s low self-esteem, which is a trigger for relapse, not a motivator for recovery.
The benefits of making friends at rehab and throughout recovery are many, but it’s a journey that can feel long and difficult at times. The staff at Tranquil Shores can help you by motivating, reassuring, and counseling you in times of struggle. You don’t have to go it alone. Contact us if you have questions, need a shoulder to lean on, or are ready to get help and improve your life.