If you are a person with a loved one who is in recovery or struggling with addiction, it’s important to learn how to communicate and give them the support they need.
To be a sober ally we have to adapt how we speak and use language to help uplift our sober loved ones rather than knock them down.
Here is an ultimate guide of what not to say to a sober person— and what to say instead:
“Why aren’t you drinking?”
Asking someone why they aren’t drinking puts them on the spot and makes it seem like there must be something wrong. There could be many reasons why that person isn’t drinking. Maybe they don’t like the taste, or they just don’t feel like drinking. And if they are in recovery, this question can be triggering.
Instead: Don’t mention it, and let them drink what they want to drink.
“How do you know you’re an alcoholic/addict?”
This can be both belittling and harmful to a person in recovery. You’re suggesting that they don’t have self-awareness of their illness and could also be enabling them to start using again.
Instead, say: “I support you and I’m here for anything you need”
“Come on, just one drink, we’re celebrating”
When someone reveals to you that they are sober they don’t need you to pressure them into drinking. They get that enough from alcohol companies and from pretty much any social occasion they attend. Them drinking isn’t your choice nor should you force your opinions onto them. What a sober person needs is for their loved ones to be understanding and show that they are supportive of their recovery.
Instead: Find out what’s their non-alcoholic drink of choice.
“So everyone’s drinking but Brenda”
It’s important to not make the fact that they’re not drinking a big deal — especially if they’re not able to drink. You should make them feel as comfortable as possible in social situations, being around people who are drinking is very triggering and they need to know that they are safe and accepted.
Instead: Let people serve themselves, that way no one needs to know Brenda's not drinking.
“When will you be able to drink again?” or “When will you be recovered?”
For many, recovery is a lifelong journey and the ultimate goal isn’t for them to “be able to drink again”. It’s not about putting an expiration date on their sobriety but rather accept their new lifestyle and show that you’re happy for them.
Instead, say: “That’s great! What a healthy decision”
“You don’t drink? That’s boring”
Assuming someone is now boring because they don’t drink is not only discouraging for the sober person but can really harm their self-esteem. Drinking isn’t a requirement for fun and it’s sad that we live in a world where it’s so ingrained in our idea of having a good time. Sober people still want to go out and enjoy themselves so don’t stop inviting them just be more aware of their needs.
Instead: Invite them to a party or a social event and let them know you’ll be there to support them.
“Don’t worry, I’ll drink what you’re not drinking”
It’s normally not the access to alcohol or drugs that’s the issue for someone in recovery. There’s alcohol at every corner and a drug dealer that's just a text message away. You’re not helping them by keeping it from them and you’re most definitely not going to be of help if you’re “drinking what they’re not”. What they need is a sense of normalcy and understanding of their sobriety.
Instead, ask: “Do you have any yummy non-alcoholic drinks suggestions that I should try?”
“Oh no! Are you an alcoholic/addict?”
Being an alcoholic or an addict isn’t something to be ashamed of, it’s a common part of the human condition and we should acknowledge that. Instead of shaming people, we should celebrate their resilience and strength to fight their addiction and choose sobriety.
Instead, say: “Wow, congratulations that’s amazing!”
“Are you pregnant?”
First of all, this is almost never a good question to ask someone. Second of all, women shouldn’t have to be pregnant to not be drinking. And that’s all the “alls” we have to say about this one.
Instead: Don’t say anything at all.
“What was your rock bottom?”
For someone to choose sobriety they don’t have to hit rock bottom and if they have you shouldn’t remind them of a triggering time in their life.
Instead, say: “I’m proud of you.”
“Huh, you don’t look like an addict/alcoholic.”
Addiction is a disease that doesn’t discriminate and can impact anyone. It doesn’t matter your race, social status, gender, or age. We need to stop the stigma our society has towards addiction.
Instead, say: “That’s great! You deserve to have a full and happy life.”
“But you can still smoke weed or [insert the substance of choice here].”
Addiction is a disease no matter what the substance of choice is. It’s common for people who suffer addiction to fill the void with another vice as a way of coping. We need to be respectful of their addiction and help them find healthier coping mechanisms. Even if they aren’t resorting to drugs or alcohol, it often can be seen in their eating habits.
“I totally get how you feel.”
No one ever knows how someone else is feeling nor what they are going through. Many people use this statement believing that it will make the other person feel less alone but this often minimizes the severity of their own experience, especially if you don’t even have experience with addiction.
Instead, say: “I can’t imagine what you’re going through. Know that I’m here for you for whatever you need.”
“Oh, wow I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”
Don’t make it about you. Many people hide their addiction because they’re ashamed and it takes a lot of courage for them to tell people that they're in recovery. When someone announces that they’re sober it’s not something to be sorry about, it’s something to celebrate. Think about how much this must be affecting them and focus on how you can be supportive.
Instead, say: “I’m proud of you. Thanks for confiding in me.”
“Do you miss it?”
That’s a complicated question since everyone who chooses to be sober does it for different reasons. Chances are, their life before sobriety was stressful and unfulfilling and now that they’re sober they can have a more enjoyable life. However, grieving the loss of alcohol or drugs is normal, and instead of reminding them of what they’ve lost, we should be offering them support and solutions to cope.
Instead, ask: “How can I help?”
“Really, I think I could quit if I wanted to.”
This is both ignorant and trivializing. Everyone is different and you can’t assume to understand the other person's situation let alone their addition. By making it both a competition and a comparison you’re making the person feel like their addiction isn’t real and that they are weaker than you. It’s important to be understanding and aware of the severity of addiction so you can show the person you can truly support them no matter what.
Instead say: “I’m thankful for your strength and courage to get help.”
“Wendy can be our DD, she’s sober.”
Just because someone is sober doesn’t mean they want to be your personal chauffeur or treated like you’re only inviting them to use their sobriety for your personal gain. Sober people want to be included in the fun and invited to things despite their sobriety. Though inviting them to a drinking-related event can be triggering so try to be supportive and start making plans that don’t always involve alcohol.
Instead, ask: “Do you want to go for a hike or see a movie?”
“Mary is an addict too!”
Recovery is a very personal matter and not everyone wants to be public about their experience. It’s not your place to tell people their stories and it’s important to respect people’s anonymity.
When someone tells you that they’re in recovery remember not to pry or make them feel pressured to tell you their story. Instead, just be there for them for whatever they may need.
Instead, say: “You’re not alone.”
Encouraging words are key
Statistics show that 21.6 % of Canadians have a substance abuse disorder so it’s likely we all know someone who is sober or battling with addiction. Shaming addiction will only make the situation worse. Instead, we need to educate ourselves and show our loved ones that we support them. Through communication we can end the stigma and create a safe, accepting space for everyone at any stage of their recovery.
Karen Pontious is a professional communicator working on her dream to be a freelance writer and editor.
Her passion is intercultural relations and communication. She writes about relationships, immigration stories, gender norms, and mental health.