Knowing when and how to bring up that you have a substance use disorder (SUD) with new friends is tricky.
Old friends who knew you before you went through drug or alcohol rehab are already aware. You have a history. That one fact doesn’t define or color your relationship. If that’s the first thing potential new friends learn about you, however, that’s a different matter.
The first and most important step may be understanding how much you have accomplished and how much you have changed since recovery. Then, having forgiven yourself for your past addiction, you can tell others.
It also depends on how long you have been in recovery. There’s a difference between one year sober and 10 years sober. It matters who you are telling, too.
One barrier to telling people about your addiction is the public’s perception of what addiction is. Many still believe that only the weak-willed or thrill-seekers use drugs or drink until they are intoxicated. They think that all it takes to stop is to say “No.” Therefore if you use drugs or drink too much, you’re not a good person.
The truth is that while not everybody who drinks or uses drugs will develop an addiction, it is a chronic disease. It is partly caused by a genetic predisposition, like diabetes or high blood pressure. It changes the chemistry of the brain, rewiring the reward system.
Addiction also frequently co-occurs with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, stress, and trauma. Sometimes the substance use begins as an attempt to self-medicate for the mental health issue. With such a dual diagnosis, both conditions need treatment at the same time.
Once addiction starts, there is no total cure. It’s not just a matter of willpower, intelligence, or religious faith. A latter-day Saint fresh from one of the quality drug treatment centers in Utah is no more or less likely to stay sober than a Catholic in Boston. A relapse into drug or alcohol use remains a possibility even after years of abstinence and sobriety.
A relapse does not mean you’re a failure or worthless; that’s just one of many dangerous and erroneous perceptions about addiction. Sometimes you slip, then you get back up again. The relapse rate for SUD is about the same as for diabetes and other chronic conditions.
Don’t even think of yourself as an addict; you are someone with an addiction, a disease. Try to see yourself as someone who has overcome and is still fighting a disease.
At some point following the change in our perception from a loser to an overcomer, from addict to someone suffering from the disease of a substance use disorder, we have an awakening. Like the cancer patient whose disease is in remission, the person living a life of sobriety understands that the disease may very well still be there, but they have overcome it.
Some recovery programs use medication-assisted therapy (MAT), drugs that are non-addictive or have low addiction potential, to keep the withdrawal cravings of addiction under control. These are not trading one addiction for another, as some still say. MAT does not get you intoxicated; it only allows you to live your life without obsessing about how you’re going to get high.
Regular attendance at a peer support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous is beneficial to many, as are the 12 Steps. There you meet other people with addictions, most of who have been in recovery longer than you, maybe 20 years. By hearing their stories and telling yours without judgment, everybody learns and grows and reinforces their sobriety.
Talking to other people who have authority, esteem, and gratitude makes you realize how strong and amazing you all are, and is good practice for how to tell your story to others. The people you meet in the group may become new friends, in and out of meetings, friends who already know about addiction, and how strong you are, even as your mental scars continue to heal.
You want to be able to tell new friends that you have succeeded in recovery against addiction, and that means you have to feel it, to believe it. Success can mean different things to different people. When you are new to sobriety, every day that you don’t drink or use drugs is a success, a victory.
Long-term success requires you to be comfortable in your sobriety, confident, but not cocky. When you no longer have to be so constantly vigilant, when your struggle to remain sober is not your top thought, you will know when to tell others about your recovery. Maybe it will come up naturally when you say, “I don’t drink.”
How do we talk to new friends about past addictions? From a place of truth and honesty, and with pride, gratitude, and humility.