What NOT to Say to Someone in Recovery

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

December 30, 2022

Table of Contents

People commit to a lifetime of sobriety for a wide cross-section of reasons. You wouldn’t question someone who doesn’t drink alcohol for religious reasons, so it makes sense not to be intrusive if someone you know is in recovery for a substance abuse disorder or alcohol use disorder.

If one of your friends is just starting down the road to recovery, they’ll be undertaking an intensely personal journey. While this may be personal and while they may not want to share every detail, they’ll nevertheless need plenty of support along with their addiction recovery journey.

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How can you best help, then?

Well, today, we’ll walk you through how not to approach someone grappling with the early stages of sobriety. Far more important than what you say to your loved one is which topics you should avoid. That said, we’ll also be offering some alternatives to the off-limits topics below. We hope you find today’s round-up inspiring.

What Not To Say To Someone in Addiction Recovery

  1. I know exactly how you feel
  2. What caused you to get into that stuff in the first place?
  3. Why don’t you drink?
  4. Surely you can just have one?
  5. How long have you been sober?
  6. What was your rock bottom?
  7. Are you sure you’re an addict?
  8. Are you in addiction recovery right now?
  9. So…you can never drink again?
  10. I didn’t realize you had a problem…

1) I know exactly how you feel

Everyone struggling with addiction – and that’s roughly 20 million people with substance use disorders in the US – has a unique set of circumstances.

Picture someone injured in a car crash then suffering chronic pain. Prescribed opioid painkillers, were effective but triggered an addiction. Unable to refill their prescription, the person turns to heroin to numb their pain.

Imagine a functioning alcoholic, on the other hand. They may show no outward signs of addiction and hold down a job yet unfailingly drink two bottles of wine at night.

Contrast these scenarios with someone who smokes weed all day every day.

These are just three quick examples illustrating that no experiences of addiction are the same.

From this point, everyone has dramatically different journeys of recovery. For some people with severe addictions, this means a painful, medical-assisted detox followed by a month or more in a residential treatment center. For others, willpower alone could be enough to conquer a very mild addiction that only recently developed. 

So, if someone you know recovering from substance abuse disorder opens up to you about their experience, just listen instead of trying to show you relate to their experience.

Stating, “I can’t begin to imagine how you’re feeling” would be much more beneficial. This way, you’ll still show empathy with your friend without devaluing what they are going through. Reinforce your willingness to help in any way you can. This is much more fruitful than misguided claims of understanding.

2) What caused you to get into that stuff in the first place?

Addiction is complex and multi-faceted.

If you’re in a social situation and aim to get a concise answer from your friend outlining the underpinning reasons for their addiction, you’re likely to be disappointed.

You’re also likely to upset your friend with this line of questioning.

Most people in recovery will spend large chunks of time baring their souls and exploring issues they find distressing and often confusing. You’re likely to create unwanted stress if you start probing your friend for details of what led them to become substance-dependent.

What counts once someone has committed to sobriety is moving forward. Instead of egging your friend about their past, focus on how well they’re doing right now, and their future plans. This is far more productive than rehashing the whys and wherefores.

3) Why don’t you drink?

If you’re aware that a loved one is recovering from alcohol use disorder, “Why don’t you drink” is perhaps the most common question they’ll be forced to deal with. 

Your friend may be perfectly happy being sober, but they’re likely sick and tired of fielding this poser.

Ask yourself how you would feel if someone started questioning why you were drinking a beer or glass of wine. You’d likely be taken aback, and possibly offended.

Many people in addiction recovery find it difficult to put themselves in social situations where alcohol is being served. Even if they typically avoid the bar, restaurant meals or functions like weddings and funerals often present a flashpoint. If your friend has made the effort to go out even though they may be feeling uneasy about alcohol in their presence, why draw attention to this?

4) Surely you can just have one?

It would be unthinkable to offer a line of cocaine to a recovering coke addict, so it’s confusing why so many people ask individuals in recovery if they couldn’t have “Just one drink. Just a little one.”

The old AA adage that “One drink is too many, and a thousand is never enough” is grounded on the fact that addiction is not a choice. By the stage at which dependence on alcohol sets in, the person is usually already at the point of being unable to moderate consumption. Once they start drinking, there is an almost involuntary compulsion to continue the pursuit of oblivion.

Only someone with a limited understanding of addiction would goad an alcoholic into flirting with a beer or two. If you have a friend or family member struggling with alcohol use disorder, the more you learn about addiction, the more capably you can help them.

Most people in recovery for dependence on alcohol would prefer you refrained from commenting on the contents of their glass and their choice of beverage.

5) How long have you been sober?

Many people who are just starting down the road to recovery are not especially confident. Sobering up from substance abuse disorder is challenging enough without being forced to confront it all the time.

If you ask a friend how long they’ve been sober for, you’ll be putting them in the spotlight, somewhere they would probably sooner not be.

Try to keep in mind that getting sober is rarely smooth or straightforward. Many recovering alcoholics will relapse at least once on their road to recovery.

Rather than asking someone how long they’ve been sober, try to keep the conversation moving along as normal and don’t place undue emphasis on sobriety.

6) What was your rock bottom?

If someone is in addiction recovery from alcohol abuse disorder, the holiday season is liable to be problematic. Let’s face it, alcohol is totally socially acceptable, and over the festive period in particular, it can sometimes seem like everyone is drinking. Not only will someone in the early stages of recovery be bombarded by advertisements for alcohol and surrounded by people getting merry, but this is also likely the time they used to drink most heavily. Asking them whether they got a DUI or had an accident is likely to make them feel even worse.

While fishing for someone’s lowest moment is not ideal during the holidays, it’s a rude and needless question any time of the year.

It’s also worth remembering that by no means everyone in recovery hits that proverbial rock bottom anyway. For everyone in rehab following a shocking car crash or losing their job and family, there are ten others who didn’t experience such adverse lows from alcohol abuse.

7) Are you sure you’re an addict?

Many people in recovery take a great deal of time and just as much heartache to reach the point where they can commit to sustained sobriety.

They may then spend months undergoing intensive behavioral therapy and psychotherapy, all with the aim of treating their underlying addiction.

Challenging someone at this fragile stage is senseless and could even trigger negative consequences.

Your own opinions about addiction shouldn’t give you cause to poke holes in someone else’s story. While addiction is a disease, some people perceive it to be a choice. Although this is not typically true, we’re not here to tell you what to think. What we’re hoping to do, though, is prevent you from shaking the foundation of your friend’s recovery.

8) Are you in addiction recovery right now?

Another point you should refrain from raising is whether your friend is still in recovery right now.

Resist from enquiring how long treatment lasts, whether your friend will be “cured”, or anything else along these intrusive lines.

Recovering from an addiction to drink or drugs is a process rather than an event. The person may start off with a medically-assisted detox, then attend a variety of counseling sessions along with behavioral therapies and psychotherapies. As the person steps down the continuum of care, they may or may not attend 12-step meetings like AA or NA.

Regardless of your friend’s trajectory throughout the early stages of recovery, they’re looking at an ongoing journey to stay sober. The less attention you draw to this journey and the more normally you go about your interactions, the happier your friend in recovery will be.

The principle of anonymity underpinning many recovery groups is in place for good reason. Many people undertaking the challenging and ongoing road to recovery from addiction would far sooner fly under the radar and go about their business. Think about this before challenging someone about any aspect of that journey.

9) So…you can never drink again?

If you raise this issue, many people in recovery are likely to feel anxious.

One of the concepts of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous is to take each day at a time, so forcing your friend or loved one to ponder the abstract question of a life without substances is futile.

Simply leaving the substance alone is anyway only one part of recovery. There’s every chance the person will battling to make sweeping changes to their life and grappling with tough emotional issues.

Before posing a question like this to someone in recovery, ask yourself what you expect to achieve. There is nothing to gain, and you’ll only potentially make your friend uncomfortable.

Instead, focus on their strength and how well they have done to reach this stage of sobriety. If you refer to a life without substances, only ever do so in a positive manner. Ideally, simply avoid the subject.

10) I didn’t realize you had a problem…

Like many questions you could ask someone in addiction recovery, pointing out that you didn’t even realize they had a problem could be well-intentioned, but it’s also wildly unlikely to do anything to strengthen your friend’s commitment to sobriety.

Rather, by effectively denying the existence of a problem, even if referring only to a past lack of awareness, your friend could get the wrong idea. They may not make this distinction, and they could feel you’re implying they have no need to stop drinking or using drugs.

When you confront anyone in recovery with this kind of leading statement, it’s seldom beneficial. On the contrary, you could end up compounding existing feelings of shame and guilt your loved one is harboring.

What’s the better approach here, then?

Well, why not simply tell them how proud you are of the positive choices they’re now making?

 What Comes Next at Renaissance Recovery?

If you have someone in your life struggling with addiction and you feel they are ready to pursue the appropriate course of treatment, feel free to reach out to our friendly team here at Renaissance Recovery.

 We’ll be happy to talk you through the many addiction treatment programs we can help personalize to ensure your loved one is supported every step of the way through their addiction recovery.

To take the next step, contact us online at your convenience or call us today at 866.330.9449.



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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