I’m now sober, but feel guilty about a friend I left behind | Ask Philippa

Your friendship may survive your sobriety, but you will need to set boundaries and stick to them

The question I left London to start a new life in the country before the pandemic, aged 45. The reasons for me doing so were numerous. However, one of the biggest was to get sober. My life in London was no longer sustainable and doing me considerable mental, emotional and physical harm.

My drinking had got out of control and the occasional party cocaine use of my 20s had turned into a regular and self-destructive habit. Two-and-a-half years on I am in a much better place and have found that contentment can be found in sobriety. I love waking up feeling fresh and positive rather than fighting through constant hangovers. I’ve formed new friendships based on more than getting messed up together.

I do feel sad, though, that I’ve left some friends behind. There is one girlfriend I was especially close to. We shared some amazing adventures together. Thinking about it, these were always based on getting wasted. The last time we met was on a Saturday morning (to try and minimise the opportunity to go to the pub). When I arrived she was already noticeably drunk. At a café I ordered a mineral water and her a bottle of wine. I told her about the positive journey I have been on and about the therapy and groups that helped me and urged her to give it a go. She refused, then accused me of abandoning her. I feel she’s right, but I don’t know what we have in common now. I don’t want to be dragged back to where I was and from her I feel that kind of pull. I feel incredibly guilty.

Philippa’s answer This is about the need to have boundaries. You have been good about setting them for yourself and that has changed your life around, but now you must let your friend know what your boundaries are. We don’t normally set terms and conditions in friendships. Usually we instinctively understand how not to tread on each other’s toes, but sometimes boundaries need to be spelled out.

You must decide where you are going to draw the line and be clear about it. Whenever we put a boundary down with anyone, we need to know where our own limit is. Perhaps you would feel tempted to join her when she’s drinking or using drugs. If so, that would be your limit. Protect yourself from getting to that limit by putting a boundary down before you reach it. So rather than hoping she won’t be drinking if you next decide to meet up you can say, “I will not meet with you if you are drinking.” If she thinks this isn’t possible, then don’t meet. If she promises she won’t and then does, you leave. When you have a boundary in place, you don’t have to be cruel about it, you can put it in place kindly and explain why you need it, but you must be sufficiently resolved to keep that boundary. One reader of this column once left a comment saying that if you have to choose between guilt or resentment, choose guilt – wise words. And this is what I urge you to do, choose guilt.

Strong attachments form between people who use alcohol and drugs. Maybe they are not as strong as the relationship an addict will have with their substance, but they are still valued bonds. When you decide to get clean, the cost is that you must leave some people behind – and some of those friends you used to hang out with may want to leave you behind when you become sober, too. These can be such painful losses. Remember, though, the new friends you are making now will become old friends in time.

I’m sure you would love to bring your friend with you on your journey, to share the enlightenment and knowledge that recovery has given you, but you can’t make her. Nor should you allow her to coerce, tempt or emotionally blackmail you to re-join her on her path. You may still love her, but irreconcilable differences may mean your friendship cannot continue.

You are now sober, live somewhere else and have new friends and interests. You will have noticed there is more to abstinence than just stopping. It’s more of a transformation of your whole self. It is hard to believe that someone who used to be so important to you is now someone you have less in common with, but this is what has happened. What you will always have together with her, though, are your old memories. I’m sure some of those escapades were fantastic. You can tell her you’ll always have those memories and you treasure them, but that you cannot sabotage your recovery by having any more of those sorts of adventures. I can’t guarantee she will take this well; she probably won’t. If this makes you feel guilty, remember that is better than the resentment you would feel if you allowed her to tempt you to return to damaging your mental and physical health.

If you have a question, send a brief email to askphilippa@observer.co.uk


Philippa Perry

The GuardianTramp

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