How to Build a Sober Support System After Rehab

One of the topics discussed during a drug or alcohol treatment program will no doubt be the various techniques that can be used for developing a sober support system after rehab.

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What is a Sober Support System?

A sober support system is made up of specific people, as well as therapists, support groups and organizations. When a client is discharged from a drug or alcohol treatment program, this variety of supportive people work together to provide a system of ongoing support to ensure the client does not suffer a relapse.

Support After Leaving Residential Treatment

For those who have received treatment in a residential treatment program, the idea of resuming everyday life without the constant support of counselors and other clients may seem daunting. For this reason, many programs offer sober living houses where clients can start to live their everyday lives without giving up the support they had while in treatment. The results of a 2010 study conducted by Alcohol Research Group found that clients who spent time in a sober living house had lower rates of drug and alcohol use.

Since sober living houses offer shared accommodation, clients at the same level of sobriety can continue to offer each other support during this early phase. Sober living houses are also supervised by a live-in manager who ensures that house rules are respected regarding ongoing sobriety.

Residents are required to perform volunteer work, look for a job or work while staying at the sober living house. They must also continue to attend 12-step meetings.

As clients find their way in their new lives of sobriety, they move out of the sober living houses to live with family members, friends or on their own. The people they met in rehab — who were the first source of support in recovery — may fall away. That is to be expected – it’s possible that the only thing that these people had in common was that they happened to be in the same recovery program at the same time. They had a shared experience, but it was not enough to sustain an ongoing relationship.

For some people, keeping in touch with those they met in rehab would simply be too uncomfortable. It would be a reminder of where they had been, and the memory of that point in their life would simply be too painful.

Other people would not be bothered at all about keeping in touch with someone they met in rehab. In this view, the experience was a turning point and a time when the person with an addiction started to make a positive change in their life. The people they met during that time were part of the positive change and their new life of sobriety.

People in Addiction Recovery Need to Make Friends

One thing we know about addiction is that it robs those affected by it of their self-esteem and their self-worth. When a person is actively using his or her drug of choice, little time remains for social relationships. The friendships of an addict are based on obtaining a substance and sharing it, rather than developing real connections.

For people in recovery, learning to connect with others without being under the influence of any chemicals can be a powerful experience. They may have spent several years being active users and trying to put up a virtual wall between themselves and others to avoid the possibility of hurt, embarrassment, ridicule or humiliation. Some of them may not even remember a time when they were not drunk or high when attempting to interact with other people.

Benefits of Having Friends While in Recovery

Humans belong in groups. One of the worst punishments that we can inflict on someone is to deliberately exclude them from the company of others. Solitary confinement is used as a disciplinary measure in prisons. In some societies, shunning a person so that they no longer feel welcome in the community is the worst form of social punishment. It strikes right at the heart of human nature: We all want to be accepted by the community and everyone in it.

Making friends in addiction recovery is particularly important. These friends can provide a number of benefits, including:

Emotional Support

Everyone needs a few friends to lean on for support during tough times. For people in recovery, friends are even more important. A recovering addict may tend to shut him or herself away from people once his or her treatment program is finished. They may have the idea that they “have this covered” or they’re “fine now,” when nothing could be further from the truth.

Physical Help

Friends are important for times when someone needs help with tasks like moving or doing heavy chores. Everyone needs someone they can call on for assistance when they have car trouble or need help in an emergency.

Opinions and Advice

When a person is actively using drugs or alcohol, their lifestyle tends to isolate them from family and friends. Rebuilding these relationships in recovery gives them access to valuable insights about their own behavior. Since each person in the social group has different ideas and opinions, a number of voices can provide input.

Importance of Having Friends in Early Days of Recovery

You may have been using drugs or alcohol for a number of years before getting sober, and learning to live a chemical-free lifestyle can leave you feeling vulnerable. The addiction that you relied on as a coping mechanism to numb emotional pain or provide confidence when you felt unsure of yourself is now gone. You have to step out into the world and deal with other people and situations completely “unarmed.”

It’s exciting, but a bit scary, too. Going to rehab and completing a drug and alcohol treatment program will give you some strong tools that will help you learn to live drug and alcohol-free. The recovering addict needs to keep applying the techniques used in treatment every day, but he or she can definitely use encouragement from friends during the early days of recovery.

Family Plays a Role. If family members have been involved in a counseling program during the addiction treatment process, they have a better understanding of the disease of addiction and how it affected their loved one. The family can be a wonderful source of support for those in early recovery: They can provide daily encouragement and help their loved one stay the course when circumstances come up that make it tempting to slip into old behaviors.

Boredom Can Be a Trigger. It’s important to stay busy in the early days of recovery. Big blocks of time with nothing to do can be dangerous: They give a person plenty of time to think about old behaviors and can lead to thoughts of drinking or using drugs “just this once.”

Those types of thoughts can lead to the slip that starts the proverbial ball rolling toward a full-blown relapse.

Can You Keep your Old Friends After Rehab?

There is no easy way to answer this question. The answer is, “it depends.”

If the old friends are able to accept that you are committed to staying clean and sober and are supportive, then the relationship has a chance of adapting to this change in circumstance. Some friendships become even stronger after someone makes a major change like seeking help for their addiction, while others are unable to weather this type of transformation. The two people involved find that they drift apart.

Don’t Socialize With Friends Who Are Still Using. This rule is non-negotiable. It can be difficult to stay away from old friends and acquaintances who are still actively using drugs or alcohol, but this step is necessary for people who want to have the greatest chance of staying sober.

Look back, and be completely honest with yourself: Was the relationship with fellow drug and alcohol users really one of friendship at all? Were both people treating each other with respect, trusting each other and being vulnerable to each other? Was it really more of a convenience to have someone to get drunk or high with? Was the relationship based on the presence of chemicals more than whether there were common interests or goals? If so, then it wasn’t really a friendship, and deciding not to spend time with that person does not represent a loss.

Someone who has their own substance abuse issue may not want their friends to make positive changes for the better, like going to rehab. The friend who is still living with addiction may want things to go back to their idea of “normal.” If their friends aren’t doing anything to change and get help, then they don’t have to deal with their own substance abuse.

As soon as one friend becomes sober and starts living a more positive lifestyle, it puts pressure on everyone else who is still drinking or using drugs to at least think about making a similar change — and they may not like it.

How to Find Sober Friends in Recovery

Go to 12-Step Meetings or Recovery Group

Attending some type of group should be part of the aftercare suggested by the drug or alcohol treatment center. One advantage to attending a 12-step program or recovery group is that everyone in attendance will immediately understand exactly what it is like to be in recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous is the largest of all the 12-step programs, with over 2.1 million members alone. There is no need to explain the journey or what recovery is like. They all understand.

Since the goal is to meet friends, find one group and attend meetings. Get to know the people in the group who are attending meetings on a regular — or at least a semi-regular — basis.

Participate in Sober Living Activities

Since it’s important to keep busy, especially in early recovery, make a point of scheduling regular social activities. Go online or check a local newspaper for community events advertising sober meet-ups or groups specifically holding sober living activities. Also check out local libraries, houses of worship and online forums to find groups hosting activities.

This is a good way to find fun activities geared for people in various stages of recovery where alcohol will not be served and no one will be using chemicals.

What are good sober living activities for people in recovery? Here are some examples:

  • Going for dinner
  • Going to a sporting event
  • Going hiking
  • Forming a sports team and playing together
  • Visiting a museum or other local points of interest
  • Going to a concert, festival or fair
  • Scheduling a bakery crawl (visiting several bakeries and sampling an item from each one in turn)
  • Ice skating (followed by hot chocolate)
  • Visiting a Halloween Haunted Mansion
  • Going cycling

All of these activities are designed to help people get to know each other naturally while they are enjoying an activity together. It takes the pressure off needing to think of something to say while introducing themselves. All of the participants know they are in recovery but getting together to have fun reminds them that they are much more than their addiction.

It may have been a long time since they have been able to just have fun. Some recovering addicts have forgotten how to do this, which is really unfortunate.

Take a Course

People in recovery are not limited to spending time with fellow addicts when they are looking to meet new friends. It’s important to expand one’s social circle to include others as well. There are a number of interest courses for adults offered across the country.

If cost is a factor, look into courses offered through local municipalities. Ask whether subsidies are available. Public libraries and community centers may host courses at little or no cost.

Choose any type of course you’re interested in. The fellow participants will already either have some knowledge about the topic or at least be interested in learning about it. Baking, gardening, painting, flower arranging, soap making, line dancing, guitar playing, tai chi, yoga and computer classes are all possibilities.


Find an organization that needs help and volunteer some time. There are many types of tasks that can be performed by unpaid workers, and the organizations would be more than happy to have an extra pair of hands. Whatever the skills that someone in recovery has to offer, there is an organization that can put them to good use.

For example, the local animal shelter can use help from volunteers to feed animals and clean cages. Dogs need to be taken for walks. They may also need help from volunteers in the office or greeting potential pet parents.

Local museums often have openings for volunteers to lead tours or welcome guests. This is an excellent way to meet other staffers and members of the public as well.

Special events may need volunteers for various duties. For people in recovery, it’s important to choose ones which are appropriate — for example, skip any events which are sponsored by alcohol companies or where beer or liquor will be served.

Community clean-up days are another opportunity to get out and meet other people while helping the community. The more someone gets involved in these types of events, the easier it will become to talk to other people and get to know them.

Spend Time with Family

Spending time with family can lead to meeting new friends, since family members can often provide introductions to their friends and neighbors. If a friendship doesn’t blossom, visiting family and getting to know people within their circle of acquaintances is good practice for finding friends in recovery.

Some Final Tips for Developing a Strong Sober Support Group

When looking for sober support in recovery, you should put an effort into finding the right type of truly supportive friends. Long-term recovery is possible with the right kind of support.

Ask For Help When Feeling Vulnerable

Family members and old friends can be sources of help, but may not always know exactly what to say to provide support. Look to a therapist, a social worker, a physician or a member of the clergy for assistance as well. Often, trained listeners can provide a different type of support than well-meaning friends or family members can, especially to someone who is in crisis. They can play a role similar to that of the members of a 12-step group, since neither listeners nor 12-step group members are personally involved in the situation.

Trusted co-workers can also form part of a sober support group. It’s possible to meet people on the job and develop friendships that extend past the work day. A supervisor or human resources manager may be someone to speak to confidentially and a source of support as well.

Continue with Follow-up Care After Rehab

This may include attending group therapy sessions or meeting with a counselor on an individual basis. Someone in the follow-up stage may start off on a particular schedule and over time need to attend sessions less often. A regular connection to a counselor is essential, especially in the early stages of recovery after rehab.

Focus on the Qualities of Being a Good Friend to Attract Good Friends

Being polite and approachable is a good start. Not everyone will respond in kind, for various reasons. It’s all right to be somewhat choosy, too: Friendship is not supposed to be a door that people fling wide open to let just anyone in.

Don’t Try to Muddy the Waters with Romance — at Least for a While

In the rush to get back to having a “normal” life again, you might be tempted to start looking for friends and someone to date at the same time. It’s best to hold off on thinking about dating anyone until recovery is no longer something new. Wait at least 12 months before adding that element into the mix.

Juggling a new relationship (which is stressful — often in a good way, but still stressful nonetheless), trying to make new friends and adjusting to a new, sober lifestyle could be too many changes at once. Something may have to give, and it should not be the newfound sobriety. Keep the focus on staying sober, because that has to be your first priority – developing a sober support system and keeping it working well. Romance and relationships will find their place in due course.

Do you or a loved one need help for addiction? Call 12 Keys Rehab today.

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The Addiction Blog