Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Facing The Old Drinking Buddies: The Last Hurdle

June 17, 1996

Jake is an alcoholic. He finally admitted his problem and went for treatment. Now the time is approaching when he will be going back to his home in a small rural community. The treatment staff has encouraged Jake to drop his drinking crowd and to find a new group of friends who will genuinely support his efforts at recovery and sobriety.

Jake and his drinking buddies have been together since childhood. Switching from a group of heavy drinking friends to an abstaining group won’t be easy. The abstaining group has been together for years too.

When someone returns from treatment, every aspect of their life is under public scrutiny to see what changes actually take place. The community resists the idea of change and wants to keep the old labels and pigeonholes intact. Understandably, the nondrinkers will be wary until they are confident that Jake's changes are for real. It won't happen right away.

Letting go. The worst part for Jake is the risk of losing his best buddy. The treatment program did their best to prepare him for the possibility it might happen. They called it grief work. Giving up the bar scene will be hard. To Jake, it’s the best thing he ever had. No doubt about it, he loved it. He loved his drinks. He loved the action. Most of all, Jake enjoyed his friends.

One tempting path for Jake is to try to hang around the old friends, drink coke, near beer, or ginger ale and keep sober. This is a high risk strategy. Jake may attempt controlled drinking but find that his drinking quickly goes back to pre-treatment levels. Some people literally choose to die to keep and be with their friends.

Jake may feel like he has to prove he still likes his old friends by being around them and their drinking. For someone just out of treatment it is a tall order to pull off. The decision to be in a bar is best left for future when the resolve and confidence to abstain are much stronger.

Facing pressure. Heavy drinking crowds are known for the pressure they put on each other to support each others' drinking and social life. Jake's decision to stop drinking will call into question their behavior. For hard core drinkers, getting together has been an excuse for drinking. Goodwill and friendship don't go far if drinking isn't involved.

They'll try to recruit Jake back into the group. "You can have just one." Behind Jake's back, they may insinuate that he is a "wimp" or a "goody" who thinks he is better than they are. Without the drinking, Jake may pick up on these feelings of rejection.

Some will be afraid Jake might preach to them. When they find Jake does not bring up the subject of alcoholism, his drinking buddies will relax and be more comfortable around him.

Keeping his real friends. Jake’s friends have missed him. They miss his stories and humor. The old group may not want to give him up, even if he is trying to be sober. He may receive a fair amount of support from his fellow drinkers in his intention to be sober. Some of Jake's friends will coax and tease him but with no real intent to sabotage or undermine his decision. Jake will find a few "brothers' keepers" among his old drinking buddies.

Some friends may be proud of the changes Jake is making. It helps them take a look at their own drinking. "My gosh! If Jake has a drinking problem, maybe I do too!" Peer pressure keeps them drinking. If one of their group goes for treatment, it takes the pressure off. It gives them permission to take that step too.

Old jokes are boring. Without being intoxicated, the old crowd and the bar scene will begin to lose their appeal. Eventually Jake will find out how boring it is to listen to the same guys tell the same stories over and over again. They think they are funny when they are really being abusive and obnoxious. The humor and antics of old friends will be entirely predictable and even offensive. Unless Jake gets intoxicated with the rest of them, it won't be the same.

Finding a new social life. What about Jake's wife? Jake may be ready for a change in social groups but his wife may not be. The social losses and pressures can be just as great on her. It will be a lonely life for both of them until new social niches are found.

How do they address the disruption of social life as a couple? How will both their social needs be met? Or will they withdraw and hibernate? This is new territory . . . finding new recreation and leisure activities that suit them both as individuals and a couple. The new lifestyle will involve learning to feel comfortable without the continuous round of social activities enjoyed by the drinking crowd.

The local AA and Alanon groups will offer them an abstaining support group. Members socialize and have fun together. They are an alternative from the drinking or non-drinking crowds.

It may take a couple of years of sobriety, but the bar scene eventually becomes repulsive. Then Jake will find himself saying, "I can't stand to be around a bunch of 'stinking' drunks." His family and new friends will offer a richer social life than his old drinking buddies ever could.