Young people in recovery. Let’s talk about how to talk about them.
Being one myself, I have witnessed, first hand, the responses we receive regarding our sobriety. I have received some amazing advice, encouragement and just pure love from many people, but I have also received some, probably unintentional, less-than nice comments.
There seems to be a pretty distinct split when it comes to who is saying what about my sobriety. There are the responses I get from older non-sober people, and there are the responses I get from older also-sober people. And before I get into the details of what these groups of people are saying, I want to clarify that I truly, in my soul, believe that these comments are almost never made with malicious intent. But I feel as though I owe it to myself and other young sober people to try and educate others on what is and isn’t okay to say to a young person in recovery.
When I think about these less-than helpful comments on my sobriety, an encounter I had with an older family friend comes to mind.
It was my first summer sober, I was about 6 months into recovery and I had just turned 20 years old. In my bum-fuck-in-the-middle-of-nowhere hometown, summertime meant going to the lake and getting ridiculously drunk. So when I was invited to go out on a boat with a big group of people I hesitated before saying yes. At this point in my sobriety I was very aware of how uncomfortable it made me feel to be around people who were drinking, but I also wasn’t yet comfortable with voicing these feelings. I knew this about myself, which meant I knew that accepting this offer meant being trapped on a boat, in the middle of a body of water, surrounded by alcohol. I thought of all the reasons staying home would be more beneficial for me, and then accepted the offer to go anyway.
Flash forward to about 5 hours later and I was being asked the inevitable question, “why did you quit drinking?” on a boat, in the middle of a body of water, surrounded by alcohol. This question used to send me into panic mode, especially when it came from an older individual, and it was coming from an older family friend. I managed to put my brave face on and answer the question as honestly as I was capable of answering it in that scenario. I told them, when it came down to it, I just couldn’t control the amount I drank when I drank, so I had to quit. And to that they replied, “Oh! Well, that’s just because you haven’t been taught the proper way to drink. I can teach you!” And they said it like they had just solved a puzzle. Like they had saved me with those simple words. But what they didn’t understand was that those words were actually destroying me, not saving me. Because I knew they weren’t true, I did, but I so badly wanted to believe them. I so badly wanted to let them “teach me the right way to drink.” I so badly wanted to get drunk on that boat, I so badly wanted to believe that there was a “correct” way to drink and I so badly wanted to give up on sobriety in that moment.
I am still in awe of the girl I was that day, the girl who said no, even when she so desperately wanted to say yes. And I am so incredibly thankful for her.
And this is just one example of some of the comments I have received from older non-sober individuals. Others include things like: “Oh, you’re way too young to know if you have a drinking problem!” and “When I was your age I was crazy! You’ll grow out of it.” What I want others to understand is that these types of comments are so insanely dangerous for a young sober person to hear. As young people, we are taught to listen to our “elders” and to always respect their opinions (especially in the south where I am from). At some point, we, as young people, shift this mindset. Sometimes it happens very early in life, sometimes much later in life, but at some point we come to the realization that adults don’t actually know everything, and we figure out sometimes their opinions are just plain shit, but what I can’t stress enough is how incredibly difficult it is to have to make this shift in early sobriety. Because when the thing these older individuals are saying is the one thing you so badly want to believe to be true, it is especially hard to see their opinion for what it truly is—bull shit.
Because when it comes down to it, I quit drinking so I would stay alive. It was a life or death situation. My life was on the line, and yet I still had adults telling me it was fine—to stop worrying so much about it. And sometimes I would desperately love to believe that it was fine, to stop worrying so much, to ignore the gut feeling I have when I think about alcohol and to pick that drink up. Which is why telling these adults no is one of the things I am most proud of myself for. Because it’s hard as fuck.
The other less-than helpful comments I get from older people on my sobriety normally come from sober people themselves. And, for these, I am positive that they are not meant with malicious intent. I know in my heart and brain that these comments come from a place of love and support, but I’m here to try and explain why they don’t always feel that way.
The absolute biggest response I have gotten from sober people about my sobriety has been something along the lines of: “You are so strong, I just wish I had gotten sober as young as you, it would have saved me a life of traumas.” This statement really packs a punch for me. My immediate reaction is to reply with a scream of, “but look at all these terrible things it did to ME. I didn’t have a choice, I HAD to quit. You don’t understand, I have struggled TOO.” I never actually say this because I don’t want to play the comparison game, I don’t think anyone does. But what I do want is to feel like my struggles are also validated. And these comments feel invalidating. They make me feel like what I have suffered could never compare to that of what older people have gone through, because, maybe, they suffered for longer. And in the reasonable place of my brain I know this isn’t true. I know what I have gone through, I know what led me to quit drinking, and I know it is valid and I know my story is just as worthy as that of someone’s who is older, but it doesn’t stop the need of and want for validation.
Because as of right now I don’t have a young and sober community. I have about 5 other young sober people I interact with online (who I love so so so fucking much if you’re reading this hey bitches y’all real ones), but the rest are older sober people (who I ALSO love y’all real ones too, okay), so it’s hard to feel understood in my personal struggles. We may all struggle with substance abuse, and we may have other similarities, but I can’t connect with them on age. And when you’re 21 age is a huge deal. It just is. I am young, and just because I’m sober that doesn’t mean I am not still a self-involved young asshole, who desperately wants to be seen and understood, and who also feels like NO ONE could EVER understand sometimes. Because when you’re young, sometimes you just really need validation from older people.
At the end of the day, it is all just about how we talk to one another. Let’s stop invalidating young people’s struggles across all medians, and let’s just be mindful about what we are saying before we say it.
Being young and sober at the same time can feel very isolating, so if you’re a young and sober person reading this, just know I am rooting for you. I see you and I hear you, and you are never-ever alone.