For those of us who are free of mental illness, the concept that alcoholism is a clinically confirmed sickness may feel unjustifiable. Non-alcoholics often have difficulty comprehending the cunning, baffling, and powerful nature of alcoholism. It can be hard to grasp its insidious capacity in leading its victims toward jails, institutions, or death. Thus, interactions with an alcoholic friend fresh out of rehab may feel awkward.

When speaking with a recovering alcoholic, it’s normal to find yourself pulling anecdotes from the sky to try to fill the conversation with unrelated topics. Thankfully there are a handful of simple guidelines to keep in mind that may help ease the uncertainty. Refer to this list often — hopefully it will preclude you from feeling completely in the dark when it comes to interacting with an alcoholic who has undergone treatment.

Basics first. Talk to the alcoholic like you would anybody else. Your friend is a mortal being just like you. You differ in that he struggles with an obsession of the mind, a physical allergy, and a spiritual malady. In terms of the latter, through treatment he or she most likely formed a conception of a higher power and sustained conscious contact with the God of his/her understanding. Don’t fret; AA is not a religious cult. Spiritual sickness is a component of the disease, however, and it is natural for your friend to have a new relationship with a higher power upon exiting rehab.

If your friend had diabetes or osteoporosis would you feel differently around them after they returned from a four-week wellness program? Probably not. If you and your alcoholic friend John have always bonded over sports and seafood, by all means, pick up related conversations where you left off.

In terms of questioning the alcoholic about his stint in rehab, keep it simple. Focusing excessively on his length of sobriety and his meticulous action plan for staying booze-free “til the end of time (AA’s motto is “one day at a time” for a reason!) can be tastefully avoided. While in a rehab center, the alcoholic is surrounded by other alcoholics, AA slogans, anonymous fellowship text, life lessons, and much more. When he’s finally free of the 24/7 emphasis on recovering from alcoholism, chances are he’s amped to talk about “normal” things. However, everyone’s different in that regard.

Going forward, if you’re close with the alcoholic, try to keep in mind the following:

  • Differentiate between helping and enabling. In light of a relapse, providing your friend with loads of cash (like you may have provided pre-treatment) is probably not the best move. When in doubt, ask yourself if the help you’re about to provide, such as paying off this month’s credit card debt, is something he could do for himself if he was sober. If the answer is yes, you’d be doing both yourself and the alcoholic a disservice by following through.
  • Practice detachment. In other words, try to view the alcoholism as separate from the friend in which the disease resides. If it helps, consider the person chemically compounded with two brain hemispheres -the alcoholic brain, and the logical brain. When you start hearing the alcoholic brain talking (such as justifying a recent relapse, or obsessing about the quantity of wine to be served at the upcoming party), attribute the behavior to their alcoholic circuitry and separate it from their lucid self.
  • Don’t blow up or react emphatically to a relapse. If John goes on a drunken, week-long bender, throwing up your hands and yelling at him may actually push him away into isolation and social withdrawal. The stronger your reaction, the more the alcoholic will focus on your words and anger. Putting on a poker face when your friend tells you he went out and got sloshed last night forces him to analyze his part in the relapse, rather than harp on details of your argument. In this vein, the alcoholic cannot abdicate responsibility onto someone else. He may look for a chance to oscillate energy away from his gut feelings surrounding the relapse — don’t give him fuel for the fire.
  • Set healthy boundaries. There’s no need to sit the alcoholic down in an interrogation room and figuratively hammer them on help patterns you will and will not extend should their sobriety slip. However, you can uphold a light, congenial conversation with your alcoholic friend post-treatment as a means for highlighting your newfound boundaries. Simply relay the lengths you’re willing to go to in light of an unlikely relapse. For example, “I will not bail you out of jail should an arrest occur. I cannot loan you money under any circumstances. I can no longer be an on-call babysitter for your child should things change for you,” and so forth. Remind him that the boundaries are not a form of punishment, they are a byproduct of healthy differentiation.

Relapse post-rehab happens in statistically high doses. Remaining unenthused requires your friend to dig deep about what led to the relapse and examine his intrinsic impetus for going out. It’s natural to want to “save” or “help” your friend if you witness is hardships after he falls off the wagon. Stay strong by reminding yourself of the founding principle upon which Al-Anon is based –the only behaviors you can control are your own. Focus on being a good friend without enabling alcoholic actions. Last of all, remember that setting healthy boundaries and loving your friend with alcoholism are not mutually exclusive.