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"I Didn't Know You Had a Problem!" and 4 Other Things to Stop Saying to Someone Who's Sober

Folks get sober for all sorts of reasons: Some deal with substance abuse issues while for others, alcoholism runs in their family and they want to stop the cycle. Because the experience of getting and staying sober can vary so much from person to person, it can be difficult, especially if you haven’t had firsthand experience with substance abuse, to know what’s OK or not OK to say to someone about their sobriety. That’s why we caught up with Merrick Murdock, Director of Addiction & Recovery for All Sober, for five things you should never say to a person who’s sober, no matter how innocent or well-meaning your intentions are.

Meet the Expert

Merrick Murdock is the Director of Addiction & Recovery for All Sober, a platform that provides all the resources, connections, information and inspiration to sustain a sober life. She's living in long-term recovery from alcoholism (14 years), certified as a peer support specialist and is also listed with the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health as a qualified mental health professional.

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1. “I didn’t know you had a problem.” 

Just because someone hasn’t publicly displayed difficulties associated with drinking doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling, and saying you wouldn't have known they were struggling, Murdock tells us, can make the sober person feel awkward or defensive or like they need to share deep and dark secrets that are uncomfortable. Beyond that, telling someone you never would've known they had issues with drinking could make them second guess how serious said issues were and are. Murdock explains, “The longer someone has been abstinent or sober, the greater the chance that doubt might set in, causing someone to think their use was not that bad. Minimizing risk can be a setup for relapse or return to use, and that is dangerous for someone who has a substance use disorder.”

2. “Do you feel like you’re missing out?”

Murdock explains that FOMO often prevents people with a substance use disorder from seeking help in the first place or, in the case of someone newly sober, creates a sense of doubt about their choice to abstain. “Addiction causes people to see themselves as different, not fitting in, not being able to be like others, and a question in the form of a judgement can further test a sober person’s sensitivities or insecurities,” she notes. “It also sends a message that drinking or doing drugs is the only way to have fun or loosen up in social situations.” Being sober, she tells us, is about discovering that life experiences are just as fun minus the negative effects of alcohol or drugs, adding that learning how to navigate life sober is like learning a brand-new coping skill set—hard but rewarding on many distinct levels. 

3. “So You’re an Alcoholic?”

As previously noted, there are many reasons a person might choose not to drink, meaning it’s important not to make assumptions. “A question like this might put someone in an uncomfortable position to discuss issues with which they are currently struggling to address,” Murdock says. “For those questioning their alcohol consumption or in the early phases of addiction recovery, they may have yet to come to terms or have fully defined what they perceive as a problem.” She also explains that labeling someone as an alcoholic can be very stigmatizing—especially if they’re early in their sobriety journey. “Even though sober curious trends have arisen and dialogue about alcoholism and addiction has become more open, labels such as ‘alcoholic’ and ‘addict’ are still associated with a negative bias. It’s important to remember that shame and stigma comes from labels placed upon people.”

4. “Will you ever drink again, or do you have to stay sober for the rest of your life?”

“[This] is a complex question, and no one can be expected to predict the future,” Murdock admits, noting that it’s the equivalent of asking someone after a bad breakup (because, yes, giving up drugs or alcohol is breaking up a relationship) if they’ll ever want to fall in love again. “Someone may enjoy being sober and hope it continues, but putting too much pressure regarding permanence of commitment may provoke anxiety.” Unsurprisingly, there can be a number of emotional challenges when first navigating sobriety, which is why she says phrases like “easy does it” or “one day at a time” are common in recovery. If a friend or acquaintance is sober, focus on the present rather than asking them about hypotheticals.

5. “How long have you been sober?”

Murdock explains that questions like this can make a sober person feel the need to justify personal decisions. “Recovery from addiction can be a tough road [that’s] often filled with false starts or relapses before a measure of sustained sobriety can be achieved,” she emphasizes. “Relapse does happen, and many struggle with the associated pain of perceived personal failure.” Someone’s day of sobriety might feel like a triumph to them but could be judged by the outside world as not good enough or worth celebrating yet. It’s more helpful to think about another person’s sobriety as quality over quantity: “It takes a lot of one days to add up to a period of significance, and it really comes down to the quality of how someone feels and experiences life as a measure of what has transpired because of staying sober.”

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