Please Advise: How can I get back into dating after rehab?

I can’t relate to the people I date after coming out of rehab.

Each week, the inbox of our venerable advice columnist, Miss Information, is flooded with queries. And although she makes a valiant effort, she cannot answer them all. To deal with the surplus, we've decided to turn to you. So, don your spectacles and help this woman out. You can give her advice in the comments below, or, if you'd like to share what you wrote with your friends, on our Facebook page.

Dear Nerve,

I got out of Narcotics Anonymous eight months back. I won’t go into details, but it wasn’t for anything light. I’ve been clean since I got out, thanks to some amazing people, but my problem doesn’t really concern my struggles with addiction as much as my struggles with people.

My problem is that I’m finding it difficult to date after rehab. I’ve been advised not to drink, which isn’t such a heavy problem in and of itself — there are plenty of people to date who don’t drink — but that I’m having a hard time... relating, I suppose, to people who haven’t shared my struggle. I don’t usually tell people on the first date, because I have quite a bit of shame over my past, and it makes it difficult talking to people about petty problems and quibbles knowing what I have in my past.

I realize I sound a bit self-centered, and I’m willing to admit that maybe I have some kind of mental block, but how can I get over this? Is this just all part of my re-integration, or am I just a misanthrope? 

— Eight Months Clean and Eight Months Lonely

Commentarium (18 Comments)

Jan 12 12 - 1:21am

bro, why do you feel the need to want to hang out with other rehab people? Half the fun of meeting new people is that they don't get you. Thats the point. You are supposed to go out and get to know them.
They don't know you have been to rehab. telling them won't help you relate any. its your problem. Learn to let it go first. Its in your past, not your present.
Its a perspective thing. I get that small stuff to you isn't a big deal because you have been through worse. Re-frame it to "I don't tend to worry about little things, I like to enjoy the fact that life is good right now" I say that because they don't know to you its small stuff.
Explain that you are in a good wisdomy spot in your life and list important things to you, concerns to you and such. then move on. Rehab doesn't define you. You don't have a magic label on your forehead that says " I'm from Rehab"

Jan 12 12 - 1:56am

Been there. Have you only done NA/focused on the actual substance abuse part of the issue? Because, to be frank, it sounds like you're mid-recovery, not eight months out. You've stayed sober for eight months? That's amazing, and I don't mean to discount or invalidate that accomplishment. But learning to process the day to day difficulties of life -- which definitely includes being able to communicate your experience, and being able to connect with people on their level and respect their lives and experiences -- should be something that's a part of your recovery process. Comparisons in general are a fool's errand, and I'm really pretty surprised they didn't get you out of that habit in rehab; lord knows comparisons like "My recovery is going slower than X person's," "Y person doesn't even deserve to be here the way I do," are pretty commonplace and destructive during recovery. So the person you're dating didn't go to rehab. I'm sure they have had their own struggles, triumphs and failures in their life, and they are to be taken on their own terms; you aren't playing a game of "whose life was shittiest," and there's no prize if you "win."

Dealing with the shame over your past should be a part of that process, too. You shouldn't have to spend the rest of your life being ashamed of it, secretive of it, or, as it were, proud of it -- and I think the "my problems lend my life significance" way, the challenges we've overcome can adopt an aspect of pride. What you should be striving for is a place where you accept, in a non-judgmental way, your time at rehab and your drug addiction, and begin to move on from it.

Furthermore, I'm wondering if it wouldn't be good for you to get a few petty problems of your own. It sounds like a big part of your self-identity is your rehab experience, which is disastrous for self-esteem -- you need to spread that out, and it sounds like you could use a few super-trivial hobbies in your life. It might not be a bad exercise for you to try to enjoy something completely pointless and petty -- a Jersey Shore marathon, or a John Grisham novel, maybe -- without passing any judgment on yourself. Might be a useful step in making that kind of allowance for other people.

Jan 13 12 - 12:11am

Excellent advice. Everything I wanted to say in a much nicer package.

Jan 12 12 - 4:09am
Young TONY

I found that when I was hanging out with my non-junkie friends again after kicking heroin, the most important thing I could do was to just keep talking about anything and everything other than heroin. It's much harder to re-adjust to life among the sober when people are constantly asking you if you're OK because you've been staring into your Dr. Pepper for fifteen minutes. If you focus really hard on talking, on just keeping that conversation going, you'll find that you spend less and less time thinking about using. This applies with people that know that you went through rehab, because those are the ones who will be watching for any sign that you're having a hard time, but it also works with strangers and new people. Even if you have to relate to them in ways that seem shallow compared to the deep bond you had with your needle buddy, the work your brain does just keeping up with the other person and keeping them interested in the non-using you (the only you they've ever known) is enough to counteract the urge to use. Above all, try not to view your drug experience as something that has lowered you (or elevated you; your mixture of shame and narcissism is classic addict) as a human being. You don't have to drain your neurotransmitters dry to hit bottom; many other people have had just as harrowing experiences without spending money on it.

Yeah, you did hard drugs. Yeah, you had a problem with them. That doesn't render everyone else's life bland and uninteresting in comparison to yours, or turn their hardships into "petty problems". Your issue seems to me to be that you only value the company those who have come through what you have, and that's understandable, but not healthy. It's obviously easier to relate to other former users. But what do you have to relate over, if not your overwhelming compulsion to use? The reason drug addiction is so transformative and life-changing is that nothing natural will ever get you high in that way again, not in the way where it renders everything else unimportant. Drugs make the chemical process of happiness something easy to understand and influence, while living without drugs requires more effort to be happy and to appear happy, and that can make interpersonal interaction, or even just getting up in the morning, seem insurmountable. The best way to get through it, I've found, is to surround yourself with people. They make the best distractions. I hope you can find a way to appreciate that.

Jan 12 12 - 11:11am

I imagine NA uses the sponsor system just as AA does. If this is correct, this would be a great thing to talk over with your sponsor. I know that AA recommends that you don't date for at least a year after becoming sober, so your sponsor may tell you the same thing.

When you are ready to date, your sponsor can help you navigate the dating world by figuring out when to tell a potential partner about your recovery status, how to avoid dates that involve drinking, etc.

Most importantly, keep going to meetings. Ask your NA buddies for advice. And give yourself some more time. Best of luck and congratulations on 8 months of sobriety.

Jan 12 12 - 12:32pm

I can't speak to any personal problems with substance abuse, but a close friend has, and he's often expressed irritation at mutual friends making jokes about "I'm such an alcoholic" or "I have a real problem with _________." He likened it to being a veteran. I wouldn't rush the process -- just worry about staying on your own path: get right with yourself, and the rest of the world will follow.

Jan 12 12 - 4:49pm

i didn't spend much time in NA, but i am familiar with AA and, like kel said, they usually recommend staying out of a relationship for the first year. i didn't understand why they made that stipulation until after i finished my first year and i was able to see how much growth happened when i was focusing on my sobriety and not on finding my next ex bf. by not putting energy into dating, i was able to put that time and energy into working my steps and learning more about the root of my issues. i know it sucks. i didn't want to follow "the rules" and i rebelled my fair share, but once i started listening to my sponsor and taking direction from someone who already had some success in sobriety i got better results. upon completing the steps the shame of my previous life went away and it became less of a liability and more of an asset. getting into service helped, too-it helped me develop more self-esteem which just made me a better partner later.

as far as relating to people who haven't gone through what you're going through, that gets easier with time. the truth is someone who has never struggled with addiction is not going to fully "get" you, but it doesn't have to be a huge barrier between you and other people. most of my friends are "normies" and have zero experience with a lot of the things i went through when i was younger. my family doesn't even really have experience, either, but i learned how to have functioning relationships with them regardless.

8 months is a huge accomplishment, so be patient with yourself. recovery is an all-encompassing thing and it doesn't happen instantly. everything really does get easier with time, so allow yourself that. patience, tolerance, and open-minded-ness isn't just for other's for you too. keep trudging, buddy. it gets better.

Jan 12 12 - 7:56pm

Can I just say how useful some of these suggestions are in a wider context? I didn't go to rehab but I dealt with prolonged and severe family issues and I can relate to the letter writer's feelings of not being able to relate to people after stressful events. I could describe it as a 'you weren't there' mentality. I think part of it is appreciating that you're not different or beneath other people. It's just that your mindset makes you hyper-aware of these perceived differences. 'Me vs them'. I found the way forward was to find people I was comfortable with. People who understood what I had been through, acknowledged it, then moved on with it alongside me. It can feel like that's very hard but it's worth aiming for. I hope everything only gets better for you.

Jan 12 12 - 7:56pm

I've been through similar issues in the past as well (leaving rehab after being in it for a year for multiple things) and I found that it drove me nuts to no end when people just "didn't get" why some things/days/situations were harder than others. It took awhile before I realized that, a) people are not mind-readers and cannot tell what I need from them, and b) you cannot understand something you haven't been through, much like I don't understand the complications of living with fibromyalgia, for example.

My advice is pretty simple. First off, avoid dating. Make new friends, yes, especially friends who have active lives: enjoy their work, are in school, have healthy outlooks, interesting hobbies. Work on who you are, what you like, and what you want out of life. Dating and relationships complicate recovery - simple as that.

Secondly, recognize that not everyone you meet needs to understand the depths of your addiction and your past. I think there is a belief in the "mental illness survivor" community that we all implicitly understand each other - and I haven't personally found that to be true. People won't understand your life and your past, and that's OK. They don't need to. As long as friends and future partners ACCEPT your past, and make an effort to show interest, care, and no judgment, in my opinion, that's really the best you can ask for.

Also - I'd try to avoid assuming everyone else has only "petty problems" and yours are the most agonizing. You don't know their lives, just as they don't know yours.

Jan 12 12 - 11:42pm

Find something you are passionate about, or at least get some interests. Don't cling to an identity of your past life of addiction. The whole reason of going to rehab was to get past it.

Jan 13 12 - 12:26am
miss ann

First: congrats on your sobriety. Second: you don't sound ready to date, so don't. You *are* self-centered right now and that's probably for the best as you stay focused on staying clean. But! That's not a mindset that makes you open to date right now. Definitely talk to your sponsor/fellow-recoverers about this issue - they'll likely have some good input.

Jan 14 12 - 1:36am

As someone who is also in recovery (4 years) I found that the easiest way to move forward is to not let your addiction define you. Yeah, you're an addict. There's some things you can't do. But there is so much more to you than just this. I'm not saying you should downplay this within your mind or to others (it's best to let people know, at least in vague terms what your addiction was like) but it shouldn't and doesn't have to define you.

As far as dating, personally, I think you're really jumping the gun. You're obviously not comfortable with yourself yet, so sober or not, you don't really make an ideal date. Spend a year alone, at least. Learn about yourself. There's clearly a lot you don't know about yourself since you can't put your finger on why the dating thing isn't working. Take it easy, and take it easy on yourself.

Jan 14 12 - 1:32pm

You're simply not ready to date. Recovery takes so much of your energy that it's not a good idea to date until at least a year of sobriety.

Jan 16 12 - 3:18am
THat guy

A lot of what people are telling is horse shit. Just say fuck it and enjoy your life. Remember who you were before addiction and get back to watching old movies you use to love or venture out in your city and find people like you

Jan 19 12 - 3:57pm

Shittiest advice ever.

Jan 16 12 - 1:44pm

You can't relate because you are letting this experience of addiction and all that went on there, and the struggle to stop and stay clean, define you. Do you find yourself telling the war stories of addiction as though they are accomplishments? Do you look up to people who have a story that's worse than yours? That was just a chapter of your life and doesn't represent the whole picture of you. You need to process what happened and get comfortable with yourself as a person who had and dealt with that problem, and move on. Or you can be one of these people who can only function at the meetings and not in the real world, people who live their whole lives around the recovery, they let it take them over. You can't look at people who have it easy, thinking they'll never understand your situation and resent made the mistake, they didn't. Go do whatever you enjoyed doing before. Everyone has an innocent true self inside them buried by the dirt of the world, find a way to re-connect with the person you were before addiction.

Feb 17 12 - 3:46am

I don't quite think that you understand what being in NA/AA is all about yet. In your first sentence you wrote, "I got out of Narcotics Anonymous eight months back..." NA and AA aren't programs you quit. It's not a class nor a fix all. YOU have to do work to stay sober. YOU have to do the steps. Over and over and over. It sounds like you are not working a program, and it sounds like you have your priorities in the wrong place. Go to meetings, get a sponsor, work the steps. When you do these things, the rest will fall into place. I know personally that no relationship will work if I don't put my sobriety first. As we say, It works if YOU work it.

Feb 20 12 - 9:00am

hey there. first off, congratulations on eight months clean, that's really a massive accomplishment and you deserve a lot of credit for it. I've never been in AA or NA but I just got out of a relationship with someone who is going through recovery/working the steps in NA. He has over a year sober, and is one of the most amazing people I've met in my life, but we broke up because he simply can't yet maintain his sanity/sobriety while in a relationship. He has to be selfish right now, and figure out who he is before worrying about me, or another girl. That was really hard for me to accept at first, but the truth is, it's simply what he needs. On account of my/his experience, I'd give yourself some more time before jumping back into dating. For now, focus on yourself, and forming friendships and rediscovering the things you enjoy to do sober.