The term dry drunk is a slang expression infamously known in the sober community. It describes a person who is ‘dry’ and no longer drinks or abuses drugs, but continues to behave in dysfunctional ways. While in their active addiction they often experienced negative trains of thought, attitudes, feelings and actions. Simply removing alcohol or drugs without changing these underlying factors is likely to produce what is often referred to as a ‘dry drunk syndrome’. Another catchphrase used in the sober community is “untreated alcoholism.” Both terms refer to the same symptoms, and these risky conditions can traditionally mark the initial stages of relapse.
The dry drunk syndrome is best described as someone who fits one or more of the following conditions. A person with chemical dependency issues who has given up alcohol and drugs, but has made no internal emotional or behavioral changes. Essentially, the only difference in these individuals is they are abstinent and are no longer abusing a substance.
It is important to recognize an individual’s old ways of thinking and acting. A lack of progression continues despite being abstinent from alcohol and drugs. Sober alcoholics and drug addicts not in recovery often rely on commonly distorted ways of thinking, which create their negative thoughts and often linked to their depression and anxiety. Negative thoughts are accompanied by negative feelings. Many practice isolation behavior and find life generally difficult, experiencing a sense of uneasiness and restlessness with life.
An alcoholic / addict who has not worked on their underlying emotional issues or behaviors will continue to experience negative attitudes and behaviors. These symptoms despite being abstinent impact their quality of life and often the people around them.
The dry drunk may display superiority or low self-esteem issues. Superiority or grandiosity basically means a return to a self-centered, ‘the world revolves around’ me attitude. Chemically dependent people are self-centered in the extreme, as any therapist or psychiatrist is quick to observe. With grandiosity, one is setting themselves up to be the center of attention; either superior to everyone around them, or by playing the victim. Either way, they distance themselves from the people and world around them.
Self-esteem issues are found in the core belief of how one view themselves internally. People with untreated alcoholism often feel that they are not ‘good enough’ by comparing themselves to others and are plagued with ANTS – Automatic Negative Thoughts.
The following are examples of behavior that are common with people with untreated alcoholism.
The dry drunk may display impulsivity. One of the most common attitudes or observable behaviors of people with addiction problems is poor impulse control and impatience. They tend to do what they want, when they want, with little regard for self-harm or the hurt caused towards others.
When impulsivity is combined with grandiosity, attention-seeking behavior accelerates rapidly. Warped expectations that characterize virtually every alcoholic and drug addict feed this impulsiveness. Chemical dependency instills a taste for immediate relief. Years of alcohol and drug abuse almost mold it into addiction’s nature.
The dry drunk may display negative judgment. This may be one of the most destructive mental aspects of addiction. Alcoholics and addicts tend to exhibit particularly negative perspectives about themselves, others and the world about them.
People who judge another as being ‘better than or less than,’ create a situation where their internal condition is manipulated in much the same way a drink or drug functioned. On the other hand, if a person judges others or themselves as ‘falling short or less than,’ they can feel bitter and cultivate resentment.
In both cases, people with chemical dependency are at risk of separating themselves through mental isolation. This is another reason why drug addiction and alcoholism are commonly referred to as mind-powered diseases.
The dry drunk may display complacency. This is not only an attitude of somebody with untreated alcoholism, but is a red flag warning sign of someone who dangerously treading the path to relapse. An important facet of being in active recovery is just that - being active. It does not matter how quickly an alcoholic or drug addict progresses in recovery, just that progress is being made. It is easy to regress into laziness or disinterest, and return to addictive behaviors.
The dry drunk may display negativity in general. If negativity sets in, it is very important to determine if any underlying issues are present. What’s going on beneath the surface? Is it anger and resentment, or is some person, place or thing not working out? Excessive anxiety and worry begin to seep into various threads of life. In these situations, old defense mechanisms can begin to show up such as minimizing, rationalizing and denying problems.
One of the most common reasons for relapse is stress caused by anxiety. High stress consumes mental and emotional energy. It is virtually impossible to retain feelings of happiness and serenity when anxiety permeates life. Some destructive behaviors and actions that can result from the dreaded dry drunk thinking are restlessness, irritability and discontent.
Little things may start become annoying. One begins to look for differences in the people around them, which can cause a feeling of separation. This is often the first stage in the relapse process. It is also the trickiest a person fails to recognize that ‘separation mentality’ is present.
Feelings of being bored or dissatisfied with life begin to creep in. One becomes easily distracted from productive tasks. Nothing is exciting and what is referred to as the “pink cloud” is over. The initial euphoria of becoming abstinent is replaced with disillusionment. People may start to wonder why they got sober in the first place.
It is my belief that for those in long-term recovery, complacency is the biggest demon one must fight. On the flip side, I believe the most viable asset one can have in recovery is persistence. When life appears to be working well, the temptation is to lose focus on growing in recovery.
Many sick people stop taking medication once they start feeling better, only to see their illness reemerge. The same principle holds for those on the sober path. Don’t stop taking the medication offered through recovery.
Another risk experienced by the dry drunk is they begin to engage in ‘euphoric recall.' Euphoric recall only remembers the good times when using drugs and alcohol. People remember how much fun they had when using, how much more social, clever, witty and awesome they were. It really is a journey into the past’s fantasyland.
At the same time, the alcoholic / addict also chooses to ignore all of their misery that resulted from alcohol and drug abuse. They tend to forget the times where they made a total fool of themselves at parties or social events. Perhaps they ignore memories of legal troubles.
A simple risk-benefit exercise can end the process of euphoric recall quickly. Writing and remembering the negative consequences, and most alcoholics and drug addicts have a laundry list of negative consequences is helpful.
Engaging in magical thinking is when unrealistic expectations and fanciful dreams begin to appear. This characteristic is similar to euphoric recall, but not necessarily confined to past events. Magical thinking can involve unrealistic expectations, unreasonable goals, and simply believing that things will occur if they are wished for hard enough. One example of magical thinking might be thinking that if I stay sober, my girlfriend will come back to me.
Becoming clean and sober is definitely a step in the right direction; however, there is a good chance that wreckage of the past will take time to heal and resolve. This starts to move into the realm of having unrealistic expectations. People who are newly sober want things to happen quickly. However, without daily action and continual self-improvement, not much will change.
Final Thoughts on Dry Drunk Syndrome.
Looking back at the list of attitudes and the actions dry drunk syndrome can generate, it is easy to see how this condition is nothing more than regression to thoughts and behaviors exhibited during active alcoholism and drug addiction. Life becomes more stressful. The craving for alcohol and drugs can begin to grow. This increases the dry drunk’s irritability and demanding behavior and often makes others around the dry drunk feel that they were more tolerable when they were drinking!
If one can recognize the dry drunk symptoms, then the problem can be met head on. If the symptoms are not recognized and acknowledged they become a significant problem, and relapse may just be around the corner.
Below are some of the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that I have observed in my clients and that they have shared with me over the years.
1) Thoughts About Associated Pleasures:They start thinking constantly about pleasures associated with drinking. Though you are aware that you have had problems with alcohol, still you imagine that drinking was a pleasant experience.
2) Fear About Well Being: They feel a lack of confidence and extreme anxiety in life without alcohol. If there is any stress, they seem to want a quick fix.
3) Loneliness Leading to Depression: They experience intense loneliness they miss the days when they were drinking with their friends, and even when they were drinking alone. All of their highs had been in relation with alcohol and drugs. They had cut themselves off from many social relationships to be with their bottle or pills. Now they are alone but without their ‘medication’.
4) Irritation and Anger: They consider staying away from drinking or drugging a major sacrifice. They think everyone and everything else should conform to their expectations. This, naturally, does not happen and this leads to stress, anger and frustration.
5) Impatience: Things cannot happen soon enough for them. They can’t wait to get their suspension order revoked, or the promotion that was delayed.
6) Compulsive Behavior: They try many other mood-altering activities. They may talk continuously in the presence of others or keep absolutely quiet. They might make impulsive and impractical purchases to impress friends or family. They might take to gambling or some other route of escape from reality.
7) Self Pity: This is the biggest and most negative hole many can get into. There is a negative thought they have been singled out for injustice.
8) Tunnel Vision: They try to drown themselves in work they become the workaholic and escape from social or family obligations. Or they shy away from responsibilities at work and try to integrate themselves with another aspect of life. They do not look at the facets of their life with balance.
9) Denials and Over Confidence: They deny that they have to make lifestyle changes. They deny that they have to change their attitude to life. They do not want to discuss their problems. They boast that they have kicked their habit. Quite recklessly, they often will even say that they can drink without getting addicted again. They fail to see that this may be the ultimate setup for failure.
It is important to point out here, that not all people that embrace recovery are members of a 12-step program. I have many clients past and present that now live their life in recovery, that did not attend a 12-step program. Instead through psychotherapy they have learned to understand what their underlying issue was that caused them to self medicate with their drug of choice – their co-occurring disorder.
To date I have never had a person walk through my door that was not self medicating an underlying psychological issue. Whether the issue is centered on depression, anxiety, trauma, self-esteem issues or a painful childhood it is important to treat the co-occurring disorder if one is expected to give up their drug of choice. In addition to weekly therapy, all my clients have completed a specially designed version of step work that is psychological based to address their co-occurring disorders.
Thom Kessler, LMFT, RAS
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Marriage & Family Therapist and Registered Addiction Specialist