When you first hear the term “dry drunk,” you’re likely to be confused. How can people be drunks while staying sober? And isn’t the goal of alcohol addiction treatment to stop drinking?
The immediate goal of either outpatient or inpatient alcohol rehab indeed is to stop drinking. Recovery can’t proceed without attaining this worthy and respectable goal. This first step toward recovery underscores people’s determination to chart life-affirming, constructive paths of behavior.
Recovering alcoholics may think that their problems will miraculously be solved if they can just stop drinking. However, staying sober is just the first of many steps toward complete recovery. The road to recovery is littered with potholes, and one of the potholes that pops up may be the “dry drunk” syndrome.
The History of the “Dry Drunk” Syndrome
The term “dry drunk syndrome” was first coined by the 12-Step Alcoholics Anonymous program’s creators. Author R.J. Solberg defined the term in his landmark 1970 book, The Dry Drunk Syndrome, as “the presence of actions and attitudes that characterized the alcoholic prior to recovery.”
Individuals who wrestle with the dry drunk syndrome have stopped drinking, but otherwise, their lives are the same. They haven’t let go of unhealthy internal and external habits, and their relationships with loved ones may still be strained. Although they’re no longer turning to alcohol for solace, they’re still carrying the emotional baggage that led them to abuse alcohol in the first place. In that sense, you can think of the dry drunk syndrome as a type of alcohol use disorder.
People who have undergone inpatient or outpatient alcohol rehab are less likely to suffer from the dry drunk syndrome. Under professional guidance, they’ve at least begun tackling the root causes of their alcoholism. However, those who quit on their own are more likely to develop dry drunk syndrome.
Unfortunately, some members of the 12-Step program don’t think there’s such a thing as a dry drunk, so they use the term mockingly. However, the dry drunk syndrome is a recognized psychological phenomenon. It’s not a sign of weakness or of not sticking to the program. It can happen to any recovering alcoholic.
The good news is that dry drunk syndrome can be overcome. It will take hard emotional work, though, to dig down to the root of alcohol addiction.
Signs and Symptoms
When people experience dry drunk syndrome, they don’t wear signs advertising that fact. You’ll have to figure out if they’re struggling with the syndrome based on behavioral clues. According to Psychology Today, red flags that indicate a person is struggling with dry drunk syndrome include:
- Resenting friends or family
- Feeling angry and cynical about recovery
- Feeling depressed, anxious, and fearful of relapse
- Envying friends or family who aren’t struggling with addiction
- Romanticizing their drinking days
- Being self-obsessed
- Replacing alcohol addiction with new vices such as promiscuous sex, overeating, or excessive internet use
Dry drunk syndrome operates nearly exclusively within a person’s mind. Therefore, psychologists maintain that working on the “inner life” is the key to surmounting dry drunk syndrome—a song they’ve been singing since 1955.
Comprehensive treatment for dry drunk disorder includes therapy and recovery programs like 12-Step groups. The treatments and programs will help people discover why they turned to alcohol at the start. Armed with knowledge, they can then begin to repair the ravages of alcoholism.
The Psychology of the Dry Drunk Syndrome
When people enter treatment for alcohol addiction or stop drinking on their own, their loved ones breathe a sigh of relief. Without alcohol in their loved ones’ lives, they think everything will be fine.
The reality, though, is that people struggling with alcoholism didn’t feel fine in the first place. With their security blanket of alcohol snatched away from them, recovering alcoholics are likely to feel even less fine, at least at first.
People suffering from dry drunk syndrome are likely to feel overwhelmed, as though they’re gritting their teeth to make it through life without their substance of choice. They can feel somewhat cheated, too, because they thought their hardest work would be detoxing from alcohol. Stopping alcohol consumption and going through the physical rigors of withdrawal is a critical part of the healing process. However, the inner work of dealing with the issues that led to alcohol abuse is often the toughest part of the equation.
The road to recovery will not be the same for everyone. Recovery is a deeply personal and sometimes excruciatingly painful process. During recovery, people must conquer their inner demons and learn to identify their triggers and motivations.
A 2016 article in the Australian journal Addiction Research and Theory explains: “Recovery is best understood as a personal journey of socially negotiated identity transition that occurs through changes in social networks and related meaningful activities.” In other words, people in recovery aren’t just saying “no” to alcohol. They’re also realizing that they need to bid farewell to people, places, and activities that made up a large part of their lives. They will have to replace these now-out-of-bounds people, places, and activities with something else.
Recovering alcoholics have to change their very identities, and they have to do it without the crutch of a substance they’ve relied on for every aspect of their lives. Having to negotiate this identity transition can explain why individuals might develop dry drunk syndrome.
How Can Loved Ones Help?
Those who battle dry drunk syndrome can sometimes start to feel discouraged with what they consider to be a failed effort at sobriety. Therefore, they’re more likely to stop taking treatment efforts seriously or stop treatment altogether. These actions, though, are likely to derail their sobriety and undo all the hard work they’ve done up until that point.
What should you do if your friend or family member exhibits dry drunk syndrome? The best thing you can do is to lovingly encourage them to hang in there and continue treatment. Perhaps you can share an article like this with them to let them know that they’re not alone, and that there’s hope at the end of the tunnel.
You can also help steer your loved one toward healthier, more stimulating behavior. Since most people fighting dry drunk syndrome also suffer from depressive tendencies, they have difficulty finding activities they enjoy. You can help them rediscover old hobbies they once loved or introduce them to new experiences.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Taking a class to learn new things and meet new people.
- Exploring spiritual teachings and practices.
- Learning a new hobby
- Spending time with family and friends.
- Participating in group therapy.
Friends and family members can support loved ones working through dry drunk disorder by reflecting on how positive life can be without addiction. Hang out with them, engage with them, and be their cheerleader. Despite their protestations to the contrary, they need this support. Knowing that somebody is rooting for them and holding them accountable, they may find it easier to push on and continue the hard but necessary work of recovery.
Finding Treatment Options
The depression that usually accompanies dry drunk syndrome can make people think that going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or therapy is a waste of time. They may argue that since meetings don’t make them feel better, there’s no need to go. Besides, they’re on the wagon. They may feel miserable, but they’re sober, and that’s good enough.
This type of thinking is a clear indication of dry drunk syndrome. It’s a pattern that can benefit from ongoing individual or group therapy.
Group therapy is especially helpful. A Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration study identified reasons why group therapy is useful. This type of treatment provides people with support and information, and it can also inspire hope.
Hope is key to group therapy. Participants can be inspired by other people’s experiences or progress and conclude that they can do it, too. When people experience dry drunk syndrome, they often look at life through depression-tinted glasses, so a sense of positivity and encouragement can help set them on the path to recovery.
Despite the advantages of group therapy, it’s not for everyone. Some people prefer to battle their demons in individual therapy. Individual outpatient rehab offers the time, the place, and the space to reflect upon what’s going wrong and how to make it go right. As people work through the frustrations of their daily lives, they gain insights on the roots of their alcoholism and how to cope in a healthier manner.
The dry drunk syndrome is a verified psychological phenomenon in which people who have physically stopped drinking still live their lives as they did pre-recovery. To overcome this alcohol use disorder, people must uncover the root causes of their alcoholism.
Living with the dry drunk syndrome can be hard for those who suffer from it and their loved ones. However, like other psychological phenomena, the dry drunk syndrome can be overcome with proper assistance and support.
Stonegate Center is a faith-based alcohol and drug abuse treatment center based in Azle, Texas. Our separate treatment facilities for men and women provide safe and healing environment where our residents can receive guidance and achieve physical freedom from addiction. Stonegate Center stresses community, accountability, and fellowship. Serving the communities of Azle, Fort Worth and Dallas, Texas, and beyond.