What Is a Dry Drunk?

3 min read · 6 sections

When a loved one enters treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction, the goal is simple: stop drinking or using drugs.

This first step toward recovery marks a turning point in the person’s struggle – a willingness to break away from a pattern of destructive and dangerous behavior, and it is certainly grounds for respect and acknowledgement.

Those who haven’t dealt with addiction firsthand may not understand the long road that lies ahead. The person may think that once they stop using or drinking, their life will miraculously be better. However, recovery is often not that simple. The road to sustained recovery is often bumpy, and one issue that may arise is known dry drunk syndrome.

A History of the ‘Dry Drunk’

The term dry drunk syndrome was originally coined by the creators of the 12-Step program, Alcoholics Anonymous. Author R.J. Solberg defined the term in his 1970 book, The Dry Drunk Syndrome, as “the presence of actions and attitudes that characterized the alcoholic prior to recovery.”

Someone struggling with dry drunk syndrome may still maintain strained relationships with their loved ones. They may still suffer from unhealthy habits, both internally and externally. In short, while they may have quit drinking, the individual has yet to deal with the emotional baggage that led them to alcohol in the first place. Dry drunk syndrome is more common among individuals who quit their addiction on their own, as they do not have a professional support team to guide them through this difficult change in their life. Those who undergo professional treatment for alcohol abuse and addiction are less likely to develop the issue.

While the phrase dry drunk has been used with derision by some members of the 12-Step community, it is important to recognize that dry drunk syndrome is a legitimate psychological phenomenon that can happen to anyone who is struggling with an addiction. It is not a result of “not working the program,” nor is it a sign of some innate failing within the individual.

Dry drunk syndrome can be overcome; it simply requires a willingness to uncover the root of one’s addiction.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Dry Drunk Syndrome?

There are a few telltale signs that indicate a person is struggling with dry drunk syndrome. Psychology Today outlines these signs as:

  • Resentment toward friends or family
  • Anger and negativity surrounding recovery
  • Depression, anxiety, and fear of relapse
  • Jealousy of friends who are not struggling with addiction
  • Romanticizing their drinking days
  • Being self-obsessed
  • Replacing the addiction with a new vice (e.g., sex, food, and internet use)

Dry drunk syndrome operates almost exclusively within a person’s mind. In fact, psychologists since 1955 have maintained that working on one’s “inner life” is the key to overcoming the dry drunk mentality. Through comprehensive treatment that includes therapy as well as recovery programs like 12-Step groups, a person can discover what led them to drugs or alcohol at the start.

With this knowledge in hand, they can begin to repair the damage the addiction has caused.

The Psychology of Dry Drunk Syndrome

Many addictions spring from a need for a coping mechanism. When a person enters treatment, their loved ones often hope that without the devastating substance in the person’s life, everything will be okay; however, the reality is that someone struggling with an addiction did not feel “okay” in the first place. When their security blanket (the substance of choice) is taken away, things may get worse before they get better.

People dealing with dry drunk syndrome can feel overwhelmed, as though they are white-knuckling through life without their substance of choice. Recovery is always a deeply personal, and sometimes painful, process, as individuals work to battle their inner demons and ultimately attain a level of self-awareness they did not have before. While detoxing from alcohol is part of the process, the work of addressing the issues that led to addiction requires far deeper work.

As stated in a 2016 article in the Australian journal Addiction Research and Theory, “Recovery is best understood as a personal journey of socially negotiated identity transition that occurs through changes in social networks and related meaningful activities.” A person in recovery is not merely saying “no” to a substance. They are changing their very identity – a scary prospect for anyone to cope with – and they are doing it without the crutch of substance use that they have come to know so intimately. This alone can explain why a person may develop dry drunk syndrome.

How Can Loved Ones Help?

If you notice a loved one exhibiting signs of dry drunk syndrome, your first responsibility is to encourage them to continue treatment. The Encyclopedia of Substance Abuse Prevention, Treatment, & Recovery reported in 2008 that sometimes, someone struggling with dry drunk syndrome can become discouraged with what they perceive as a failed effort at sobriety. As a result, they are more likely to decrease their treatment efforts or even quit altogether. This course of action can make an individual’s sobriety more tenuous, ultimately undoing all the hard work done up until that point.

One way to combat dry drunk syndrome is to direct your loved one toward a healthier, more stimulating behavior. Most people fighting dry drunk syndrome also suffer from depressive tendencies, and they have a difficult time finding activities they enjoy. You can help them rediscover old hobbies they once loved or introduce them to new experiences. A few examples include:

  • Stimulate intellect by taking a class.
  • Explore spiritual teachings and practices.
  • Learn a new hobby.
  • Take time to exercise.
  • Spend time with family and friends.
  • Explore treatment through rehab programs and therapy.

The primary role of a friend or family member to a person in  recovery is to provide support and reflect the positivity one can find in a life free from addiction. This is especially important when an individual is dealing with dry drunk syndrome. If you continue to engage with and support your loved one throughout this difficult time, they may find it easier to push on and continue the tough yet rewarding work of recovery.

Finding Treatment Options

It may seem an obvious point that anyone suffering from addiction should consider seeking professional treatment. But for people suffering from dry drunk syndrome, AA meetings or therapy can often feel futile. They may argue that, since they don’t feel any better after a meeting, they don’t need that kind of help, and besides, they haven’t touched a drink in a while. Sure, they may feel rotten, but as far as they’re concerned, they’re sober and that’s enough.

As discussed, this defeatist pattern of thinking is a clear indicator of dry drunk syndrome, and it is a pattern that can benefit from treatment, particularly from ongoing individual or group therapy. A study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration concluded that group therapy not only provides individuals with useful support and information, it can also inspire hope. In group therapy, participants can learn from and be inspired by the experiences and progress of others. When someone is experiencing dry drunk syndrome, their perspective is often dominated by negativity, and this sense of positivity and encouragement can greatly alter their course in recovery.

Some individuals might prefer to work on their addiction more privately in individual therapy. One-on-one meetings with a therapist offer a place and time to discuss and reflect upon grievances and frustrations, and gain insight into the overall recovery process. This time can also be a great place for reflection and analysis of one’s addiction – a discussion that can eventually uncover the root causes of the struggle and provide the client with healthier coping mechanisms.

Living with dry drunk syndrome can be incredibly difficult for both the person struggling with it and their family. However, it is important to remember that, just like any other psychological phenomenon, it can be overcome with the right assistance and support.

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