What Is A “Dry Drunk”?
Addiction is a complicated disorder, one that has roots extending into multiple aspects of a person’s life. For this reason, sobriety is also multi-faceted—a sober lifestyle goes beyond refraining from only drinking or using, and extends to the way a person chooses to live their life. Unfortunately for some, they may view sobriety in this narrow way, thinking that because they don’t drink, they’ve done all they need to do.
By thinking this, they may continue to hold onto the negative thoughts, emotions and behaviors that were a landmark to their addiction. In terms of alcohol, a person who continues to live like this is often termed a “dry drunk.” This term may also be used to describe someone who uses other drugs, however, for the purpose of this article we will refer to this term in the context of alcohol use.
How Does A Dry Drunk’s State Originate?
As a friend or loved one of a person in recovery who is struggling with this phenomenon, it can be hard to recognize the signs. This is because the majority of the behaviors of a dry drunk are those that were present during the time they were actively drinking. Because of this, depending on the duration of the alcohol use, you may be well-accustomed to the way they carry on, forgetting how they were before the alcohol changed the way they acted.
It is not just this—though it is true that a dry drunk may continue to embrace and exhibit negative thoughts and behaviors that grew from their addiction—a dry drunk may yet be struggling with the very emotional and psychological struggles that drove them to drink in the first place.
People who contend with alcohol addictions often self-medicate. This may be why the addiction developed in the first place and one reason why it gains further momentum. As they struggle with negative emotions or mindsets, whether they be loneliness, anger, blame, resentment, self-loathing, shame or fear, they turn to the bottle to staunch these thoughts, rather than dealing with them head-on. This situation is further compounded if an individual is struggling to cope with a dual diagnosis that exists along with the alcohol abuse. Dual diagnoses, also called co-occurring disorders, are often mental health disorders that accompany an addiction.
If a person experiences anxiety, depression, excessive stress or any other mental issues, instead of seeking the professional help they need, they may choose to bottle up the symptoms and drink them away. What is dangerous about this, is that drinking can actually exacerbate these things, leading to a vicious cycle, as a person increasingly drinks more in an ill-fated attempt to stay afloat.
What happens then, is when they quit drinking these emotions and mental health concerns suddenly rear their ugly head, as left untreated, they were lurking under the surface the entire time. Now sober, a person has inadequate resources and coping skills in place to contend with them, and instead lashes out and experiences an overwhelming rollercoaster of emotions all at once. Beyond this, they are often ill-equipped to contend with day-to-day challenges and struggles, as formerly they turned to alcohol instead of managing their life. As these things arise, and they find they’re not progressing or balancing their life well, their emotions flare and instability rises.
Understanding The Behaviors Of A Dry Drunk
Sometimes family members of dry drunks find that they seem to struggle with a person more in this state than they did while they were drinking. This can be very confusing, especially if you don’t understand what’s happening. In order to better understand and spot the tendencies of dry drunk syndrome, we’ve assembled a list of the most common characteristics or the realizations a person may struggle with that in frustration push them towards their negative behaviors. A dry drunk may:
- Become resentful towards the person who “made” them quit drinking
- Be judgmental of the way others choose to live their lives
- Experience an unstable mood, and not be able to properly express what they’re feeling in relation to situations they experience
- Struggle to stay on task, finding that they’re easily distracted or that they’re unable to make decisions in an efficient manner
- Not be able to accept the consequences of their actions, instead trying to pass the blame to other people
- Become impatient, impulsive and take action without contemplating the consequences in a way that hurts themselves or those around them
- Struggle with dishonesty that gradually gains momentum as they find themselves lying more
- Exhibit grandiose thoughts or behaviors, being excessively self-centered
- Struggle with the notion that they can’t ever drink again while others can do it in a controlled manner
- Experience a sense of disillusionment when they consider the period of time they wasted drinking, and have a hard time accepting this and moving on
- Struggle with thinking that they won’t be able to achieve the things they’ve hope to, notably due to the above point
- Become envious of those around them for handling their life so well or succeeding, especially when they feel like they don’t have that same measure of perseverance
- May, out of frustration, drop out of their support group
- Find that they spend increasing amounts of time thinking about drinking or recalling memories of times when they drank
Without proper attention or support, these detrimental thoughts and behaviors may pull a person deeper into dark thoughts or notions of using, leading them down a path that has the potential to be damaging and dangerous.
The Risks Of Living As A Dry Drunk
Living as a dry drunk goes well beyond just having a bad attitude. The behaviors of a dry drunk negatively impact those around them. Within a family, this can be especially harmful, causing extreme tension, blame, anger, resentment and communication malfunctions. As the partner of a dry drunk, you may begin to feel hopeless and worn out, as you feel as if you’re always tiptoeing around them. Left unchecked, dry drunk behaviors and outbursts can cause a rift in a family that could, in worst cases, become irreconcilable.
The dry drunk themselves is at risk. Remember—the complexity of the emotions and/or mental health concerns that they’re struggling with were likely one reason they turned to alcohol in the first place. Left to continue, these elements could potentially trigger the urge to drink again. It has been said that dry drunk habits are often a prelude to relapse. This is a very serious and potentially life-threatening risk. In order to circumvent this from happening, you and your support system need to be proactive and take steps to address the problem, specifically the mental and emotional issues that create this scenario.
Helping A Dry Drunk Find Balance
Just because a person is sober doesn’t mean they are healthy. The behavioral patterns of a dry drunk signify the emotional and mental imbalance that is occurring within them. In order to break these negative and damaging states, a dry drunk needs help.
As a loved one, it can be a difficult subject to approach—after all, they’ve found sobriety. Bringing up the subject may anger them and make them feel as if you’re not appreciative of the success they have. For this reason, you need to handle the situation with patience and care—remember, for them, handling their emotions as they come and feeling the full force of them is likely a new and daunting experience. Let them know that you don’t discount the importance of their sobriety, or the perseverance that it took to get them there.
Make sure you’re careful to moderate your tone while choosing your words wisely. You don’t want to come across as confrontational, blameful or shaming. Instead, evenly lay out your concern, and illustrate to them how their actions are making you feel and the impact it’s having on you as an individual, and within your relationship. Also express that you’re concerned that if left to continue, you’re fearful this state of mind will progress towards future alcohol use. Lastly, let them know it wasn’t just their abstinence that was important to you, but their happiness. Knowing that a person supports you and wants the best for you can be very beneficial and motivating during this trying time.
The struggling individual needs to strive to have an open mind. These can be hard things to hear. But if you’re the person who is exhibiting the tendencies of a dry drunk, you need to take a step back and realize how harmful your actions are, both to yourself and those you love.
During this time you can take several steps that can help you surpass this period. First, you need to seek support. This may come in several forms—seeking the guidance of a counselor or therapist may be one of the wisest decisions, as they can work with you to unravel the complex emotional and mental issues. They may use various different forms of psychotherapy to help you overcome your negative emotions, and they may even involve your family in family therapy or support.
These sessions can also help to instill a greater sense of self-worth and introspection. A counselor or a therapist will work with you in developing a set of coping skills that you can use within your life so that you can be more mindful and directed about handling your problems instead of being reactive and letting them rule you. You may also have the opportunity to work on creating more effective interpersonal skills, which can be of great benefit, as you look towards engaging people with greater intention, insight and patience.
Some individuals who find themselves in this situation find it immensely helpful to join a support group. This may include a 12-step program such as Alcoholics Anonymous, a non-12-step program, or any number of secular options. These groups will become a forum for your thoughts, expectations and fears. The peer support they offer will work towards enabling you to find inner strength and personal accountability. Additionally, you will be privy to other’s experiences, allowing you a chance to hear a variety of time-tested coping skills or methods that may work for you.
In addition, the struggling individual needs to make time for themselves. Self-care is extremely important during recovery, in a capacity that goes beyond physical wellness. You need to actively engage your mind and find fulfillment. Pick up an old hobby, or develop a new one.
Spending time on an activity that brings you enjoyment and a sense of satisfaction can help to balance your mood. Engaging in physical activity is also a good outlet, foremost because it can help to release any tension, stress or aggravation you may be encountering, while also releasing endorphins, which are chemicals within your body that naturally make you feel good.
The Necessity Of Good Treatment To Help Alleviate This Risk
Time and time again, you hear the benefit of rehab programs touted, but again, some individuals may be quick to think this is only to ensure a person’s abstinence from alcohol. One of the largest reasons why treatment programs are essential towards cultivating a state of wellness, both physically and mentally, is because they seek to treat and alleviate dual diagnosis concerns.
These co-occurring disorders may have risen due to the addiction, or precipitated it; either way, in order for a person to have the best chance at recovery, and emotional and mental stability, they need to receive this care. Without it, they may struggle within their treatment and afterward. A dry drunk is one example.
If, however, an individual receives comprehensive dual diagnosis treatment, their odds of having a successful and balanced recovery, both with their alcohol use and mental health disorders, drastically increases. At Turning Point, we offer compassionate and comprehensive care for co-occurring disorders.
Find Emotional And Mental Balance And Stability
If you or a loved one exhibits any of the signs of being a dry drunk, please reach out to our caring staff at Turning Point. We can offer you insight and resources to help you stay centered and focused so that you have a better chance of avoiding relapse. Also, if you’re currently using alcohol in a way that is harmful to your health, please contact us. We can help you overcome your alcohol abuse or addiction in a way that best prepares you for whatever you encounter along the path of recovery.
City and County of Denver — The Dry Drunk: A Hazard to the Non-using Alcoholic
Psychology Today — Is there a “Dry Drunk” in your life?: 6 concepts for dealing with the “Dry Drunk” in your life.