Getting sober involves a lot more than putting down the alcohol and drugs and stepping away. Recovery involves a lot of soul-searching, emotional work, introspection, and an entire perspective shift. Numbing oneself with substances stunts emotional growth and causes our moral compass to malfunction, and removing chemicals from the body is the first step, but it doesn’t fix years of maladjustment to life.
To be truly healthy and whole in sobriety, addicts and alcoholics need long-term therapy and support, and a willingness to change behavior and defective thinking patterns. Some people don’t make these vital changes, and as a result end up sober and miserable. That’s why some people with decades of clean time are still angry, resentful, depressed, and hurting. If you are sober and you’re still miserable, you may be suffering from the condition known in recovery circles as “dry drunk syndrome.”
What is Dry Drunk Syndrome?
People use alcohol or drugs addictively for many reasons- genetic predisposition to substance dependence, trauma, social conditioning or home environment, inability to cope with life circumstances, or negative core beliefs about themselves or their lives. For many people who suffer from addiction, drugs and alcohol is the temporary “solution” to these problems, before they become bigger problems themselves. For that reason, simply quitting substances without changing one’s lifestyle or other behaviors and thought processes simply isn’t enough.
Taking away the substance doesn’t fix the problem that the addict or alcoholic was trying to solve through the use of the substance in the first place. When someone doesn’t replace their addiction with a healthy pattern of living or a new solution to dealing with life, they can end up feeling empty, discontent, and full of anguish. This is what’s referred to as “dry drunk syndrome.” It’s an addict or an alcoholic with no drugs or alcohol, and also no solution.
Recovery from addiction isn’t just the absence of substances, but rather a way of life. When using and drinking are someone’s entire way of life, they will absolutely need a new lifestyle to replace that one when they decide to get sober. Otherwise, the pain, fear, and emptiness that prompted the abuse of drugs and alcohol returns, and the individual ends up suffering through abstinence or returning to their addiction.
How Do I Know if I’m a Dry Drunk?
Like any affliction, dry drunk syndrome affects individuals in different ways, and it can be avoided and corrected through different methods based on the person’s goals, a threshold for emotional pain, and their own particular definition of fulfillment. The risk factors for developing dry drunk syndrome include social isolation, lack of emotional support, disengagement from recovery programs (such as twelve step fellowships or recommended treatment aftercare programs like IOP), being uninvolved in therapy, not treating a co-occurring disorder, lack of healthy coping skills, unaddressed resentments or anger, staying in a toxic relationship or home environment, being dishonest about cravings or feelings, and engaging in outside behavioral addiction such as compulsive gambling or shopping. All of these factors can cause a sober person to fail to address their core issues or the emptiness that fuels and results from active addiction.
Someone who is suffering from dry drunk syndrome may:
- Hold onto resentments or anger
- Feel superior to others or struggle with ego; conversely, they may have feelings of inferiority or not being good enough
- Regularly compare themselves and their recovery to others
- Lash out emotionally, display angry outbursts or experience mood swings that are unrelated to a mood disorder
- Engage in compulsive behaviors or non-substance-related addictions, like sex addiction, gambling addiction, or binge-eating
- Become emotionally or physically abusive to family, friends, or those around them
- Lie or manipulate
- Feel empty or unfulfilled
- Isolate themselves from family or friends
- Engage in high-risk behavior
- Deny, minimize, or rationalize their addiction
- Fantasize about drinking or using drugs, or experience a return of the obsession to use substances
- Display disproportionate reactions to life events, such as overreacting to minor inconvenience, or not experiencing any emotional reaction to intense experiences
- Reminisce on the “good times” of their drug use or drinking and forget about the tragic consequences of their addiction
- Stop regularly attending 12 step meetings, support groups, therapy, doctor appointments, or other recommended recovery activities
- Struggle to relate to others in recovery
- Develop destructive coping mechanisms like self-harm
- Fail to treat mental illnesses, like eating disorders, which can be physically and emotionally harmful
- Refuse to admit to or recognize their behavior and the impact it has on themselves, their family, and their relationships
How to Avoid Dry Drunk Syndrome
If you are suffering from the dry drunk syndrome, the first step is the same as it is in recovery: recognizing and admitting it. Once the individual identifies the problem, they can seek support and help from those around them. Returning to recovery support groups and twelve-step fellowships can be helpful, re-committing to a recovery program that involves a connection with other sober people and healthy routines, or seeking therapy and professional care can all help reverse the symptoms of the dry drunk syndrome and help the addict/alcoholic to truly recover.
If you are sober and feeling fulfilled and happy, preventing dry drunk syndrome involves continuing to engage in a daily routine of recovery. Attending twelve step meetings and working with a sponsor, connecting with friends and sober supports, being honest about your emotions and struggles, following your treatment aftercare plan (by attending therapy or a recommended outpatient program), complying with medication regimens, exploring new hobbies and having fun, and utilizing healthy coping mechanisms (such as meditation) can all prevent the addict or alcoholic from becoming a dry drunk.
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