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Dry Drunk Syndrome

It is a misconception that when an addicted person or alcoholic stops using and enters sobriety, they will be completely restored from old patterns of harmful behavior. When an individual enters treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction, the immediate goal is to stop drinking or using drugs. But to do so, individuals must fix and change old habits and relationships. While detoxing from alcohol is part of the process, addressing the issues that led to addiction requires much deeper work. After all, recovery is not just about the absence of drugs and alcohol. The true purpose of recovery is to demonstrate a willingness to break away from a pattern of destructive and dangerous behavior and establish a new lifestyle set on a foundation of respect. Addicted individuals who are not fully committed to their recovery will not be able to fully manage these aspects of their journey ahead. These types of people think that once they stop using or drinking, their life will become restored and all their relationships will improve as a result. However, recovery requires continued effort. It is the continued work after treatment that makes all the difference. If an addicted person stops at abstinence-only, they will most likely suffer from what is known as dry drunk syndrome.

What is Dry Drunk Syndrome

Dry drunk syndrome can be a tragedy for the addicted person as well as their support system and loved ones. The term dry drunk syndrome was originally coined by the creators of the 12-step program at Alcoholics Anonymous. The 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.” For example, an alcoholic may maintain the same exact relationships with their loved ones as they had before they stopped drinking. In fact, their relationship might even be worse, because the person is now acting more depressed or agitated due to the lack of their addictive outlet.

Dry Drunk Behavioral Patterns

Individuals struggling with dry drunk syndrome may maintain strained relationships with their loved ones, and be frustrated that they don’t feel as well as they expected during their sobriety. These individuals still suffer from their unhealthy habits, both internally and externally. Even though they are sober, the individual has not dealt with the emotional distress and baggage that led them to alcohol in the first place.

Many addictions stem from a void in an individual’s life and their need for a coping mechanism. When alcoholics begin treatment, their loved ones often believe that without the destructive substance in their life, relationships with their alcoholic loved one will be better. Many hope that without alcohol, their addicted loved one’s behavior will be what they hoped it would be all along. However, the reality is that humans struggling with an addiction never felt “okay” in the first place, and removing a substance only brings to light the issues that were hidden all along. When the alcohol is pulled away, it is only logical that things will get worse before they get better.

Alcoholics dealing with dry drunk syndrome feel overwhelmed by their reality for the first time since getting sober. They may feel that they are “white-knuckling” through life, which is only more difficult without their substance of choice. Recovery is naturally an intensely personal, and at points, painful process. As alcoholics work to battle their inner demons, their goal should be to ultimately attain a level of self-awareness they did not have before. In a 2016 article in the Australian journal Addiction Research and Theory, researchers noted that “recovery is best understood as a personal journey of socially negotiated identity transition that occurs through changes in social networks and related meaningful activities.” An alcoholic in recovery is not just simply saying “no” to a substance. The alcoholics are changing their entire identity, and they are attempting this without the crutch of alcohol.

Dry Drunk Syndrome Symptoms

Those closest to the addict or alcoholic may be the first to identify their loved one’s dry drunk syndrome and be the most affected by the behavior. There are some obvious signs and symptoms that indicate a person is struggling with dry drunk syndrome. Psychology Today identifies these signs as:

  • Resentment toward friends, family, and romantic partners
  • Anger at their life situation
  • Negative feelings towards recovery
  • Depression and hopelessness
  • Anxiety about how to how to handle everyday situations
  • Immense fear of relapse
  • Jealousy of friends who can drink or use drugs without struggling with addiction or negative consequences
  • Romanticizing their drinking days and grieving situations where they used to engage in drinking behavior
  • Self-obsession and only thinking about what is best for themselves (it’s important to note that an individual in recovery should put their recovery program before anything else, but shouldn’t hurt others along the way through egotistical and self-obsessed behavior)
  • Replacing their old addiction with a new vice (e.g. excess sex, food, and internet use)

Dry drunk syndrome is most common among individuals who stopped using their drug of choice on their own without professional support. These addicted individuals do not have a stable support system to assist them through this life-changing period in their life. Alcoholics and addicted people who have sought professional help during their recovery have been shown to be less likely to stay stagnant as a dry drunk. For example, at Boardwalk Recovery Center, we focus on healing the whole person and work to assist clients in analyzing the behaviors and attitudes they displayed prior to sobriety.

Treatment for Dry Drunk Syndrome

Dry drunk syndrome is an actual psychological phenomenon that can easily happen to anyone who is struggling with addiction and who is not fully focused on their continued recovery. This phenomenon is not a sign of failure within the individual. Dry drunk syndrome can be overcome with effort. The treatment for dry drunk syndrome requires a willingness to uncover the root of an individual’s addiction and to look inward to correct not just their addiction to a substance, but also their selfishness and ego-driven and self-destructive behaviors.

Loved ones may notice the alcoholic’s behavior, but they have no ability to combat the inner workings of the alcoholic’s mind. In fact, dry drunk syndrome operates almost exclusively within the mind. Since 1955, psychologists have found that working on an individual’s “inner life” is the key to overcoming the dry drunk mentality. It is only the alcoholic themselves that can fully recover. To do so, they must seek out and fully engage in therapeutic treatment. At Boardwalk Recovery Center, we offer comprehensive treatment that includes group therapy, a 12-step recovery program, and one-on-one support from health professionals that gives each alcoholic the opportunity to acknowledge their defects and truly change their actions and attitudes. Through this treatment, an alcoholic can discover what led them to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism in the first place. With this self-knowledge, alcoholics can start to repair the damage their addiction caused to themselves and those in their life.

Dealing With Dry Drunk Syndrome

If you notice a loved one struggling in their early sobriety and exhibiting signs of dry drunk syndrome, the best plan of action is to encourage them to continue treatment. Loved ones must remember that they have no control over the alcoholic’s behavior, feelings, and demeanor. In 2008, the Encyclopedia of Substance Abuse Prevention, Treatment, & Recovery reported that individuals struggling with dry drunk syndrome can easily become discouraged with what they perceive as a failed effort at a life of sobriety. High expectations for a “new life” can contribute to dry drunk syndrome.

Most alcoholics fighting dry drunk syndrome usually experience depressive tendencies and may have a challenging time finding activities they can enjoy sober. This defeatist pattern of thinking is a clear characteristic of dry drunk syndrome, and it is a pattern that can benefit from both individual and group therapy. A study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that group therapy provides individuals with useful support, information, and hope.

In group therapy, individuals in recovery can learn from and find inspiration from the experiences and progress of others. When an alcoholic is experiencing dry drunk syndrome, their perspective is, more often than not, dominated by negativity, and this sense of positivity, encouragement, and connection to others can help reroute their recovery to smoother roads.

Overall, living with dry drunk syndrome can be incredibly difficult for both the person in recovery and their family. At Boardwalk Recovery Center, we ensure that alcoholics are able to identify the necessary internal work they need to complete for their recovery. We also help them understand that staying sober and living in recovery means a lot more than just staying away from the bottle. We treat dry alcohol syndrome just like any other psychological phenomenon. This provides hope that individuals can overcome this challenge with peer support, redirection, and therapeutic treatment.

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