Understanding the Dry Drunk & Abstinent Addict (And Why They’re Not Recovered)
What Is a Dry Drunk?
Are you confused when you hear the term “dry drunk,” or “abstinent addict?” What the heck is that anyway? If you’re a drunk you’re an alcoholic, and you drink yourself into a stupor every night; if you’re a drug addict you’re in the constant danger of overdosing.
Well, yes- but not always- especially in this special case,
In a Nutshell:
A dry drunk or abstinent addict is someone who has not used or consumed their drug of choice, but psychologically, in response to stress of negative emotions, their first reaction to cope is to turn to a bottle or the needle.
But they don’t.
So what’s the big deal? Isn’t that the same as cravings, and something that will eventually pass by itself? Isn’t this a “necessary” step in recovery?
In some aspects yes, controlling cravings with denying them is essential to get through recovery initially- but when one has not yet adapted the techniques required to purge the urge to use within a reasonable time frame (let’s say in at least a year- and even that’s pushing it), that’s when things become dangerous, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Why Being Dry Isn’t the Same as Being Recovered
You may be inclined to leave the phenomena of the dry drunk lie where it be, but this is the number one mistake both loved ones and people in recovery make. If you can’t help your loved one overcome being a “dry drunk,” they’ll always be in a sort of limbo, teetering from completely sober one minute, to relapsing horribly the next.
Sometimes it can take years to finally relapse- but that doesn’t mean the problem shouldn’t be immediately remedied.
For years your loved one in recovery will fight vigilantly to keep their urges for using at bay- fomenting behavioral unrest, like undue aggression, depression, or anxiety.. (Trust me, I have first hand experience with being a cutter who doesn’t cut, and it’s agonizing.)
When someone is entirely recovered from a substance use disorder, their first reaction to stress will not be to grab a drink or a pill to numb emotional pain or stress, as they have done in the past.
Someone who is entirely successful in recovery will turn to alternate outlets to cope with stress, whether it’s holistic meditation, jogging, getting lost in a book, or calling up a friend to vent. People who are not able to embrace alternatives will obsess over using, and may descend into a deep depression as they battle inward conflicts: to use or not to use.
Did You Know?
People in recovery who read strengthen their sense of empathy, and bolster cognition, helping to eradicate addiction entirely.
Compounding the problem further, those who are “dry drunks” or “abstinent addicts” aren’t typically open about it, because many don’t even know this behavior isn’t normal- they just accept it as, “Well, I’m not using anymore, so I must be cured.” Friends and family also assume it may be “normal” to have lingering feelings to use.
All of these notions are myth!
Yes, it’s normal for lingering cravings to creep up every once in awhile, but if they are consistent on a daily or weekly basis, we have big problems! But it’s okay, because it can be fixed with a little extra TLC.
The detriments of struggling with cravings, and having immediate impulses to use stem largely from one’s emotional health (and yes, there is such a thing as emotional relapse, predisposing one to an unwanted episode).
For the dry drunk anything reminiscent can be the trigger that sets them off into a spiral of use- movies about using (or T.V. shows- reruns of Breaking Bad even), explicit writing about drug use, or anything painting an emotive image of escaping in abuse is enough to cause profound mental anguish- and that’s not healthy!
The point of recovery is to leave addiction in the past. If all of one’s attention is focused on not using- they’re not quite out of the woods yet.
Warning Signs Your Loved One May Still Be Suffering
But how the heck are you supposed to know if this silent part of recovery is causing problems for your loved one if they don’t talk about it?
That’s part of the problem.
Many don’t talk about this phase of recovery (or non-recovery, if you will) because they either think A) being a dry drunk is normal after recovery or B) struggling not to use is a weakness.
Feelings of shame often immobilize us.
So you may have to do some detective work- I mean hey, haven’t you already done that during the initial recovery process? Look for any of the following signs as a clear indication something is afoot- it may be a case of a dry drunk or abstinent addict!
But Wait! What IS addiction, if not active substance abuse?
In this case, a dry drunk is someone who still obsesses over drinking, using, or cutting- the willful action of any of these events is not the key to addiction- but the mental fixation, and inability to use other means to alleviate depression, anxiety, & stress.
- Fixation on drinking/using/cutting
- Talking about wanting to drink/use/cut
- Keeping memorabilia associated with one’s addiction (i.e.: razor, syringe)
- Inconsolable depression
- Changes in mood; undue aggression, anxiety, or feelings of defeat
- Retreating; Unwillingness to communicate or talk about feelings
What YOU Can Do to Help Your Loved One Recover Completely
If your loved one hasn’t yet relapsed, but is still suffering from the urges to use, continuing cognitive behavioral therapy on an outpatient basis is critical.
Even though addictive substances do cause damage to the brain, and create psychological dependencies as real as physical ones- this condition can be reversed.
Learning how to cope and what techniques to use in times of stress essentially re-trains your brain- and there are things you can do right at home to help your loved one along.
1. Communicate Openly
Even if you have to break down the walls, again, make it clear to your loved one you’re here to stay, and help them understand the way they feel is not normal. Many respond well to this, because it gives them hope of recovering!
The key point to stress here is finding other outlets will eventually dry up the well drawing from past addictive experiences. That’s where you come in, because your loved one doesn’t have the ability to engage in alternative means of coping.
2. Teach Loved Ones Different Methods of Coping
What do you do to relieve stress? If you’ve never really thought about it, you may be totally unaware every time you need to calm down you use deep breathing to even out your heart rate- or maybe you always call your best friend to tell her the latest and blow off steam from the office- or maybe your escape is going to the beach and enjoying the waves and wind.
Just take a few minutes to think, and share your coping techniques with your loved one. Something that works almost every time is listening to your favorite kind of music. Why?
Because music causes changes in our brains and produces dopamine!
3. Try New Things
But what if your suggestions have fallen flat, or have not carried the impact you were hoping for?
All that’s left to do is go on the adventure with your loved one and find something you can both enjoy together.
(But let’s be realistic, if you’re really trying to help them find methods of coping, you may have to sacrifice yourself by going to see Shakespeare in the Park- even if you hate the Bard- your presence really makes a world of difference!)
Start with a list of all the things they want to accomplish (yes, sneak in goal setting wherever you can!), whether that’s publishing a book, having art featured in a gallery, or starring in an indie movie; try to create an atmosphere where there is a measurable goal of achievement and take steps to work towards it.
If they want to write a book, sign up for a creative writing workshop; acting? Sign up for an improv group- go out and pursue things they never thought possible.
Remember when your mom said get a job you love and you’ll never work? The same applies here.
If you follow their passions and fix the inside, the outside will follow.
About the Author
Alexandrea Holder is a South Florida native working toward double Master’s degrees in Psychology and English. She finds the psychological aspects of addiction and mental illness fascinating, as both are prevalent in her family’s history. When not researching and spreading addiction awareness, Alexandrea enjoys sparring, artistic pursuits, and admiring puppies online.