Dry Drunk Syndrome: When Stopping Substance Use Isn’t Enough
When it comes to addiction, many people believe that the problem is the substance use. They think that when substance use ends, the problem goes away. Unfortunately, this line of thinking can easily cause someone to experience “dry drunk syndrome.”
Read on to learn about what dry drunk syndrome is. Discover the signs that you may be “white-knuckling” your way through your own recovery. Finally, learn how to overcome this stage to experience lasting recovery.
What is dry drunk syndrome?
The term “dry drunk” was coined by the creators of Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1970s. It’s defined as “the presence of attitudes and actions that characterized the alcoholic prior to recovery.”
It’s important to note that the phrase “dry drunk” can be stigmatising, just as the word “addict” or “alcoholic.” However, the experience that the phrase represents is incredibly normal for so many people in the early stages of recovery.
What this essentially means is that someone who struggled with addiction stopped using substances, but still struggles with behaviours they engaged in before their addiction began.
For instance, a person may struggle with feelings of anxiety or depression. They may have strained relationships, or struggle with managing their anger.
This is problematic because even though the substance use has ended, there hasn’t been any inner work done to resolve the internal issues that led to addiction in the first place.
When the internal issues aren’t worked through, relapse can be inevitable.
In lieu of relapsing on the substance of choice, many people can develop secondary addictions when they are experiencing dry drunk syndrome. This happens because the underlying issues that caused the first addiction haven’t been worked through.
Many times, people who experience dry drunk syndrome are those who have stopped substance use on their own. As previously stated, many believe that ending substance use is all that it takes to end addiction. However, true recovery goes far beyond this.
When someone quits on their own, they do so without the help of a team of professionals who can guide them through the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual changes that need to happen over time in order to establish true, long-lasting recovery.
Fortunately, it is possible to get overcome dry drunk syndrome and step into the deep healing required for lasting recovery.
Before jumping into how to overcome this syndrome, let's take a look at some of the signs that you may be experiencing it right now.
Signs that you have dry drunk syndrome
If you’re wondering whether you’re facing dry drunk syndrome, below are some signs that you might be white-knuckling through your own recovery:
- Feeling irritable and dissatisfied
- Feeling restless and not being able to focus
- Not acknowledging the consequences of your substance use during active addiction
- Having trouble communicating with others
- Negative about recovery
- Being dishonest with others and yourself
- Positioning yourself as the victim
- Not being able to accept constructive criticism
- Feeling like recovery is boring
- Feeling resentment towards others
- Experiencing significant mood swings
- Struggling with depression and anxiety
- Fantasising about substance use days
- Lacking purpose and direction
- Displaying behaviours of active addiction without substances
Why quitting a substance isn’t enough for lasting sobriety
Unfortunately, stopping alcohol or drug use isn’t all that's required to recover from addiction. This is because the substance itself was a symptom or by-product of another issue.
If someone is struggling with depression, anxiety, or has experienced trauma, difficulty in understanding and regulating emotions can contribute to the onset of substance use.
Drugs and alcohol provide a sense of (temporary) relief for people who are in pain emotionally. They provide a means of escape for people who are struggling to get through their day or who have painful memories they are trying to forget.
When stopping drug use, there's so much that happens to a person mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. They have to learn how to face difficult emotions, without substances, and may even have trouble identifying what their own emotions even are. A person may also struggle with feelings of numbness or disconnectedness after stopping drug use.
Because of this, stopping drug or alcohol use is just the first step on the recovery journey. True recovery requires individuals to look inward and get to the root of the emotional pain that led to addiction in the first place. It’s about learning how to manage and regulate difficult emotions and the challenges of life as they arise.
Early recovery is a difficult time, as it can be incredibly painful to look inward and face one’s struggles. However, doing this is what fosters the sense of self-awareness that carries a person through a life of peace, fulfilment, and sobriety. Healing certainly isn't a glamorous or easy process, but it is incredibly worth the freedom and peace that is waiting on the other side of it.
How to overcome dry drunk syndrome
Below are some steps you can take to overcome dry drunk syndrome and step into emotional sobriety:
In order to overcome dry drunk syndrome, you need to have a willingness to acknowledge that there is some sort of emotional baggage or discord happening internally. For many, struggling emotionally can feel like a vulnerability or weakness. It is very possible that you’re facing struggles that you’re in denial of.
The truth is, everyone faces difficult emotions and creates coping mechanisms to manage them. Some of these coping mechanisms are helpful, while others, like substance use, are destructive.
Admitting that you’re struggling and being willing to look inward and face your difficult emotions head-on takes a great deal of strength, but it is the first step towards shifting out of dry drunk syndrome.
After practising acknowledgment of how you’re really feeling, you’ll be more open and receptive to receiving help. Therefore, you can seek treatment that focuses on the mental and emotional side of addiction. This can mean attending one on one counselling or therapy, going to group therapy sessions, or attending meetings such as AA or SMART Recovery.
Even with this, it takes a level of vulnerability to be able to be honest about what you’ve been thinking, feeling, and struggling with. Be open and receptive, and know that whether you’re surrounded by professionals or others on their recovery journey, everyone wants to see you grow and heal. You aren’t being judged for your experiences or emotions.
Another way to shift out of this syndrome is to find purpose. People going through dry drunk syndrome may have feelings of emptiness or bleakness. Finding purpose can offer you a renewed sense of hope. To do this, explore things you enjoyed doing before addiction took over. If this is hard, try and think of things that called to you during your childhood.
You can explore going back to school, starting your own business, or trying out a brand new career. You can build time into your schedule to go into nature and meditate. Additionally, you can volunteer for an organisation that you truly believe in, and whose mission you care about. All of these things offer an opportunity to dive into what makes you feel good and purposeful. This can offer you a sense of hope, direction, and clarity, and guide you in shifting out of dry drunk syndrome.
Leaning on your loved ones is a great way to feel supported and safe enough to explore your inner self. You can spend more time with family and friends who you love, and who make you feel good about yourself. You can get in touch with old friends you had before you started using. When people are experiencing dry drunk syndrome, they’re often closed off, have many walls up, feel like they need to be defensive, and can be easily irritable. Allowing yourself to be around people who genuinely love you, and letting your guard down around them, can help you feel fully accepted. Connecting with like minded others also offers many benefits, it will help you to feel supported and understood. This should never be underestimated in addiction recovery.
The way our body feels physically can affect how we feel mentally and emotionally. Through extensive drug and alcohol use, the body becomes damaged from the inside out. Fortunately, in recovery, you have the opportunity to heal on every level – even physically. To step out of dry drunk syndrome, you can try incorporating exercise into your week. If going to the gym or doing at-home workouts doesn’t sound appealing, you can look for alternative ways to get your body moving. You can try going for hikes, or even incorporating thirty-minute walks around the neighbourhood into your day. You can even join a fun dance or fitness class, which will allow you to not only work on your body but also allows you to meet new people.
Developing new coping skills is an incredibly important part of recovery, and is often a missing link for people who are struggling with dry drunk syndrome. When you were struggling with addiction, you were using drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. Although your use took a life of its own, it likely started off as a means of dealing with difficult emotions, trauma, or was a means of escape. In recovery, that coping mechanism is now gone.
What isn’t gone is the difficult emotions and challenging life experiences, as those things are simply part of the human experience. This is why it's so important to develop new, helpful coping skills. It's important to know that you are going to experience stress, anger, and sadness throughout your life and that those feelings are normal. There isn't anything wrong with the feelings, but what you do with the feeling is what's important. Try out new coping skills whether it's talking to loved ones about what's going on, engaging in physical activity, creating art, reading or going for walks, or anything that makes you feel good.
Be gracious with yourself. It’s easy to beat yourself up, or feel like you “should” be further along in your recovery. Maybe you think you “should” be feeling better, since your substance use has ended. As you know, stopping drugs and alcohol was just the first step towards recovery, but it was a huge step and you should always celebrate yourself for that. When you come up against difficult emotions or negative self-talk, remember that recovery isn't linear and that it’s going to be an up and down process. You're not a failure for struggling, and what you're going through is completely normal. Having compassion and acceptance words yourself will make the early stages of recovery much more bearable easier to get through.
Dry drunk syndrome and co-occurring disorders
It’s important to be aware that a contributing factor towards dry drunk syndrome may be a co-occurring disorder. A co-occurring disorder is simply something that you may be struggling with parallel to your addiction. Some examples of co-occurring disorders are depression, anxiety, PTSD, and bi-polar disorder.
Addiction can perpetuate a co-occurring disorder, and a co-occurring disorder can perpetuate addiction.
For instance, if you struggle with depression, it may have prompted you to begin using substances. Then, the state of being addicted to substances continued to perpetuate your depression.
If you struggled with symptoms of anxiety or depression, for example, before your addiction began, that might be the reason that you’re currently struggling with dry drunk syndrome. Because of this, it is important to seek therapy and treatment for your co-occurring disorder.
Seeking treatment such as cognitive behavioral therapy, or dialectical behavioral therapy, can help you get to the root of your co-occurring disorder. Many treatment programmes offer dual diagnosis treatment.
A final word on dry drunk syndrome
Overcoming dry drunk syndrome and seeking help are important. Not taking the steps to grow beyond this stage may lead to relapse if a new way of living is not adopted.
Recoverlution offers a Wellness Hub, rich with resources in meditation, yoga, breathwork, nutrition information, and exercises, to help you experience healing on a deeper level.
Recoverlution is always here to offer unconditional support, guidance, and help.
Author - Thurga