The term “dry drunk” may not make sense at first. After all, isn’t “Dry January” the same as “sober January”? So how can someone be sober and a drunk at the same time? A dry drunk is defined as a person who has become abstinent from alcohol, but maintains the same alcoholic behaviour patterns and attitudes from the time they weren’t sober. It is also referred to as “untreated alcoholism” or an alcoholic’s post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS).
This phenomenon can happen for a number of reasons, but mainly, it is caused by not addressing the underlying issues that lead to addiction in the first place. It is thus a clear indication of the complexity of this illness physical, mental, and spiritual.
Of course, this syndrome is not restricted to alcoholics. The symptoms of a dry drunk can be found with every type of addiction.
Where Does “Dry Drunk” Come From?
The so-called “dry drunk syndrome” originates from Alcoholics Anonymous. One of the creators coined the term to describe those in recovery with “the presence of actions and attitudes that characterised the alcoholic prior to recovery”. It was used to refer to people who did not commit fully to the 12 steps of the programme.
Addiction professionals do not generally use this term, choosing instead to label a person with a “high risk for relapse”. This makes sense, considering that dry drunks exhibit similar symptoms to someone that is relapsing.
Symptoms of Dry Drunk Syndrome
A dry drunk will exhibit similar symptoms of those of an active alcoholic, despite being sober. Common signs of dry drunk syndrome include:
- Impulsive, or risk-taking behaviour
- Self-pity and self-defeating attitudes
- Negative emotions toward sobriety and recovery
- Anxiety about relapsing
- Difficulty expressing emotions
- Low tolerance of stress
- Low mood
- Blaming others for their actions
- Resentment toward loved ones
- Resentment toward people without addiction
- Nostalgia about past use
- Self-centred thoughts and behaviours
- Developing other bad habits or even a cross-addiction
Black and white thinking is also common among dry drunks, which is why they can be difficult to deal with. However, just like someone who is relapsing, the person needs help now more than ever.
Why Does It Happen?
Treating addiction is more than achieving sobriety. It’s not just about quitting drinking; it’s about addressing all aspects of the disease. This is why simply detoxing or quitting with willpower alone is not enough to enter or maintain recovery.
Based on this, it is not surprising that this phenomenon is more common among people who try to quit addiction on their own, without professional help.
There are a number of reasons why dry drunk syndrome can happen. In addition to lack of proper treatment, a person may have unrealistic expectations about recovery. They may think it’ll be easier than it is. Alternatively, they may hope that one day, they’ll be able to drink normally again.
Aftercare is a key component of addiction recovery
Inadequate treatment or neglecting aftercare makes this worse. Part of recovery is learning how to live without addiction. If the person was using alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism, they need to learn new coping mechanisms to survive. Otherwise, when things get hard, they will only think of reaching for their crutch. Similarly, they may not know how to deal with their emotions, which is why they might act out or seem unstable at times.
It is common for addicts to think that substance use is the root of their problem. In most cases, however, it is not that simple. For example, someone may turn to alcohol as a way to cope with their depression. If this is not addressed, which can only be done via therapy, the person will be likely to relapse, or become a dry drunk in the process.
Lack of proper support or loss of focus, especially on the mental aspects of recovery, can also contribute to becoming a dry drunk. The person who struggles alone may become discouraged with sobriety. A dry drunk will be tempted to give up and relapse altogether. This is why self help fellowships are so successful, because of the support and inspiration they provide.
How to Help A Dry Drunk
People living with or close to an untreated alcoholic will know how difficult the situation can be. Living with a dry drunk can be just as daunting, if not worse. At such moments, it is important to remember that recovery is a life-long project, and sometimes there are setbacks. As with relapse, a person with dry drunk syndrome needs extra support to get back on their feet.
If the dry drunk is in recovery, they may lose their motivation at times, so encourage them to keep going. Aftercare can sometimes be placed on the back burner, but it is crucial to sustaining sobriety. Remind them that they’ve got this far, so they shouldn’t give up now.
Many people who recovered from dry drunk syndrome mentioned that support groups and fellowships such as Alcoholics Anonymous were a great help. Talking with other people facing the same difficulties can be a powerful motivating force.
You might find that some have been abstinent via self-help treatments or less-intensive options such as 12-step fellowships but are still struggling. In this case, suggest getting professional treatment or at least some individual counselling. When it comes to severe addictions, a person may need a more involved and intensive programme, such as a residential rehab.
Just like in the beginning before they sobered up, it may be good to approach the person and express your concern. However, make sure to address them with sympathy and compassion. The reason they became sober was probably because they were unhappy with themselves. Now that they are sober, and things don’t seem any better, they may feel even worse.
For example, if they are depressed and discouraged, don’t use cliches like, “Be positive,” as that can come out as invalidating. Don’t make them feel more guilty or ashamed – they are likely to already feel so.
However, do provide hope, remind them why they started and how far they’ve come. Reflect on the positive outcomes of their sobriety.
Be Their Guide
Dry drunks are likely to feel depressed and discouraged, so they may not be interested in the hobbies they once enjoyed, or forget how much fun they can be. Don’t hesitate to make suggestions about alternative activities, along with reminding them of their past hobbies. If you can, suggest doing something entertaining with them. If a person has company, they’re more likely to take interest.
It is not unheard of for a loved one to have unrealistic expectations about recovery as well. You may wonder why, despite them becoming sober, things aren’t any easier. In certain situations, you might even think they were more stable when they were drinking. No matter what, don’t suggest or encourage them to relapse. Remind yourself that this is a part of recovery, and if taken care of, will only strengthen the person in the long run.
Ask For Help
If you’re struggling with the situation and don’t know how to help a dry drunk or a person in relapse, don’t hesitate to reach out for help yourself. Family-focused support groups such as Al-Anon can provide you with useful advice on how to deal with the problem at hand.
If you think your loved one is in danger of relapsing, you can contact their treatment centre (if they attended one) for guidance. You can also call Castle Craig at 0808 274 1526 (UK) or +44 1721 788085 (international) to get a professional view on the next steps to take.
Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | February 3, 2020