What Is ‘Dry Drunk’?
Years of chronic alcohol abuse can have lasting effects, even after a person achieves sobriety. This is the concept behind “dry drunk,” a condition that occurs due to the lasting effects of alcohol abuse1. A dry drunk is a person who has a history of alcohol abuse but is no longer drinking. However, they still suffer from lasting effects associated with alcohol abuse, including the physical and mental characteristics that may have led to their alcohol abuse.
When a person abuses alcohol to the level at which they are considered an alcoholic, the pursuit and use of alcohol consumes their entire life. As a sober individual, a person must learn how to rebuild their life without alcohol being the thing that defines them and helps them get through each day.
The concept of dry drunk illustrates why rehabilitation does not end with detoxification or an initial inpatient rehabilitation stay. Instead, rehabilitation is a process that takes time and effort to experience the results. Sometimes mental and rehabilitation health experts will refer to a dry drunk as being in the post-acute withdrawal rehabilitation phase.
The History of the Dry Drunk Term
The dry drunk term originated in the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program4. While it was often discussed among members and shared as terminology, the term was not described in the literature until 1962. One writing described the dry drunk state as “an emotional storm”. This storm can cause a person who has abused alcohol to exhibit fluctuating behaviors that are difficult to predict. Some people describe this as being drunk without the alcohol.
In short, a person who is a dry drunk is a person who is abstinent but is struggling in their recovery. They are not moving forward with their life and their recovery but rather, is dwelling on the past5.
What Are the Symptoms of a Dry Drunk?
According to “Psychology Today,” the following are some of the characteristics of a person who is in the post-acute withdrawal phase, or would be considered a “dry drunk”:
- A person who feels resentment toward friends or family members who encouraged them to stop drinking or who gave them an ultimatum regarding their drinking.
- Difficulty in making decisions and judging even small decisions harshly as being wrong or stupid.
- Suffering from unpredictable mood swings that can almost resemble those of when a person was drinking, such as being angry, moody, or irritable constantly.
- Annoyance or frustration at the realization they will never feel truly normal when it comes to their relationship with alcohol. For example, a person may feel frustrated they will never be able to go to a party with alcohol and feel like they may be able to drink normally there.
- Hurt, frustration, and sadness for the time they lost related to their drinking. A person may reflect on lost ambitions regarding work, school, or their overall potential in life with great sadness and wonder if they can ever achieve even a portion of those at this point in their life.
- Acceptance and anger that they are personally responsible for the years and times in their life they wasted due to their drinking.
- Anxiety and fear of failure in rebuilding their life. The dry drunk may feel uncertainty about what their future holds and what kind of expectations they can realistically hold about their life moving forward.
- Jealousy toward others who may display qualities the dry drunk wishes they displayed, such as perseverance, mental toughness, and strength. Sometimes, this symptom manifests that a dry drunk will “clip the wings” of others by questioning their abilities or being overly critical of the dreams of others.
Being a dry drunk affects not only the person in recovery, but also that person’s family members. Family members may express to the dry drunk they feel like they are always walking on eggshells around them. While a dry drunk can be a part of the recovery process, the mindset can put a person in the position where they are more vulnerable to relapse2. They may feel as if no one knows what they are going through and that no one can possibly understand what it’s like to wrestle with recovery and sobriety. As a result, a person in the post-acute withdrawal phase may isolate themselves.
What Are the Causes of Being a Dry Drunk?
Post-acute withdrawal syndromes can occur for years after a person has stopped drinking3. Ideally, a rehabilitation expert can educate a person on the potential signs of relapse and help identify when their thoughts or behaviors are trending toward “dry drunk” territory. Some of the potential reasons behind this is that substance abuse can make pronounced physiological changes to a person’s brain.
Examples of these changes include decreases in levels of excitability neurotransmitters in the body. As a result, a person may feel an inhibition of emotions and have greater difficulty feeling pleasure in life. Also, researchers have theories that those who suffer from chronic alcohol abuse have a reduced capacity to deal with stress. As a result, they may experience greater difficulty in navigating the challenges that come with rebuilding a sober lifestyle following alcohol abuse.
In addition to these factors, those who have suffered from alcohol addiction were frequently not previously well-versed in self-care methods. They hadn’t focused on nutrition, exercise, and managing stress as many people who do not suffer from alcohol addiction do. When they stop drinking, they must learn the behaviors that many people learned much earlier in life to function more effectively throughout their day. This can take time to build such coping.
How Do Addiction Experts Help Treat a Dry Drunk?
When a person displays the post-acute withdrawal symptoms of a dry drunk, they often start rejecting the help of others. Unfortunately, this is just the time where a person should start seeking out the assistance of others. Examples of some of the steps a person who is experiencing this syndrome should take include:
Although it may be challenging during this time to accept help, talking to a counselor about their feelings and symptoms can be beneficial to long-term recovery.
Group Support meetings
Attending 12-step meetings, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and recognizing they are not alone in these emotions.
Some people may find dry drunk symptoms are reduced or alleviated by taking the medication acamprosate. Also known as Campral, this medication is used to treat alcohol dependence by helping to re-stabilize imbalanced chemicals in the brain that were affected when a person struggled with alcohol abuse.
Practicing healthy behaviors that support a person’s lifestyle in recovery. Examples can include eating healthy foods, such as lean proteins, whole-grain carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables. These dietary changes can promote better blood sugar stability, which can help a person avoid the highs and lows of emotion that can come with swings of hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia.
Investing Time in New Hobbies or Interests
Finding positive outlets for one’s life and time. While dry drunks may try to withdraw from society, they can usually most benefit by trying to engage with it. They may wish to start by volunteering with a community organization, such as a food bank, library, or church. They could also start to take up a new hobby, such as a new exercise type or meditation. By focusing one’s energy on positive pursuits, they can start to feel as if they are accomplishing something within their sobriety.
Recovery means facing the emotions and conflicts that led to drinking or drinking excessively in the first place. For some people, this could mean the existence of an underlying mental health disorder, such as depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
There are the time-tested methods of behavioral therapy that can help those who are defined as dry drunks recognize their behaviors and how they can be detrimental to one’s recovery. With time and effort, they can learn new ways to see the world and themselves that are in a more positive light.
Conclusions on the Term 'Dry Drunk'
Dry drunk is a state of mind that can lead to relapse and strongly affect a person’s quality of life. It can cause negative behaviors that inhibit their abilities to enjoy their life now that they are no longer controlled by alcohol. A person who may identify with the symptoms of being a dry drunk should not hesitate to seek medical care for their symptoms. Seeing a rehabilitation counselor with an expertise in recovery can help identify the steps that can lead to positive changes. It is also beneficial to reach out to others through participation in group therapies, such as 12-step groups.
When a person shows the behaviors of a dry drunk, they are at a crossroads. They can either withdraw and continue their negative and self-destructive pathway. Or, they can choose to seek help and accept that the way they feel is part of the recovery process. Learning how to deal with the “new normal” of sobriety can be challenging at times but is worth the effort and not something you have to deal with alone.