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You May Have Quit Alcohol, But Are You ‘Dry Drunk’?

Abstaining is only the first step when it comes to addressing addiction

There was a time when I thought alcohol was the lone agent of chaos in my life. If only I could quit, my problems would be solved. But when I did, I realized that drying out was just the start. I still had to crack the source of my addiction. If I didn’t, I’d become “dry drunk.”

Coined by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), “dry drunk” or “dry drunk syndrome” describes a person who successfully renounces booze but unsuccessfully relinquishes the mindset that originally drove them to unhealthy drinking in the first place. “You don’t want to be dry drunk,” says 29-year-old San Franciscan Alex, a recovering alcoholic who’s in AA. “Being dry drunk makes long-term sobriety almost impossible.”

Within AA, “dry drunk” is regularly used as a pejorative. It’s been thrown around to describe people who aren’t “working the program” or trying hard enough, which is obviously subjective. Everyone’s recovery is different, and it’s entirely unhelpful to call someone “dry drunk” just because they’re acting in a way that you perceive as problematic or not good enough. Therefore, it’s become an increasingly controversial phrase, and many recovery experts say it’s overly stigmatizing.

In fact, The Dry Drunk Syndrome, a 1970s AA pamphlet, defines the term as “the presence of actions and attitudes that characterized the alcoholic prior to recovery.” That’s a pretty harsh rendering, seeing as it basically demonizes everything the person was before they got sober.

The phrase becomes even more harmful when you understand that, while people with substance-use disorders are a diverse bunch, many have at least one underlying trauma that propelled them into developing a chemical dependency. “Substances are a symptom of addiction,” explains psychologist Ingrid Clayton, author of Recovering Spirituality: Achieving Emotional Sobriety in Your Spiritual Practice. For many, what the substances were being used to suppress — anxiety, depression, heaps of emotional damage — must be addressed in order to avoid relapse and live a happier life.

That work can come in many forms. Clayton says trauma therapy is immensely helpful and probably necessary for most. But addiction and the mental upheaval it’s often accompanied by are complex, so you’ll likely have to make other changes, too. For instance, addiction counselor Heather Hayes says self-defense classes are popular among her female patients who turned to drugs and alcohol in response to abuse. Dan Mager, author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction, says his 40-year-long daily meditation practice has been an incredibly helpful way of parsing emotions and thought processes.

Of course, many who suffer from addiction find that 12-Step programs provide a structured path toward comprehensive recovery. And while there are obvious religious undertones among the Steps, many agnostics find their own ways to benefit from them. For example, rather than looking to a god, Alex discovered his higher power in the philosophical works of the late English thinker Alan Watts, who was influenced by Eastern spirituality and pushed a mentality that focuses on interconnectedness.

Along those same lines, there are many recovery communities, like Recovery Dharma, that provide alternatives to the traditional 12-Step approach. This is immensely valuable, because Hayes tells me that 12-Step programs don’t work for everyone and can leave some feeling hopeless if they don’t experience immediate improvement. That’s because their sometimes militant approach to addiction (depending on the particular group) can make a person feel as though they’re an irredeemable screwup.

But as Mager points out, post-acute-withdrawal syndrome — a cluster of unpleasant symptoms that occur when a substance-dependent person abruptly quits and their body begins to make chemical adjustments — can leave someone feeling mentally and emotionally out-of-whack for up to six months. That means if you’re having trouble pulling yourself together in early recovery, it could be a result of biological changes, not necessarily your own willpower, as some 12-Step groups would have you believe.

Moreover, the occasional 12-Step program — like every aspect of the recovery business — is prone to exploitation. “There are plenty of people out there in the treatment industry who are pontificating about being in the program,” Hayes says. “Yet, they’re doing things like patient brokering.” That’s when treatment facilities illegally pay a third party to procure patients for them, then treat the patient as nothing more than a financial asset, which usually results in a cycle of rehabs and relapses.

That said, for some, a healthy 12-Step program can provide a much-needed framework and community for people in early recovery, who are still learning what their life looks like without substances. This can really keep a person from becoming dry drunk as it can pull them away from old habits or unhealthy relationships that they maintained before sobriety. Danielle Tcholakian, a 35-year-old New Yorker who’s also in AA, describes 12-Step programs as her own world, where people can come together and use a common language to discuss the problems that contributed to their hazardous substance use.

Personally, I’ve never tried a 12-Step program despite the fact that I somehow managed to kick alcohol. I’ve done therapy and gone on my own journey toward betterment to avoid becoming dry drunk (although, I still feel like I have much work to do). I’ve also wondered whether the belief that someone recovering from a substance-use disorder needs to plunge into a full-fledged mission toward improvement is too much pressure. Doesn’t everyone have trauma, regardless of substance use? And shouldn’t a person who’s already managed to renounce their substance of choice be allowed to have flaws like everyone else? After all, as Hayes says, “We’re imperfect people living in an imperfect world.”

Well, as Tcholakian sensibly reminds me, it’s not a choice for many. Her and loads of others in recovery feel as though they need to be on that interpersonal, 12-Step-inspired quest to maintain their sobriety. “I had treatment-resistant depression for five years,” she says. “When I got into recovery, it just felt like such a balm.”

Not to mention, some 12-Step groups are much more compassionate than others and don’t pressure anyone to do anything. That’s to say they don’t all uncompromisingly believe that imperfection makes you dry drunk. “True emotional sobriety includes permission to be human,” says Clayton. “Recovery is a lifelong journey that doesn’t have a finish line.” To that end, one of the more popular 12-Step mantras is, “Progress, not perfection.”

All of which is to say that, in order to avoid being dry drunk — or in less pejorative terms, a person who still has problems to handle — you’ll have to pave your own path and find what works for you. The 12 Steps might help, but they’re not a panacea for trauma and other underlying mental-health issues. Therefore, as Hayes emphasizes, “There’s a huge place for therapy.” 

Ultimately, it’s about finding balance and whatever works for you. But as long as you’re trying, you’re doing just fine. “It’s a process that unfolds gradually and progressively and requires figuring out,” Mager says. It’s those daily steps forward, even if you occasionally mess up, that keep you going.