While this is true for many people in early recovery, there are exceptions. Particularly in the first year, some recovering addicts experience “dry drunk syndrome” – a period when they become inexplicably angry, depressed and distant and are at increased risk of relapse. Much to the dismay of loved ones, a new way of life that began in treatment can take a reversal, resulting in even greater dissatisfaction and instability than before the addict stopped drinking or using.
Not to be confused with the inevitable ups and downs in early recovery, dry drunk is a high-risk stage marked by drug cravings, distorted thinking and emotional dysregulation. Although the recovering addict manages to abstain from drug or alcohol use, they either haven’t made the changes in other areas of their lives essential for a fulfilling, productive and sober lifestyle or they made progress only to return to long-held negative attitudes and patterns.
A dry drunk is characterized by:
• Frustration and hopelessness about the goals, experiences and dreams lost to addiction
• Inability to make decisions
• Judging themselves and others harshly
• Difficulty expressing themselves or sharing their feelings
• Blaming others for their dissatisfaction
• Taking a hands-off approach to life and recovery (e.g., isolating or cutting back on 12-Step meetings)
• Unpredictable moods, anger or irritability
• Jealousy of others who set goals and pursue their dreams
• Lashing out against or withholding support from loved ones
• Feeling numb, as though nothing excites them anymore
• An exalted sense of self-importance or an “all about me” attitude
• Replacing drugs or alcohol with other addictive behaviors such as work, sex or gambling
If a recovering addict is not moving forward, they are at risk of moving backward. In addition to robbing the addict and their loved ones of happiness and healing, dry drunk syndrome can be a precursor to relapse. Restlessness, boredom, discontent and magical thinking are all signs that a recovering addict could be inching their way back to active addiction.
The prognosis isn’t all doom and gloom. The first hurdle – getting sober – has been surmounted; now ongoing 12-Step work and counseling are needed to address the emotional and psychological issues preventing the recovering addict from becoming healthy and whole.
Reconnecting with a dream or discovering a new passion can replace the time and energy once devoted to drug use and help the recovering addict grow confident in their abilities. To combat grandiosity, attention-seeking or self-centeredness, recovering addicts may benefit from giving back, often by greeting others at 12-Step meetings, sponsoring a newcomer or volunteering in the community.
Recovery is about much more than not using drugs or alcohol. It is a process of redefining one’s life. This is why we set realistic expectations from the start, advising clients that recovery is a lifelong series of reassessments and adjustments. Even when it’s more comfortable to isolate or make excuses (“At least I’m still sober!”), being in recovery means doing the work each and every day. As one day turns into 100, and 100 turns into 1,000, recovery replaces addiction as a way of life.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. Dr. Sack is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of addiction and mental health treatment programs. You can follow Dr. Sack on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/drdavidsack.
Depressed man photo available from Shutterstock.
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Are You In Recovery But Not Really Recovering? (June 10, 2012)
Last reviewed: 3 Feb 2012