What is a “Dry Drunk?”

The term “dry drunk” is used, often in a derogatory manner, to describe a person who no longer drinks or uses drugs, but who hasn’t dealt with problems that contributed to the addictive behavior in the first place.

People often turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with depression, anxiety or stress. Dry drunks frequently have poor coping skills and have failed to address difficult issues. Thus, the physical cravings for drugs or alcohol may be gone, but the addictive behavior and psychological problems continue to cause problems for the individual and his family and friends.

Dry Drunk Syndrome isn’t a formal medical term and some people deny the problem even exists. However, the term is widely used in the recovery community, where it is also known as “white knuckle sobriety.” A dry drunk may also be described as a “non-using alcoholic.”

Some people mistakenly believe that successful detox is enough and further addiction treatment or rehab isn’t necessary, but many addiction professionals view a dry drunk as a walking time bomb, or a relapse just waiting to happen.

NIDA (The National Institute for Drug Abuse) agrees that getting sober is just the first step in the recovery process, and that without therapy, the risk of relapse is high. Stopping use of drugs or alcohol is merely the first step.

Addiction is a complicated illness, but dry drunks share several common characteristics that may also serve as warning signs. A dry drunk may:

  • Take recovery for granted, becoming complacent and failing to put any real effort into getting well.
  • Be angry at giving up drugs or alcohol. Dry drunks often grieve for the lifestyle changes associated with recovery and may find it difficult to let go of anger or regret.
  • Fantasize or romanticize using drugs or alcohol; forgetting the misery and grief caused by addiction.
  • Turn to “substitute” addictions such as gambling, overeating or pornography.
  • Feel a great deal of self-pity that they made such a tremendous sacrifice. They may feel cheated when sobriety isn’t as easy as they expected.
  • Blame others for their unhappiness. Dry drunks are often angry at partners, family members or friends who prompted them to stop drinking.
  • Express envy of people who are successful in recovery, or anger towards people who are able to drink in moderation without becoming addicted.
  • Be fearful of failure and afraid of living life without relying on drugs or alcohol as support.
  • Exhibit poor impulsive control, with little concern for how their actions affect other people.
  • Tend to be irritable and easily distracted, with a low tolerance for day-to-day stress.
  • Tend to be self-centered and judgmental of others in recovery.
  • Are hesitant to admit a problem exists, and are unwilling to seek help or advice.

What to do if you think you (or a Loved One) may be a dry drunk

The first step is to admit you still have a problem with substance abuse or addiction.

Avoid denial by facing troublesome issues head-on. At this point, it’s best to seek drug and alcohol treatment or rehab, which can help you work through issues that contributed to your addiction.

Be realistic. Remember that recovery always involves good days and bad days. An occasional bad day doesn’t mean you’re a dry drunk. However, it’s important to take your concerns seriously, as unresolved issues can lead to serious addiction, and in some cases, suicide.

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