Are You Living with a "Dry Drunk" — Not Drinking, but Still Hurting?
By Carole Bennett, MA
As a substance abuse counselor, clients have come to me thrilled that their loved one has stopped drinking, yet report that their partnership is as brittle as tinder and inexplicably worse than before. Confusion abounds as you both have the desired sobriety and yet now that it is here, wonder why the relationship seems to be on rockier ground than when the alcoholic was drinking.
This can be called the world of the "dry drunk." A "dry drunk" may be an alcoholic or a drug addict, however here I refer only to the alcoholic.
So, what is a "dry drunk?" Other than the obvious definition (a person that is not actively consuming alcohol), a "dry drunk" is one that may have embraced a recovery program to abstain from their alcohol, but has not yet worked on the other elements that are so important to complete a clean and sober lifestyle.
If any of us were to stop participating in something that we were used to doing for years, something that was a substantial part of our daily existence, we would need additional help emotionally and psychologically in working through that absence -- especially if it's physically addicting. Remember that alcohol was the fiber of their existence and a substantial,if not total embodiment, of their being.
The alcoholic needs and should want to be responsible for all aspects of their recovery, whether it is through a 12-step program and/or a professional substance abuse counselor. Otherwise their growth in recovery could be stunted with only one piece of the pie in check: being physically clean and sober.
The alcoholic that can be described as a "dry drunk" only works on the physical clean and sober aspect of their recovery. If the emotional/psychological side is void of attention, the alcoholic can find themselves lazy, irritable, easily annoyed or quick to anger and will defend and justify at the slightest questioning or provocation.
Characteristics of the Dry Drunk
These 7 characteristics of the "dry drunk" can hit the recovering alcoholic hard in the honest light of sobriety. Because they may not know how to handle these realizations, they may use you as a punching bag for their frustration and discontent.
- Resentment at a spouse, parent or whomever that has made them stop drinking.
- Realizing that because of their drinking, they may have not realized goals, dreams and potentials.
- Wondering if it's too late, or if they are even capable of achieving those goals or dreams.
- Because of their drinking where unable to sustain a loving relationship with a partner and subsequently never experience having a family of their own.
- Having to accept the wasted years due to drinking.
- Anger at not being able to venture out or challenge themselves for fear of failure. The alcoholic may not have had any normal life experience with failure and success, which in turn would make them stronger and wiser. Instead those years were consequently shut out of dealing with life on life's terms due to the alcoholic addiction.
- Jealous of others for their stick-to-it-ivity, perseverance and strength. Resenting the family member or friend for their dreams and therefore not being supportive, questioning their ability to pursue their passion and dampening their spirit for success.
If the recovering alcoholic is not dealing with or acting out these dispositions, you may feel like you need to "walk on egg shells," or watch every move or word since you don't want to incite an angry exchange. I have heard clients say that at least when their loved one was drinking they knew what to expect. Either way, you can feel sort of "damned if you do, damned if you don't"; irresponsibility, anger and resentment now seem to go with the active alcoholic as well as the "dry drunk." Personally, I've been there with my own loved one and it's not a comfortable place to be.
I work closely with my alcoholic clients to dig into their past and try and unlock some of the emotional and psychological baggage that continues to hamper them from moving from a "dry drunk" to a healthy, functioning friend, mate, parent or co-worker. An open mind and good attitude is imperative for the alcoholic to deal with the painful issues that might have brought them to their addiction; but it can be done and there are many successful alcoholics that shed the "dry drunk" skin.
Find the New Passion
I think one of the keys for success for the alcoholic is to find something that they are passionate about. After dealing with the emotional and psychological turmoil that triggered the addiction in the first place, the alcoholic needs something to replace the total encompassing state they had during their addiction. This in turn might quell a lazy disposition or knee jerk anger.
For example, I work with an alcoholic in recovery and he shared that he built a fire pit for his backyard. We discussed how he might expand this accomplishment into a passion of vision and beauty for others. Sketching other fire pits, exploring quarry's, seeking out different materials, and designing a website and marketing flyers blew some exciting and confident wind in his sails. He could turn his energy and attention from resentment and a "woe is me" attitude to something new and feel good about each little accomplishment that went into building a new venture.
Finding a dream that is attainable and can one day become real is strong emotional medicine for the alcoholic that is in recovery. It helps them appreciate the need for expanding their clean and sober lifestyle beyond the act of just not indulging in their addiction. It stands to reason that if the alcoholic can funnel his or her energy toward healthy, productive objectives, they will rid themselves of the negative disposition of the "dry drunk."
© Carol Bennett