Dry Drunk Syndrome

Intoxication without alcohol may be a warning sign of relapse

‘Dry Drunk’ is a term that describes the state of an alcoholic who is uncomfortable when he is not drinking. During the drinking period, the alcoholic displays certain deviations from his general attitude and behaviour. If these traits persist even after he gives up drinking, he is called a ‘dry drunk person’.

‘Dry’ refers to the fact that he is abstaining from drinking; ‘drunk’ signifies the same deviations in attitude and behaviour as exhibited during the drinking period. In other words, there is no improvement in the quality of his life. In other words, there is intoxication without alcohol.

Alcoholism is an illness that consumes the addict both physically and emotionally. ‘Dry drunk’ does the same.

Many, including the alcoholic, believe that when drinking is stopped, a state of normalcy will automatically return. This is not true. The state of normalcy will return only if the alcoholic stays away from alcohol and at the same time makes efforts to change his thinking and behaviour that will, in turn, make him a balanced person with a fresh, healthy attitude.

During recovery, an addict is likely to experience certain problems associated with the ‘dry drunk’ syndrome. A ‘dry drunk’ person is only halfway across a stream. With extra efforts, he can cross the stream; without that, he will start sinking – he is likely to go back to drinking.

This may happen again and again. But there is always hope – a hope not based on simple wishful thinking; but a hope based on the authentic experience of people who have successfully crossed rough currents in the stream. 

Sobriety implies leading a good qualitative life without alcohol or drugs, making readjustments to go back to a good pattern of life similar to the one possible experienced well before the onset of alcoholism. This task needs planning and execution. Creating new habits in life requires patience. However, it can be achieved.

Dry drunk symptoms      Sobriety based qualities

  • Overestimates his abilities
  • Lives beyond his means
  • Seeks immediate rewards for his efforts             
  • Wants immediate relief from stress
  • Easily bored, distracted and disorganised                 
  • Does not have any hobbies/ relaxation techniques/ recreational activities 
  • Feels unworthy and incapable    
  • Has poor self-esteem, Judgmental outlook, focuses on negative aspects     
  • Lack of personal insight     
  • Finds excuses to avoid AA meetings    
  • Exhibits apparent insight as opposed to genuine insight/ gives lip-service to the recovery program
  • Leads a life consistent with his means
  • Structured financial planning
  • Makes structured daily plan of action
  • Is patient, plans one day at a time
  •  Recognises need for regular exercise/ balanced diet/ relates with family friends, feels presence of Higher Power
  • Confident, has healthy self-esteem
  • Feels grateful, takes responsibilities for  his actions
  • Honestly evaluates himself
  • Realises the need for meetings, take help whenever needed 
  • Accepts his powerlessness, develops belief in Higher Power

In short, a return to drinking is not a conscious choice but the result of a series of warning signs. The ultimate end of these warning signs is a return to drinking. Or it may result in a severe emotional breakdown, physical complications, or significant stress, which may lead to suicidal attempts.

The old saying, “this too shall pass”, may be remembered during the ‘dry drunk’ period. This will help the alcoholic to cope effectively with discomfort and eventually get out of it. 

Signs of relapse

Here are the several warning signs of relapse:

Fear about wellbeing: Alcoholics, during their initial stages of recovery, experience extreme fear and anxiety. There is a lack of confidence about facing life without alcohol. It is like giving up a long-trusted friend.

This apprehension is short-lived and will go away in time.

Denial: The alcoholic makes an outright denial of the truth about himself. He or she does not accept the need for a change in his lifestyle.

A fearless moral inventory, as described in the fourth step of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), alone will be able to help him to break his denial.

Over-confidence: The alcoholic convinces himself that he will never drink again. He makes ‘tall promises’. He does not follow a recommended recovery program. 

A structured and practical daily program will help him to remain sober. 

Attempt to impose sobriety on others: He/ she tries to educate others and impose sobriety on others. He begins to focus more and more on what others are doing than on what he should do.

He will remain sober if he concentrates on identifying his shortcomings and adopting appropriate methods to change them. 

Defensiveness: There is a noticeable increase in their defensiveness when talking about their problems. They find many reasons for avoiding AA, and their arguments reveal an attempt to ignore the truth that they need any help.

This pattern has to interrupted because continued sobriety inevitable calls for support and help from others.

Compulsive behaviour:  Behavioural patterns become very rigid. When the alcoholic is in the company of others, he/ she either tries to monopolise the conversation or remain silent. An attempt to overwork also begins to appear. Some compulsive behavioural patterns like gambling, video gaming, horse racing, or taking other mood-changing drugs are other indicators.

They may try and direct this compulsive behaviour in a positive pattern. For instance, he may be encouraged to go to the gym, relax with family members, or regularly attend AA meetings.

Impulsive behaviour: The alcoholic takes major decisions with thinking correctly. These sudden actions lead to highly stressful situations. 

A method to overcome this is to postpone taking action on the decision made. Rethinking and seeking feedback will help in making proper decisions.

Loneliness: The recovering individual reports episodes of intense loneliness. If there is involvement with other people, it is either a compulsive or an impulsive involvement. He feels highly depressed. Typically, the family members or friends try to ‘humour him’ out of his depression.

These attempts by family and friends usually don’t work. The person may require to seek psychiatric consultation.

Tunnel vision: The alcoholic begins to look at life in isolated compartments and not as a whole. This leads to too much concentration on one area of life while neglecting other aspects. 

For instance, the person goes to work early every day and stays until late at night. He comes homes very late, does not spend quality time with his partner or children and immediately goes to sleep. In other words, the attached undue importance to his work life and overworks when it may not be necessary at all. This leads to the total neglect of his family, friends and other areas of his life.

Instead of applying himself to only one area, he should create a suitable schedule that includes spending time with family and friends, exercise, hobbies such as reading, gardening, visiting relatives, or attending AA conventions. 

Irregular habits: Irregular eating and sleeping patterns are commonly noticed. He either oversleeps or is unable to sleep.

A structured plan which includes healthy eating habits and relaxation alone can help. Good health and adequate rest are critical. A person who feels good is more likely to think well. 

Periods of confusion: Periods of confusion increase in frequency, duration and severity.

For example, decision making becomes impossible. There is a repetitive thought pattern and a lack of proper judgement. 

The recovering addict may be assured that these are part of the disease and do occur. Sharing and being aware of the fact that these will disappear over time will help.

Irritation and anger: The alcoholic get angry and frustrated and exhibits resentment towards others. He or she may accuse others of being highly critical. This arises from his own attitude toward himself. In turn, this increases his stress and anxiety. 

Sharing at AA meetings or with a sponsor will mitigate such uncomfortable feelings.

Progressive loss of daily structure: Daily routine becomes haphazard. Regular habits such as waking, sleeping and eating on time disappear. The person is unable to keep appointments. He becomes confused, and there’s plenty of idle time. This adds to stress, frustration and fear. 

A daily, realistic plan of action is the only solution to this problem.

Irregular attendance at AA meetings: Rationalising patterns develop to justify this behaviour. Recovery loses its priority. 

This is a dangerous warning sign Regular follow up with the therapist and attendance at AA meetings are vital for recovery.

Self-pity: “Why do these things happen to me? Why am I alone an alcoholic? Nobody appreciates what I am doing!” These sort of thoughts begin to invade the alcoholic’s mind. 

Sharing with other recovering persons and a therapist is likely to help him realise and get assurance that he can lead a qualitative life.

Thoughts of social drinking: At this point, the person feels that they can overcome their problems by drinking. He or she starts thinking that they can drink in a controlled manner.

They start experimenting with controlled drinking or drugging but soon return to obsessive using and developing all sorts of problems.

If you keep these warning signs in mind, you may be able to intervene and seek help when such symptoms appear. Many times, the person himself or herself cannot recognise these signs. That’s why regular attendance at 12 Step meetings and interaction with a sponsor and therapist are of great value. 

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