There’s a common saying in Alcoholics Anonymous: “It works if you work it.” In AA and other 12-step groups, it serves as a broader reminder that recovery programs are only as effective as the amount you buy into them. This lesson holds true outside of meeting halls and inpatient facilities as well, with an enduring application to recovery in general.
It’s an enormously difficult process and a journey that takes a lifetime, which is why it’s so important to be 100 percent committed. When an alcoholic (or addict of any kind) tries to undergo recovery without this full, no excuses buy-in, there’s a name for it: dry drunk syndrome.
You might have heard the term before, but what does it really mean? In this piece, we’ll talk through how to spot a “dry drunk” or “dry alcoholic” and why it’s so important to be fully committed when you undergo a recovery program.
The Classic “Dry Drunk”
Let’s start with an example of what we mean when we use the term “dry drunk.” Here’s a sample anecdote:
Sean started drinking in high school, first casually at parties with friends and then more often. When he got to college at a big state school, his drinking habits were considered normal due to the social glorification of binge drinking, but as he neared graduation, it became clear that he had a problem.
Drinking at least four or five beers a day was taking its toll on his work. He managed to perform well enough to get his diploma, but after graduation, he found it hard to find consistent employment. Friends and family started to notice how advanced Sean’s drinking had become and began to worry about alcoholism.
Fast-forward a few years. Sean lost his driver’s license from multiple DUIs and has spent a total of three nights in jail for being drunk and disorderly in public. For his most recent charge, he was given mandated outpatient treatment for his alcoholism.
Now Sean is technically “in recovery,” but he’s being forced to be, and he’s still unwilling to admit that he had a problem that put him where he is today. He wishes he could be back in college, drinking with his buddies, but he also looks at people who have successfully undergone rehab with jealousy.
Sean is a “dry drunk.” Does it sound like Sean’s mindset is conducive to successful recovery?
The answer is a clear no. Sean is someone who would get singled out as a high risk for relapse, a factor shared by many with dry drunk syndrome.
What Is Dry Drunk Syndrome?
The term “dry drunk” originated in a book published in 1983 called The Dry Drunk Syndrome, written by R.J. Solberg, a founding member of AA. The term originally referred to a person who had quit drinking but didn’t adopt the mindset of a successful AA (or other 12-step recovery group) member.
Today, the term “dry drunk” can be applied to anyone who goes through a substance abuse rehab program without being fully committed to the goals of their recovery. Like the example above, dry drunks can be a product of mandated treatment, but many people who elect to receive treatment think that’s all they have to do to achieve lasting sobriety.
Signs and Symptoms of a Dry Drunk
Psychology Today breaks down a typical dry drunk by mindset and behavior so that others may recognize these types in their midst. Dry drunk syndrome is marked by the following behaviors:
Resentment for the person who convinced them to stop using
This can be a parent, friend or other loved one, but a dry drunk is unlikely to realize that they are to blame for their situation. According to those familiar with effective recovery methods, this is a problem. Humility plays a major role in successful recovery, and someone who cannot embrace their own accountability for their circumstances is unlikely to find success in their journey.
Frustration at the fact that they’ll never be able to drink (or use drugs) again
Using drugs is more than just a physical addiction. It’s a mentality and for many people a crutch, and by the time addiction becomes fully developed, it can be deeply ingrained in a person’s psyche.
The realization that they can never drink or use drugs the way they used to may come with a variety of conflicting emotions, including frustration, annoyance and even serious mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
Realization of the things they missed
Everyone has goals, but addiction can push these goals out of a person’s mind. The dry drunk finds it difficult to accept that they can’t change their circumstances and can harm their recovery with inner conflict and inability to reconcile with opportunities missed.
Having to be accountable
Addicts are not generally accountable for their actions, at least when under the influence. In fact, many people use drugs and alcohol as an excuse for their behavior, a way to place blame for things they did on a lack of self-control.
The dry drunk has a painful realization in the clear, sober light of day that they have to be accountable for their actions and no longer have this crutch to lean on.
Anxiety and fear of failure
Humans have the potential to self-sabotage because we get into a frame of mind in which we think failure is inevitable. As Psychology Today writes, this impulse is stronger in addicts and alcoholics, people who already feel like failures.
The dry drunk will take it a predetermined outcome that they’ll fail in their recovery and take a “why bother” attitude, making failure a self-fulfilling prophecy and confirming their doubts about the whole treatment and recovery process.
Jealous of those who have been successful
Groups like AA emphasize the ability to recover as a community and celebrate others’ successes like your own. This is a quality absent in the dry drunk, who sees their peers succeeding and reacts with jealousy and resentment instead of congratulations and unconditional support.
Why Dry Drunks Are Doomed to Failure
Disregarding all the nuanced qualities of the “dry drunk mind-set,” the reason this person has trouble getting and staying sober is simple: They choose not to make a commitment to a difficult process.
It’s not unlike weight loss or dieting, bodybuilding or quitting a bad habit like chewing your fingernails: It takes hard work and willpower. If you’re not willing to fully commit to growing and developing your mind-set to focus on recovery, your odds are very low of achieving lasting success.
How Can These Types of Addicts Get the Help They Need?
Reaching patients who exhibit any combination of the signs listed above and resist buying into the program is a difficult task. How can you help those who don’t think they need help?
Sometimes, the solution lies in waiting and hoping that the person in question has a realization before it’s too late.
Other times, a varied course of therapy and counseling can be successful. Either through sessions with an addiction counselor who helps the patient look inward at their own problem or by sitting in group sessions where others tell of experiences that sound similar to their own, patients who exhibit dry drunk syndrome may come to find that they don’t miss who they were when they were using. They may even come to realize that there are natural better highs out there that are way more satisfying than a drink or a drug.
The Bottom Line: Dry Drunk Syndrome
If someone you know is a dry drunk, you may not be able to help them as much as you hope to, and it can be worrying to know that they may be standing in the way of their own health.
Unfortunately, you may not be able to force them to see reality. What you can do is try to get them the help they need and hope that addiction medicine professionals can instill a sense of commitment to recovery.