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Understanding the ‘Dry Drunk': The Challenges and the Steps to Permanent Change

Getting sober is one of the hardest things a human being can do. However, many of us are surprised and disappointed to find that eliminating our drinking/using is not enough to provide us with the quality of life that we crave.

One of the universal truths amongst those who have lived with addictions is that we do not handle disappointment at all well. We maintain low expectations, fear of having hope, and too often we become bitter, jaded and cynical.

What is a Dry Drunk?

Those of us who remain abstinent but make no further changes are sometimes referred to as being, “dry” or a “dry drunk.”

We’re left with behaviors and unhealthy perspectives we had while active in addiction. The only difference is that now we are no longer feeding it. Having ceased drinking alcohol or using substances to cope, we can be overwhelmed by a flood of emotions.

On a very basic level, we’re not sure how to be. Too many of us wait for this to pass and become stuck between the desire for a better life, the fear of change, and the shame that prevents us from asking for help.

Attitude Problems

One of the worst aspects of being "dry" is that our attitude tends to suck. Without consciously choosing to be, we can find ourselves being...

  • off putting and defensive toward others
  • offended by other people’s cheerfulness - asking ourselves “How can they be so happy when I’m so miserable?”
  • difficult friends to have and so we tend to be incredibly lonely

Folks who are "dry drunks" have an uncanny knack for getting in our own way. Instead of making every attempt to focus on what is possible in the "here and now", we simply allow our emotions to take us wherever they will. Some of us wallow in self pity and others just stay angry. Instead of pursuing fresh goals we get stuck in ideas about how unfair our lives are.

More than Two Choices

Part of our continued "black and white" thinking is that we only ever entertain two options at any one time. Some of us consider the choice of joining a 12 step program or going it alone. Others choose between professional counseling or alone, church or alone, or with family or alone.

It rarely occurs to folks who are "dry" that we’re free to choose any and all of these. If we look closely, we find that staying in the "either/or thinking mode" is simply justifying our choice to avoid what scares us and to remain within our current comfort zone.

Staying within the familiar breeds self contempt.

Challenge Your Perspective

Viewed in it’s entirety, recovery can seem like an overwhelming amount of work. Depending on our understanding of the process, we may see little value in pursuing it 24 hours at a time.  The challenge is that we still view life as a series of destinations and getting “there” seems impossible.

Our perspective is narrow because "we’re looking through the wrong end of the telescope". I often ask folks to identify, “What would you recommend to a friend in your shoes?”

By taking ourselves out of the problem, even for a minute, we become open to see many more possible solutions.

Recovery should always be broadly defined. Its essence is best captured in the adage, “Recovery is awareness of the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that block change.” Awareness is the annoying bit of sand in the oyster that instigates the creation of something new and valuable.

The key is to accept that every recovery process is 24 hours at a time and that there is no finish line. We get better as we go, if we are willing to broaden our minds and be receptive to new ideas.


There are certain inevitabilities;  trying to make significant changes alone is one of them. Our need is not only for support and encouragement but also for accountability. If we are the only one holding ourselves responsible for our goals, we’re likely to disappoint. It’s far easier to embrace a case of the “f**k its” than it is to believe that we can transform our lives.

Recovery hinges on integrity.

Just telling someone we respect what we intend to do increases our chances of follow through. It also provides opportunities for input and guidance. Without the assistance of those who are further along the path than we are, we’re likely to reinvent the wheel and struggle unnecessarily.

Partner Up

As long as our struggles exist only within ourselves, nothing changes. If we can choose even one person to express our needs to, there is every reason to have hope. Two heads aren’t just better than one; they’re a million times better than one.

Choose your someone based on the person they are, not on the person you would like them to be.

Choose someone who will be both supportive and completely honest in their feedback. Allow them to help you create a plan for a better life.

Get started. As long as we are vertical and breathing, it’s never too late.

Clinical Social Worker/Therapist
My story is I'm forever a work in progress and I love connecting with REAL people who are doing great things. I'm blessed to be making a living doing something I love. I'm a proud dad and the luckiest husband ever. I'm an aspiring author - check out my recovery blog at: recoveryrocks.bangordailynews.com Thanks! Jim

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