Tag Archives: Using dreams

Dry Drunks and Wet Dreams

Dry Drunks and Wet Dreams

This headline is admittedly a “Bait and Switch” routine. This post is really an exploration of whether drinking dreams (hence, wet in that sense) have anything to do with the absence of a viable recovery program, or, as it is sometimes referred to in the recovery rooms, a dry drunk. I was once in a 12 step meeting, listening to a woman with about 6 years sober describe a drinking dream. The next speaker, whom I have not seen since, flatly declared to the woman, “there’s something wrong with your program.” Apparently, the drinking dream seemed to be a bigger threat to the critic than to the dreamer. I spoke with the dreamer after the meeting to say how common these dreams appeared to be in my practice and in my life, although she was (gratefully) not fazed by the verbal assault from the critic.

The online recovery chat room archives host this question a lot: where do they come from, these drinking or using dreams? An unfailing and correct answer on that would have this writer on the banquet speaker and talk show circuits for years to come! However, a few themes seem to bear out among those who report using dreams: They are more frequent in early recovery, although they may not set in until 2-4 weeks in; They diminish in frequency over time, but not necessarily in realism; they are not prophetic, as most people in long term recovery experience them at some point without the relapse dream coming true. And finally, it seems like most of these drinking dream have “a way out” or at least some kind of medicine in the dream. These can be helpful hints which, if paid attention to, can strengthen the recovery efforts of the dream relapser. First, we’ll take a little medicine from Rumi on the question of where these things come from:

All day I think about it, then at night I say it.
Where did I come from, and What am I supposed to be doing? 
My soul is from elsewhere, 
I'm sure of that, and I intend to end up there. 
This drunkenness began in some other tavern. When I get back around to that place, 
I will be completely sober. 

I'm like a bird from another continent, sitting in this aviary. 
The day is coming when I fly off, but who is it now in my ear, who hears my voice? 
Who says words with my mouth? Who looks out with my eyes? What is the soul? 
I cannot stop asking. If I could taste one sip of an answer, I could break out 
of this prison for drunks. 

I didn't come here of my own accord, and I can't leave that way. 
Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.  

Now that certainly stands this question on its head! And in the end, it matters less where the dreams come from, and more about what we do with the information – and feelings – left in their wake.

Bench by Water

Frequency of Using Dreams in Early Recovery

First, the return of dreams (or even the flight of dreams) may depend largely on what someone was using and how long, as well as whether they have been placed on some detox or maintenance drug or mood stabilizers. It also depends mostly on recall ability, as we all have dream activity most of every night’s sleep. The bottom line is for a chemically dependent person, a change in sleep duration and quality logically follows a change in the chemistry of consumption. Sleep talking and sleep walking are sometimes early recovery occurrences even in persons with no documented history of either. Someone who used a lot of depressants, like alcohol or benzodiazepines, may not experience a lot of dreams in the first month of recovery. Someone detoxing from Heroin or other Opiates may report dreams soon and vividly, as their withdrawal symptoms seem to get them up more frequently in the night. Whether there is a delay or an instant onset, many people report a prevalence of using dreams in their early months of recovery which seems to diminish after a few months.

Dream Themes out of the Gates

Many of the first few dreams may involve scheming about how to get alcohol or drugs. A woman I’ll call Nora, aged fifty-seven and three weeks clean and sober, dreamed of wanting to drink from a bottle that was just across from her in her bedroom. One time Nora’s husband swept through between her and the whiskey. Next it was her pastor. It seems important that Nora came to treatment due to the “strong suggestion” of her husband, and that her religion and faith were a big part of her value system in turning away from liquor while in treatment. I have heard countless other dreams of people in a treatment setting or shortly following treatment complain of crazy dreams when they were trying to score drugs and frustrated at every turn – cannot get to their dealer; actually getting the substance and not being able to fashion a pipe or have a lighter, someone unexpectedly pulls them off of the task of getting high. There is so common a theme in this I have come to call them “powerlessness dreams” taken from a concept in the first of the twelve steps, as if to emphasized to the dreamer how much will, energy, and resources they put into their using careers.

What distinguishes these dreams from later ones is that the dominant feeling in early dreams is frustration. The body is in treatment, cannot access the drugs it is used to, and seems to makes up a story about that in dreamtime. Later in recovery, relapse is more associated with guilt and remorse, or even with grief as someone feels they have blown their whole investment in staying clean. As someone in my 28th uninterrupted year of recovery, my using dreams are fewer and farther between but also have now more complexity of feeling; in some it is as though I have been using this whole time and just faking recovery. That is a good time to examine if things have gotten stale for me, or if I am being dishonest with myself about even small things.

Helpers in the Night

Earlier, I mentioned the notion of “medicine” or alternate paths within most using dreams that could point to a relapse avoided. “Clarissa” had a dream in which a friend of hin the halfway house she resided in injected her – against her will – with a shot of some Opiate. She was angry at first, then went about the relapse within her dream. What I failed to catch in this was the

YANA Artwork restricted Voice
Prophetic Dream and Art; Restricted Voice

desire that Clarissa had even in dreamtime to stay sober, and her felt resentment toward Joanna, who gave her the “muscle pop” of Roxys. Clarissa’s artwork about this dream appears at right. She has what she processed as a laurel wreath (or halo) in one hand and her other arm is damaged. The throat is blacked out, indicating her inability to speak her truth fully, and perhaps to set boundaries. The dream seems now in retrospect a chance to clarify boundaries and choices, and to push further into the dream that maybe Clarissa gave Joanna too much of her personal power. Five weeks after this dream, these two left the house, relapsed, picked up some men, and Clarissa wound up in handcuffs headed back to jail within 48 hours.

At the same time, there was a woman who passed away recently clean and sober with 6 years of recovery (and over 72 years old). In one dream, she was flirting with a young man, who smelled alcohol on her breath, and turned into a demon. “I felt like I was staring at my disease,” she told me. In another dream, she was in a sinking boat, afraid she was going to drown. Her sponsor said, “No problem, just open the door and walk out!” The first dream taught her a respect of minimizing her alcohol use and its potential consequences; the second reinforced the simple but workable messages her sponsor shared with her. In working with both of these dreams, she didn’t need much help with the interpretation – the wisdom was embodied in the images themselves.


Dream Group: A Model for a Residential Community

Dream Group: A Model for a Residential Community

It was 2007. I had been using dreams in clinical practice for over ten years, and I had what I thought was a great idea about using the dreams in a halfway house for women. What I expected was that relapse dreams, family of origin issues, trauma, and archetypal themes would emerge and be recognizable. What I did not expect was that YANA was actually a Dream Temple all to itself, and that the women of YANA House would teach me much more than I would ever unveil to them. cropped-AthensAcropolisDawnAdj06028.jpg

There were several obvious lessons: First, my preconceived notions were more about my model of counseling than about what was truly up for them in their lives. Second, maybe most importantly, is that the women dreamt of each other and of staff in ways that conveyed the work of recovery they practiced in the day extended into night school – their dreams were helping them in ways neither they nor I might have predicted. And finally, the dreams were less an illustration of their problems, and more of a testimonial to their heroism and their progress.

Preconceived Notions

According to my Jungian preparation and experience in practice, I would expect for a lot of the dreams to conjure up archetypal images of Mother, family roles and dynamics, shadow work, and mythological themes of all cultures. The original concept paper for this effort claimed,

The connection of this small group of women overcoming their individual struggles in a larger world is for me a template for a liberation psychology of the future in which people can use their own life experience and their own dream images and dream circles to hold onto a reality different that the realities posed by world leaders, media representation, and consumerism.

So good intentions met “what is really happening here.” Of course I could identify all the themes of “my model;” after all, isn’t it true that “All is jaundiced to the yellow eye?” And yes, women did seem to benefit from the family of origin stories that surface in dreams, the options of using and not using which are apparent to women practicing a recovery program, and the recognizable “Big Dream” themes from the Collective. One woman remembered a simple dream about a green snake and a brown snake ahead of her on a path. With so many directions to take this (be it recovery story, archetypal image, religious relic, healing symbols, and so much more) it was easier for me to get excited about this dream than the client! As I recall, she left against staff advice early in the project. I’m not sure this dream told me that. . . .

The Community Becomes a Dream Figure

Surprisingly, it was not just the staff and therapists the clients dream about. They each became role players in the dream of the community. So there is always an image of the way someone presents in the setting, and the way others act around her, then the third layer of how she is perceived in the dreamworld. Susan, Founding Director of the House, had spent nearly 25 years in the field of women’s recovery when this project began. She always appeared as a compassionate figure, though perceived somewhat as a stand-in for a Freudian superego.

If there is an “archetypal” YANA dream, in it, the resident relapses and “has to tell Susan.” One resident dreamed of a relapse, then in the dream lied to Susan and had to spend the entire dream-day running errands with her!  The guilt was intense, as was the relief when she awakened to find she had not relapsed. But another resident acted as a stand-in. “Jill” had become a peer recovery figure. My notes from that time say, “Jill is dreamed by other residents as the boundary setter, the rule enforcer, the one who does it all by the book.  Like Susan, she has grown into an archetypal presence in the dream temple of YANA.” Eventually, residents develop this quality internally; but to dream of someone else is a sign that the resident has turned from the ambivalence of recovery into the basis of conceding to their deepest sense of self that she is on a recovery path.

 Dreams a Documenting Heroism in Personal Recovery

Prepared for all sorts of pathology – and not disappointed in that regard – I could not have predicted the seeds of health and of recovery that spiced the dreams of even the most “resistant” patient. One such patient had a dream of being in the Mall of America, and she found and destroyed a Xanax (her drug of choice) by dissolving it in a water fountain. Still others learn how to set boundaries with their over-involved families or assert themselves with family members or significant others who have marginalized them nearly out of existence. And while not everyone in this setting – and certainly not everyone who goes through any treatment program, makes it. But dreams seem to ring true with possibility and hope.

Dreams do not force sobriety on recovering people any more than they force wisdom upon the general populace of dreamers.  Attended to, they seem to point out those things which, if heeded, would make the path clearer and the journey easier.  Counseling through dreamtime is not a linear spray of knowledge from dreamlife to the decisions of the day.  There seems to be a conversation in the night among the sleeping souls who dwell here.  Seven years later, with many women and whole communities having turned over many times, it is still happening. Women take each other into the dream temple at night.  One this property they all sleep, they dream of their families, they dream of each other. Something happens, and they all come back out – every night.

Those who relapse in dreams universally dread telling Susan.  Not just for fear of consequence, but of confronting disappointing her.  And the figure she assumes in dreams seems to enfold more around her, so that as YANA becomes and is what she is dreamt, she is continually dreamt and developed by YANA. When residents leave, they leave with their own “inner Susan,” an internalized moral compass, and a source of consistent wisdom.


Dreams are Alive: The Dream is Always Now

It is not what is said about the dream after the dream, but the experience of the dream after the dream. A dream compared with a mystery suggests that the dream is effective as long as it remains alive.

– James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, p. 122

I am grateful to living people with vibrant souls who have occasionally sat with me and my dreams. These include Steve Aisenstat, who introduced me to the phrase “Dreams are alive” in 1998, Nancy Gallindo, who has organized several retreats in which I have been able to live with dream in a vibrant landscape, and Burger Vaughn, who taught me there is no such thing as a clock when sitting with someone else’s dream. And from Jim Hillman, in lecture, in print, and in the few candid informal conversations I was fortunate to have, I learned that the dream image is not something to be wrestled with in the dark to bring captive into daylight. One meets the dreams on the terms of the dream, or as Steve Aizenstat says, “we meet the dream in the way of Dream.”

In the earliest nightmare I recall:

I am in a cellar of an old, old building. The cold floor is made of concrete, and it is dark except for the small light, surrounding me, like a spotlight. It is like there is a circular balcony above me, I am in a dungeon, and there are a bunch of men in black robes above, each calling me guilty.

I could not have been more than about four years old, but I have always thought I was younger. Immediately I sought refuge in my parents bed, seized with terror. Notice how in the dream above, I am speaking in first person, present tense, as though the dream is happening now and unfolding before me in real time. Sometimes this is hard: dreams do not always seem to happen in sequence. Time is “unstuck,” like Billy Pilgrim in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. But in recalling, retelling, or writing a dream, my mentors have encouraged me to treat the dream like a living thing, not speaking of it as dead and past. Speak like it is alive and in the room, now.

Not until many years later reading Henry Charles Lea’s Inquisition of the Middle Ages did this scene seem powerfully centered in another time. Maybe I had recently seen an old movie about a dungeon. Was this nightmare a manifestation of Original Sin? Maybe I had upset a parent in toilet training, hence the feeling of guilt. Very hard to reconstruct now fifty years later what was going on in my very young life in terms of “day residue” or stressors. But the dream is clear and has a time and a life of his own, and serves something as a touchstone to key times in my life when the dream made its meaning more and more available to me. In the living image of the cellar in the living image of the council still sit I, or the living image of “I.” Not all dreams stay so fresh:


One clap of day and the dream
rushes back
where it came from. For a moment
the ground is still moist with it.
Then day settles. You step onto dry land.

Morning picks out the four
corners, coffeepot, shawl of dust
on a cupboard. Stunned
by brightness, that dream —
where did it go?

All day you grope in a web
of invisible stars. The day sky soaks them up
like dreams. If you could see
in the light, you’d see what fires
keep spinning, spinning their mesh of threads

around you. They’re closer
than you think, pulsing
into the blue. You press your forehead
to the cool glass.

They must be out there in all that dazzle.

Chana Bloch Ms. Dumpty

When I sit with a client, as I have for fifteen years now, exploring their dreams, I ask them to tell the dream “as though it is unfolding before you right now, in first person and in present tense.” I don’t always correct them when they lapse into third person (or occasionally second person, “you walk into a large room and you see purple curtains all around . . . .”) There are exceptions to this – sometimes a person does not have a dream ego present, watching the dream as though it is a play or a movie in front of them. Mostly, retaining the reference of the dreamer in first person keeps them rooted not just to the action of the dream, but their feelings and thoughts as well. Present tense, though, is the more important element. Working with a single dream over time allows a person to see how even a single image from the dream can, without changing, deepen its meaning for the life of the dreamer.


Clock and Writing PadWrite down the last dream you can remember. Don’t worry if you can’t remember a dream from last night or this week, write down any dream you can recall. It’s okay to practice getting it in the right order or to leave parts unstuck in time. When you are finished, proofread to make certain you have used first person and present tense. Read the dream aloud, and as you do so, notice any emotion that comes up that you did not recall when writing the dream out originally. Now that you have a revised dream in front of you, ask, “what did this dream (or image) mean to me when I had the dream? What does it mean to me now? In a later blog, we will talk about dream councils, and how a dream image may become an important voice in helping you make sense not just out of your dreams but out of your life.