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.
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
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.