Dry Drunk Syndrome

Not Drinking, But Not 'Of Sober Mind' Either

Anguished Man
Abstinent, But Miserable. © Getty Images

Unfortunately when many former drinkers go through the grieving process over the loss of their old friend, the bottle, some never get past the anger stage.

It is a very real loss. The drink has been their friend for many years and one they could count on. When the whole world turned against them, the bottle never let them down. It was always there ready for the good times, the celebrations, the parties, as well as the sad, mad, and lonely times, too.

Finally, their old friend did let them down - they got in trouble with the law, lost a job or career, almost lost their family, or the doctors told them they had to stop drinking - whatever the reason, the circumstances of their life brought them to the point where they made a decision to say "so long" to the bottle.

The Stages of Grieving

Whether they realized it or not, they began the stages of grieving - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance - the same stages most people go through when they have a great loss in their lives or have been told they have a terminal illness.

First, comes the denial - it's really not that big a deal, I've always said I could quit anytime - and then the anger and depression when they realize just how much that had come to depend on their old friend alcohol.

Many make it through the process to the final stage - accepting the loss, learning and growing through the experience, and moving on.

Abstinent, But Miserable

Some never make it to acceptance. It's sad to see them, sometimes many years later, still stuck in their anger, bitterness, and resentment at having to make the change in their lives. They haven't had a drink in years, but they have also never had a "sober" day.

You even see them in the 12-step rooms - been in the program for years and years and their lives seem to be a constant unmanageable struggle.

All those years and they have no more of a spiritual awakening than they did the first time they walked into the room.

What Is a Dry Drunk?

Let's be clear: there is no medical diagnosis of "dry drunk." Even among recovering alcoholics, some do not understand the dry drunk concept and others adamantly deny that there is such a thing.

But, in Al-Anon Family Groups, where the friends and family members of alcoholics find recovery, they know exactly what the description "dry drunk" entails.

"Dry Drunk" has been described as "A condition of returning to one's old alcoholic thinking and behavior without actually having taken a drink." Or as one wise old drunk put it, if a horse thief goes into A.A. what you can end up with is a sober horse thief. Or a personal favorite: you can take the rum out of the fruit cake, but you've still got a fruit cake!

Those who quit drinking but are still angry about it, wind up living miserable lives and usually make everyone else around them miserable too. If it has been said once in an Al-Anon meeting, it has been whispered thousands of times, "I almost wish he would go back to drinking."

When he was drinking, they could blame their behavior on the alcohol. Now, they have no excuse.

Post Acute Withdrawl Syndrome

When long-time, heavy drinkers quit consuming alcohol, the brain begins to re-adjust to the chemical damage that alcohol has caused and this process can last for weeks or months and sometimes years, a phenomenon known as post acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS).

Sometimes recovering alcoholics can experiencing PAWS have dizziness, slow reflexes, coordination problems and trouble keeping their balance. They can appear intoxicated when they are completely abstinent. Some observers say this phenomenon is known as being a "dry drunk," but that is not the most popular use of the term.

However, some of the other symptoms exhibited by people dealing with PAWS—particularly mood swings, depression, and emotional instability—could very well explain some "dry drunk" behaviors.

Okay, I Don't Like It, Now What?

So, what do you do if you were forced to quit drinking by someone or some circumstance and you are angry about it?

The simple answer to that question is to find something that you do like, but that is not always as easy as it sounds.

There is a theory that in order to fully recover from the effects of alcoholism, the alcoholic must replace the obsessive behaviors in his life with their spiritual opposites. Frankly, there are those who believe that without such spiritual help from a power greater than themselves, true recovery is impossible.

The Alcoholics Anonymous program has championed this theory for many years to millions of "hopeless drunks" who are now living happy and sober lives. It's hard to argue with that record of success.

But, beyond the spiritual side of recovery, there are other steps that can be taken to help make life fun again, without alcohol:

Develop a hobby. Take up gardening, start or expand a collection, build something, go fishing, or learn how to develop your own web pages! Try to find some activity to fill those leisure hours that you used to spend drinking.

Get healthy. All those years of drinking probably took some toll on your physical health. Join the YMCA, take up an exercise program or jogging, or play a sport. Get on some kind of regular (daily) improvement routine.

Improve your mind. It's never too late to learn new things. Get a library card, take a continuing education class, improve your job skills, or surf the 'Net.

Spend time with your family. Maybe you can't replace all those times that you neglected your wife and children while you were in the barrooms, but you can make a new start. Take your wife out to her favorite place, take the kids or grandchildren to the park, or start a project in which the entire family can participate.

Life doesn't have to be a miserable experience just because you quit drinking. There's a whole world out there for you to explore and learn about.


DeSoto CB, et al. "Symptomatology in Alcoholics at Various Stages of Abstinence." Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research September 2007

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