Got Religion, but Still a Dry Drunk

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: Dr. Bradbury, some time in the past, you wrote an article explaining the “dry-drunk syndrome.” I don’t know where I put the article and I would like to read it again. Could you please reprint it? I’m living in a home with a man who got religion and quit drinking, but nothing else has changed. His moods change by the moment. I can’t keep up with them. I feel like I am walking on eggshells. He sees himself as the victim of everything that goes on in the home. I get the impression that he believes he is entitled to behave the way he behaves, and the kids and I are supposed to conform to his every whim, but it’s not possible to keep up with his “highs” and “lows.”

You have well described the dry-drunk syndrome, and your husband probably needs to get help, even if he got religion. Some people—men and women—believe they have been delivered from their addiction, and the only thing that has changed is that they quit drinking, or drugging. What they need is help confronting their attitudes and behaviors.

Here is the article you requested. I hope it helps.

A dry drunk is actually a condition that describes one who has quit drinking or drugging but continues to manifest behaviors of alcoholism or drug addiction. In essence, the individual has not made the necessary emotional changes that should be characteristic of sobriety.

Being an alcoholic or drug addict sets up many thought patterns, attitudes, feelings, and actions that are immature. Simply removing the alcohol or drugs without changing these underlying factors produces the dry-drunk syndrome. It’s often those around the non-drinking alcoholic or non-using drug addict that recognize a lack of progress toward recovery, or a reversion back to the old ways of thinking and acting.

For some who have made progress, dry drunk behaviors can be a precursor to a relapse. Some of the symptoms of a dry drunk are restlessness, irritability, moodiness, and general discontent. Below are some of the attitudes common with the dry-drunk syndrome as described in substance abuse treatment literature.

Self-centeredness: This is adolescence at any age. It describes an attitude in which “the world revolves around me.”

Grandiosity: When this attitude is present, the individual is able to do anything, conquer any habit, and produce greater and better work than anyone else. However, grandiosity does not always mean that the individual believes he or she is the best. It can manifest as attention-seeking through playing the victim role.

Impulsivity: A common observable behavior of people with addiction problems is poor impulse control. They tend to do what they want when they want, with little regard for others around them.

Judgmental Attitude: This is a very destructive attitude for people in recovery. It is closely linked to grandiosity and tends to view everyone else judgmentally. But it may be a reflection of the individual’s view of himself or herself. When someone diminishes their own value, they may project that feeling unto others. Or, they may simply become very critical of everyone else in an attempt to elevate their own worth in comparison to others.

For those living around someone in a dry-drunk state, there are symptoms that are very noticeable. However, the individual in the dry drunk is likely to deny those symptoms or turn a blind eye to them. Below are some of the behaviors that may manifest during a dry drunk:

1. The alcoholic/addict becomes restless, irritable, moody, and discontented.

2. The alcoholic/addict becomes bored, dissatisfied, and easily distracted from productive activities.

3. The alcoholic/addict’s emotions and feelings become listless and dull, and nothing seems to excite them anymore.

4. The alcoholic/addict starts to the engage in a euphoric yearning for the good old days of active use.

5. The alcoholic/addict starts to engage in magical thinking, fanciful expectations, and unrealistic dreams.

6. The last thing the alcoholic/addict wants is to engage in introspection of self.

7. The alcoholic/addict begins to feel unfulfilled and has the feeling that nothing will ever satisfy the yearning or fill the hole in the soul.

Many alcoholics and addicts began drinking and using at a young age. When they began, emotional maturity was suspended. When I ran a treatment group, I would explain that the participants were 14 years old, not their chronological age. Similarly, individuals experiencing a dry drunk are only 14 years old. They are caught in a perpetual state of adolescence, and until they are willing to confront the immature, underdeveloped attitudes and emotions, there can be no forward movement toward real recovery.

You may be wondering, “What can a spouse or family member do when a loved one is experiencing a dry drunk?” In many respects, you must confront them as you would an active alcoholic or drug addict. Practice tough love.

1. Maintain healthy boundaries. Define yourself, and don’t allow the alcoholic/addict to violate your values.

2. Do not enable them to continue the dry drunk lifestyle. Do not lie for them or make excuses for their inappropriate behaviors.

3. Do not rescue them from the consequences of their actions related to the dry drunk. If the individual goes to jail for assaultive behavior related to an angry outburst, don’t bail him or her out. Make him or her accountable for his or her actions.

4. Do not let him or her manipulate you by mood swings or inappropriate attitudes. If the person returns to active use because you didn’t respond to manipulation attempts, do not feel responsible for his or her moods or actions.

5. Look for opportunities to gently point out the dry drunk attitudes and accompanying actions. Confrontation at the wrong time is likely to lead to denial and an argument. You may feel like you are dealing with a young adolescent and in truth you are, so consider how you might approach a teenager. Since egocentrism is a defining characteristic of both a teenager and an individual in a dry drunk state, there will come a time when the individual has a need. It may be at that time that you can confront and help the person to move forward in his or her recovery.

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected]

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