The State of Arrested Adolescence

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: My husband had a long history of alcohol abuse but had been sober for a number of years when I married him. The honeymoon wore off very quickly and I began to think I married Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I have a feeling my husband is a dry drunk. Please write about what a dry drunk is and let me know if there is anything I can do about it.

Your description of your husband as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, particularly with his history of alcohol dependence, gives some indication that what you are seeing are the behaviors of a dry drunk. I will provide you with some information on it and let you decide.

A dry drunk is someone 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 characterize sobriety. I refer to it as state of arrested adolescence.

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, the dry drunk state can be a precursor to a relapse. Some of the symptoms of a dry drunk state 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 also can be a reflection of insecurity and inferiority.

Victim Mentality: One common characteristic of alcoholics and drug addicts is a victim mentality. For many, while drinking or drugging, they justified doing so by being the victim, and blaming their use of alcohol and drugs on someone or something. It could be the death of a loved one, the first anniversary of the death of a loved one, or even the tenth anniversary of the death of a loved one. It could the irritation of the neighbor’s dog barking, a flat tire, or something that didn’t arrive in the mail on time. It could be the perception that someone didn’t show enough affection, or those who are supposed to be friends failed to visit on a schedule unknown to anyone but the alcoholic or drug addict—as though others were supposed to be mind readers, knowing when he or she wants company and when he or she doesn’t.

If that kind of thinking is not confronted and not challenged by the nondrinking alcoholic, or non-using drug addict, it has great potential for relapse because the alcoholic will feel justified in relapsing, and it will be someone else’s fault.

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. These individuals have never developed the ability to endure psychic pain, therefore, they impulsively demand their way.

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. It has been said, “During the first year of sobriety, it’s best to take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth.” Don’t be surprised if an individual in this state accuses you of being judgmental when you have said nothing or done nothing.

For those living around someone in a dry-drunk state,there are symptoms that are very noticeable. However, 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:

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

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

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

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

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

•The alcoholic addict threatens to go get drunk and blame you for it. They can be very moody and pout, causing you to walk on eggshells, just like when they were drinking or drugging.

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

•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 tell the participants in the group that they were 14 years old, not their chronological age. Similarly, individuals experiencing a dry drunk are only 14 years old. They are caught in an arrested 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 were asking, “Is there anything I can do to help my husband stop being a dry drunk?” In many respects, you must confront him as you would an active alcoholic or drug addict. Practice tough love.

Maintain healthy boundaries. Define yourself, and don’t allow him to violate your values.

Do not enable him to continue the dry drunk lifestyle. Do not lie for him or make excuses for his inappropriate behaviors.

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

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

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 him move forward in his 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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