Dry Alcoholic—What Is A Dry Alcoholic?

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on December 14, 2020

A dry alcoholic refers to someone who is in recovery for alcohol addiction, but still exhibit or engage in behaviors consistent with alcohol abuse. Participating in recovery means much more than abstaining from alcohol, and people experiencing “dry drunk” issues may need ongoing treatment options and support.

What Is A Dry Alcoholic?

Entering a substance abuse treatment program for an alcohol use disorder (aka alcoholism) is a significant step in the right direction. Admitting that a person’s alcohol abuse has become an alcohol dependency can be difficult and complicated.

Some of the patterns of behavior are difficult to change, and in some cases, a person will carry those dysfunctional behaviors and patterns with them.

Dry alcoholic or dry drunk is one of those problematic behavior patterns that has been identified in people who have ended their drinking days.

However, a disclaimer regarding dry alcoholic syndrome is this: Just because a person is experiencing symptoms associated with dry drunk syndrome does not mean they did not have a successful recovery, or that they need to repeat alcohol rehab.

Timeline And History Surrounding The Dry Drunk

Originating from Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson, the men who created and founded Alcoholics Anonymous, the terms “dry drunk” or “dry alcoholic” refer to a person who doesn’t drink but still “acts like a drunk”. Alcoholics Anonymous is a 12-step program for those struggling with alcohol abuse.

In the book, “The Dry Drunk Syndrome”, author R.J. Solberg stated that the syndrome was someone who had the behaviors, attitude, and actions of an alcoholic prior to sobriety.

A dry alcoholic may be sober, but they are likely to still have relationship issues with loved ones. They may continue to have unhealthy habits, behaviors, and thoughts. Essentially, these individuals have not explored or healed from what brought them into addiction in the first place.

It is worth noting that dry drunk syndrome is less common for those who attend a treatment program with a support system, such as inpatient, outpatient, or a 12-step program. This is likely because the individual has a need to explore the reasons they began drinking in the first place.

Is The Term “Dry Drunk” Offensive?

There are terms that people use that they never consider to be offensive, like alcoholic. Instead, we refer to someone as having an alcohol use disorder or struggling with alcoholism or alcohol addiction.

Likewise, the terms dry drunk or dry alcoholic have been deemed offensive by some. Imagine being a newly sober person, and suddenly someone is referring to a sober person as a dry drunk or dry alcoholic. To a person who has struggled to obtain sobriety, this can be viewed as very disrespectful.

Additionally, within the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, the term “dry drunk” has been used to describe someone who isn’t putting in enough effort or what they refer to as “working the program”.

Using a term like dry drunk to an individual who participates in a 12-step program can be counter-productive.

Using a term like alcoholic or drunk to refer to anyone in recovery can be quite insulting. Instead, describing the symptoms a person is experiencing and not using these terms can be more helpful.

It may also be helpful to know that the symptoms of dry drunk syndrome are part of post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS).

The chemical adjustments that the brain has to make after a person keeps drinking can also cause issues with:

  • slow reflexes
  • unsteady balance
  • incoordination
  • dizziness
  • dry drunk symptoms

Signs And Symptoms Of A Dry Alcoholic

Some of the common signs that a person is having a hard time with dry alcoholic syndrome include:

  • replacing addiction with a new one (internet, pornography, food, sex)
  • terminal uniqueness (self-absorbed attitude)
  • negativity or frustration toward not being able to drink
  • jealousy of others who do not struggle with addiction
  • looking back fondly at drinking memories
  • mood swings
  • problems with decision-making
  • self-pity
  • lying, even about small things
  • harshness and being judgmental towards self and others
  • resentment toward loved ones
  • anxiety about achieving goals, being challenged, or even living “normal” life
  • struggling to accept that addiction may have kept them from dreams and aspirations that they never considered

The entire issue with dry drunk syndrome is within the mind of the person in recovery. A person who strives to maintain sobriety can work to overcome this mentality of a dry drunk.

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Attending a recovery program that provides comprehensive substance abuse treatment, a 12-step program, or another type of support group helps a person determine the root cause behind their alcoholism.

How Does Someone Become A Dry Drunk?

Substance abuse treatment exists because there are a number of steps that have been found to be effective in treating addiction and maintaining sobriety.

Addiction treatment specialists strongly encourage detoxification, substance abuse treatment, comprehensive care to address additional issues, therapy, and aftercare all be included in the process of rehabilitation.

If a person is unable to participate in those steps, it is possible for them to develop a dry alcoholic syndrome.

For many who struggle with alcohol addiction, drinking alcohol is part of who they are. They may feel lost, and wonder who they are without alcohol.

They may also wonder if others will still like them or want to spend time with them, or if they can even keep the same group of friends once sobriety is achieved.

Dealing With Stress In Sobriety

Stress is a normal part of life. However, for a newly sober person, managing stress can feel overwhelming. Especially if their previous solution to stress was to drink alcohol.

It is important to learn how to manage stress, and develop a support system that can help when the stresses of life seem impossible to bear. A complete substance abuse treatment program can help teach those skills.

Lack Of Access To Recovery Support

Whether it is due to lack of funding or available time, a person in recovery may not be able to attend an inpatient or outpatient program other than to detox from alcohol. This may lead to a lack of insight into the underlying causes of their alcohol use disorder.

Participating in a recovery support program can provide support, clarity, and understanding into the underlying causes of addiction and how to manage them.

Unresolved Emotional And Mental Health Issues

For some, alcohol abuse and drug abuse was self-medication for emotional or mental health issues they were struggling to deal with. Sobriety without being able to address these issues often leaves the newly sober person raw and as though they have open wounds.

People struggling with alcohol or drug addiction often have a dual diagnosis, meaning they struggle with mental health issues as well. These individuals will benefit from a rehab program that also offers mental health services.

In addition, the early stages of sobriety are overwhelming and emotional. Many people use alcohol to numb the pain and push off emotions they did not want to deal with.

Ways To Manage Dry Drunk Syndrome

Understanding how a person develops dry drunk syndrome can be helpful when trying to manage the symptoms.

Knowing the individualized circumstances that led to developing alcohol use disorder will also help a person gain some insight into how to deal with dry drunk syndrome.

Reaching Out For Support In Addiction Recovery

It is important to have a solid support system during recovery. In fact, in many substance abuse treatment centers, part of the program is identifying those in your support system.

Additionally, part of substance use disorder rehabilitation is to build up one’s support system with friends, family members, and addiction treatment professionals to help maintain sobriety.

Developing Healthy Habits In Sobriety

Life as a recovering alcoholic can open up a significant amount of time in a person’s schedule. Time spent drinking alcohol or recovering from drinking is available, and finding ways to fill it can be an important step forward.

Some options to consider are:

  • spending time with loved ones
  • exercising or joining a gym
  • developing spirituality
  • taking classes
  • gardening
  • learning new hobbies or interests
  • yoga
  • taking up a sport
  • volunteering
  • developing healthy eating habits

Seeking Professional Help When Needed

Feeling frustrated is a common part of recovery, but it does not have to be the only feeling. Managing emotions and developing appropriate coping skills associated with recovery is a helpful part of the process.

It is also recommended that if a person finds themselves struggling with the symptoms of dry alcoholic syndrome, they should seek professional help.

Therapy can help an individual understand what led them to abuse alcohol, and how to manage those issues in a way that can help more than turning back to alcohol.

Attending a support group or 12-step program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, can help as well. Having a sponsor, connecting with others in recovery, and being held accountable also help with stability in sobriety.

Helping A Loved One Struggling In Recovery

After a loved one has stopped abusing alcohol, we sometimes expect the worst to be over. However, there can be very real concerns with relapse and how to help them manage their newfound sobriety.

One of the biggest ways to help a person who has just completed a recovery program is to become educated regarding addiction and relationships with a person in recovery. Attending an Al-Anon program can be one way to show support for your loved one.

Treatment After Completing A Recovery Program

Sometimes relapse does occur. Other times, a treatment center offers treatment options that aren’t quite a good fit for you or your loved one.

There are many different rehab programs out there, so finding one that meets the unique needs of a person struggling with addiction is possible.

Contact our professional team today. Specialists are standing by to make sure we find an addiction treatment option that is a good fit for you or your loved one.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on December 14, 2020
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