Dry Drunk

Dry drunk is the slang term for a person who has stopped drinking alcohol but who still acts impulsively, behaves in dysfunctional ways and makes risky decisions associated with addiction. Signs of dry drunk syndrome can include dishonesty, isolation, depression, anxiety and glamorizing alcohol use.
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The thought and behavior changes that signify full recovery from alcoholism don’t always accompany sobriety. Some people continue to act recklessly or compulsively even after they quit drinking. Dry drunks are people who have overcome physical dependence to alcohol but haven’t committed to living a healthy, meaningful life in recovery.

The term dry drunk may also refer to a mindset associated with addiction. People with this mindset are sometimes referred to as dry drunks. Members of Alcoholics Anonymous use dry drunk to refer to people who abstain from alcohol but who haven’t committed to the 12 Steps of AA.

Definition of a Dry Drunk

Health professionals don’t usually use the term dry drunk. They may refer to these people as high-risk patients because they have a high risk of relapse into alcoholism.

Alcohol addiction is a disease of the brain that causes physical, emotional and behavioral side effects. Abstaining from alcohol and going through detox allows the body to overcome some physical side effects of addiction, such as cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Abstinence will also help people begin their recovery from liver damage.

However, detox doesn’t treat emotional or psychological causes of addiction. Most people require some form of therapy to treat the mental problems associated with addiction. Therapy can come in the form of a 12-step program or medical therapy provided by a therapist or counselor.

Many people who are addicted to alcohol are unable to stop drinking on their own. They may be able to achieve a few days or weeks of sobriety, but they don’t know how to correct other behaviors associated with addiction. These behaviors eventually lead to relapse unless they’re treated with therapy.

Signs of a Dry Drunk

A dry drunk can be difficult to identify. The signs can be similar to late symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, which include irritability, depression and loneliness. Some people in the recovery community think every person who detoxes from alcohol becomes a dry drunk until they learn how to live in recovery.

Others think a dry drunk is a person who is sober but unwilling to commit to rehab or other forms of therapy. These people exhibit behaviors similar to the problematic behaviors they displayed while drinking.

Dry drunk symptoms can include:

  • Being dishonest
  • Feeling isolated
  • Attending bars or clubs
  • Obsessing over alcohol
  • Refusing treatment or support
  • Associating with alcoholics or binge drinkers

Some people think a person in recovery has dry drunk syndrome if he or she starts to display behaviors associated with alcoholism. Becoming a dry drunk can be a warning sign for alcohol relapse.

Other consequences of dry drunk syndrome include:

  • Feeling frustrated about sobriety
  • Experiencing anxiety or depression
  • Problems at work or school
  • Deterioration of relationships
  • Turning to other substances of abuse

Dry drunks often experience consequences that are similar to those faced by people in active addiction. Alcohol is no longer the cause of their problems, but problematic thinking and behaviors inhibit them from living happy and healthy lives. Although dry drunks are no longer drinking, they are unable to fully enjoy the benefits of quitting alcohol.

Differences Between Sobriety, Dry Drunk and Recovery

Many people interpret the terms sobriety, dry drunk and recovery differently. The recovery community usually associates sobriety with abstinence. But a person isn’t considered to be in recovery until they correct problematic behaviors associated with addiction.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine lists several criteria for living in recovery:

  • Being honest with oneself
  • Enjoying life in sobriety
  • Being dependable
  • Helping others
  • Contributing to society, family or one’s own wellness

A person may be a dry drunk during the time between becoming sober and entering recovery. Depending on the severity of the person’s condition, it may take months to become stable and advance through all the alcoholic recovery stages. Thus, someone may be considered a dry drunk for multiple months.

Others don’t call people who are actively trying to overcome alcoholism dry drunks. They are only considered dry drunks if they don’t try to commit to rehab, therapy or self-help programs.

How to Overcome Dry Drunk Syndrome

The easiest way to overcome dry drunk syndrome is to commit to a program of recovery. However, that’s easier said than done. The disease of addiction can make it difficult for individuals to make rational decisions.

People often want to recover, but it’s difficult to understand which steps to take. Some people may not accept that they’re an alcoholic who needs therapy. They may think they are a high-functioning alcoholic who doesn’t need help. Many decide to seek help only after they’ve been unable to quit on their own.

Some people require formal therapy from a rehab center or outpatient therapist to overcome dry drunk syndrome and find motivation to change their behaviors. Others can benefit from self-help programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery.

Attendance at therapy appointments and self-help meetings isn’t enough for some people in recovery. They have to commit to therapy and have faith that it will help them if they want to overcome dry drunk syndrome and enter recovery.

Critics of the Term Dry Drunk

Alcoholism is stigmatized by society. Many people associate the disease with moral failure and dishonest behavior. Today, these misunderstandings are recognized as major barriers to treatment and recovery.

The American Psychiatric Association recommends avoiding stigmatized language when referring to mental health conditions. Using considerate words prevents people seeking recovery from feeling demonized.

Some people believe the term dry drunk is an inappropriate way to refer to a person who is trying to go through the process of alcohol recovery.

When the word drunk is used to describe a person, it’s usually a derogatory term. The term drunk can also refer to a state of intoxication. Most people trying to recover from alcoholism are ashamed of what they do when they are drunk.

Calling people dry drunks after they become sober can make them feel like they’re still as alienated as they were before they quit drinking. Instead of using words that condemn them, we can use words that encourage them to continue the path to recovery.

Alternatives to the term dry drunk include:

  • Person trying to recover
  • Person in early recovery
  • Person new to sobriety

Many people turn to anonymous self-help groups to hide from the shame associated with alcoholism. If members of the group refer to them as dry drunks or other stigmatized words, the groups may inadvertently push them away.

The term dry drunk is one way to refer to a person who is sober but not fully committed to recovery from alcoholism. But calling people dry drunks may make them feel stigmatized or alienated. Other terms may be more appropriate and welcoming.

Chris Elkins, MA
Senior Content Writer, DrugRehab.com
Chris Elkins worked as a journalist for three years and was published by multiple newspapers and online publications. Since 2015, he’s written about health-related topics, interviewed addiction experts and authored stories of recovery. Chris has a master’s degree in strategic communication and a graduate certificate in health communication.
Medical Reviewer
Ashraf Ali
Psychiatrist, Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health

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