stressed young man on park bench - dry drunk

Have you ever heard the term, “dry drunk?” It sounds funny, doesn’t it? How can someone who is not drinking still be a drunk? The answer may surprise you.

Alcoholism Is Not Just About Drinking

Alcoholism is about more than just drinking. Some people can stop the activity on their own and get on with their life. Unfortunately, this is not the reality for most people with a drinking problem. They need help to stop drinking. 

When an alcoholic stops drinking, are they cured of their problem? No, they aren’t. If taking away an addict’s drug of choice doesn’t cure them, there must be more to the disease of alcoholism than drinking.

What Is a Dry Drunk?

A “dry drunk” is a colloquial term often used to describe a person who has stopped drinking alcohol but has not addressed the underlying issues, attitudes, and behaviors associated with their addiction. In other words, a dry drunk is someone who is abstaining from alcohol but still exhibits the negative patterns of thinking and behaving that were present when they were actively addicted.

Someone is a dry drunk if they have stopped drinking but still behave in the same types of dysfunctional ways they did when they were drinking. Someone who is behaving in this way is also at high risk for a relapse

Signs & Symptoms of Dry Drunk Syndrome

Someone who is a dry drunk may experience one or more of the following signs and symptoms:

Thinking about good times associated with alcohol
The dry drunk thinks constantly about drinking and how good it felt. Even though there were negative experiences associated with alcohol use, the person focuses only on the good times.

Irritability and anger
There may be feelings of anger about having to “give up” drinking and never being able to drink like a “regular” person. Without alcohol to act as a buffer to deal with everyday stresses and the expectation that people in the dry drunk’s environment should comply with their wishes, the person experiences conflict, which escalates the anger.

Things need to happen right away for someone who is a dry drunk. A person in this state doesn’t want to wait for anything.

Impulsive actions
Impatience and the need for instant gratification may lead to impulsive acts as a way to deal with strong emotions, stress, or restlessness. The person will likely ignore the consequences of their actions.

A dry drunk may deny that they need to make permanent lifestyle changes going forward. They may tell themselves that they are fine and don’t need any further help.

Sense of overconfidence
A dry drunk may feel as though they can start drinking again without becoming addicted to alcohol. They may tell themselves and those around them that they can “handle it this time.”

What to Do if a Loved One Is a Dry Drunk

A dry drunk may have stopped drinking, but they haven’t received alcohol abuse treatment. That person is still carrying around whatever underlying reason made them turn to alcohol initially. They haven’t learned any new ways to deal with life stressors instead of taking a drink, done any work to improve their self esteem, or healed broken relationships left in the wake of possibly years of alcohol abuse.

The only thing that has changed is that the person has stopped drinking. Their alcohol use hasn’t been replaced by something more positive. Unless something new is put in place to balance what is being given up, the person who was using alcohol is setting themselves up for a relapse. It won’t be because they weren’t trying or because they are a bad person; it will be because they didn’t have the right kinds of tools in their tool box.

Talk to your loved one about the situation. Tell them you are pleased that they have stopped drinking but that you still have concerns. Use specific examples of incidents you have observed to point to an issue that can be addressed in treatment (impulsivity, romanticizing drinking, irritability, angry outbursts, etc.). Offer to help your loved one find a treatment program where they can get an assessment.

Get Help for Dry Drunk Syndrome

English Mountain Recovery offers alcohol treatment programs for severe or long-standing addictions.

By Jodee Redmond