Dry Drunk Syndrome–Is it Beatable?

dry drink

Don’t feel the same after you’ve quit.

A Definition of Dry-Drunk Syndrome

When I moved from Albuquerque to Cincinnati, I went to some AA meetings and made it a point to network with recovering drinkers.  As you’ll recall from previous posts, it’s important to have at least some connection with recovering alcoholics as you go through your own recovery.  This helps commiserate and to not feel alone.

Now, it’s important, of course, not to allow these friendships or collegial relationships to create a sort of drinking atmosphere.  You certainly can’t go back to a lifestyle of hanging out with drinkers all the time and being in a situation similar to the one you were in before you started cleaning up.  You want to be able to understand what’s going on on the ground with other recoverers but not let anyone drag you down.

It’s a situation with which I got up close and personal with a friend I’ll call Rick.  Rick worked as a short-order cook at a greasy spoon-type place: grilled cheese sandwiches, chili, that sort of thing.  Kind of depressing food, if you ask me, but anyway.  He was a short guy with short, receding hair, who seemed to me pretty intelligent, and the kind of guy with a lot of warmth who could be a really good friend and a great guy if he really put his mind to it.

Rick was sometimes showing signs of cocaine abuse.

One of the things Rick and I liked to do together was go to high school basketball games.  These are a lot cheaper than college games (Cincy doesn’t have a pro team), with no fuss for traffic and parking.  Really, it was mostly something to do where you couldn’t possibly get a cup of beer.  We’d go to games and sometimes have some junk food or something afterward.  Sometimes we’d hang out at his place or mine listening to The Who or whatnot, talking about 70’s music, just staying out of trouble.

Before long, I started to notice a change in Rick.  One time, he suddenly started criticizing these ball players out there—just high school kids.  Then after that game, he started whining about the conversation between a couple of the parents who were sitting a few rows in front of us.  I didn’t think anything of it at the time, just chalking it up to him having had a lousy day at work.  But it wasn’t too long after that I found him being pouty and diffident while we were sitting around listening to tunes.  Then he started treating me with sarcasm and criticizing me for minor things.

Once when I went to pick him up—we were going to a movie this time—he just didn’t come out.  I think I didn’t have a cell phone at the time or whatever the case was, but I wasn’t able to get him out, and ended up seeing the movie by myself.  Later, he told me he was asleep at the time, but didn’t apologize.  I was kind of annoyed with him, and he got really irritable with my about that.

It was an interesting experience for me, a flashback to my days of drinking.  Alcoholics are notorious for not showing up when you’re supposed to meet them, being asleep or incapacitated when you show up to pick them up, etc.  I did things like this five or six times.  But I always had a bunch of friends who did, which means that going through it with Rick really frustrated me.  I was trying to get clean and sober; my other friends were positive influences on me; who needed Rick if he was going to make me feel as though I was hanging around with a drunk again.  I didn’t want him to influence me and my mental energies.

What Rick was going through is called Dry Drunk Syndrome.  This means doing some things you would’ve done while drinking hard even though you’re clean.  As I’ve mentioned previously, there are a few reasons to get sober, and a few important parts of your recovery.  Yes, the health reasons are key and very important.  Generally, going through life dry and sober is important.  But the clean life involves making really important mental and emotional changes, too.  It’s important to improve one’s overall emotional life to be able to stay sober, and yet if you stay sober, you should keep working at emotional health, and will probably find results.  The point is that while getting off drink is an end to itself, it also makes minimal sense to get yourself clean but cling to some of the crazy hangups and harmful thinking you had when you were drinking.

That’s what Dry Drunk Syndrome is.  What I learned was that Rick was in a place of not yet kicking some of the problematic emotional ways of being.  The alcohol was gone but the psychological stuff remained for poor Rick.

Why Rick?

So, what is it that makes a particular person fall prey to “dry drunk syndrome” and not another person.  I have to say, I’m fortunate enough that I didn’t succumb to it.  Some people think that dry drunkers are always people who go cold turkey and go it alone, not taking advantage of programs like AA or equivalents.  However, that just was not the case with Rick.  I met the fellow at an AA meeting.

AA gives people plenty of methods for coping and for dealing with their emotional issues.  But keep in mind that not everyone is at the same starting place.  What we have in common is the drinking, but who says our other psychological factors are the same?

Wendy Perkins, a Specialist Addictions Counselor, tells us about the connection between Dry Drunk Syndrome and Borderline Personality Syndrome.  The National Institute of Mental Health defines Borderline Personality Disorder as involving:

  • trouble regulating thoughts and emotions
  • reckless behavior
  • unstable relationships

Now, to connect that to Dry Drunk Syndrome, here’s how Perkins describes the DDS sufferer:

” The most innocuous remark can be taken as nasty criticism and blown up into a violent confrontation. An unreturned phone call, a broken or missing belonging, someone arriving late, becomes the excuse for a major eruption. “

Anger and aggression are common and this extraordinary violence will always be out of proportion to the trivial nature of the event.

The way I’d connect these statements is that it’s kind of hard to know what’s Dry Drunk Syndrome and what’s Borderline Personality Disorder.  I think, then, that a person with one will have very little chance of escaping the other.  The alcohol will be gone, but the symptoms will remain, and it really doesn’t matter what you call it.

The symptoms described by Perkins sound a bit like me when I was drinking, but I apparently never had BPD, which means when the drinking stopped, I had a pretty good chance of getting things in shape emotionally.

Rick Turns Things Around

Friends, I would like to tell you that I lent my friendship and general charm and greatness and really turned Rick around.  But I did not.  I probably could’ve tried a bit harder with him, but improvements the big man made weren’t due to me.

I noticed that Rick would continue to plod along.  I saw more irritability and a bit of an outburst from him from time to time.  I learned that somewhere in there, Rick’s buddy and boss at his greasy spoon started up a business of his own, a café for sandwiches and things like that.  He took Rick with him, despite the fact that I know Rick was sometimes a pill at work, as I’d expect him to be.  This flattered Rick and it gave him a chance to feel better about himself, cooking higher-end concoctions.  I saw his mood perk up from this, but not a whole lot.
dry-drunk interior

I did share some of my own recovery methods with Rick, but his brain chemistry just wasn’t perfect for him.  One of the things that really helped was when he started dating a woman I’ll call Gail on a regular basis.  Gail was a saint, but she did advise Rick that he needed to make some changes.  She was the victim of some of his problematic personality early on, and it almost put things to an end.

However, they did continue seeing one another.  And a couple of really good things happened.  First of all, the relationship itself was good for Rick, as one might expect.  But the big thing was that being in the relationship and knowing that he had the ability to hurt Gail with some of his goofy behavior inspired Rick to do something he should’ve been doing all along: see a therapist.

The therapist didn’t prescribe anything other than a run-of-the-mil antidepressant, but she helped Rick work through a lot of his issues, using the literature with which she was familiar.  Therapy is often one of the mainstays of any possible organized treatment for DDS.  Let’s look at some others


In addition to seeing a therapist, one might go through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which means methodically breaking down any errors in thinking and replacing them with more positive thoughts.  This very organized way of doing things has passed many tests, and may be the way to go, particularly if milder attempts haven’t worked.

Other ways of doing things can include putting yourself through an informal program.  There’s an extent to which that’s what Rick did.  He kind of got “assignments” from his girlfriend—things she wouldn’t tolerate and that he needed to work on and he worked on them.  The many techniques you see all over this blog can be effective for you here. These include things like making plans and goals in certain areas, breaking down various goals into sub-goals, praising yourself for successes to boost your self-esteem, etc.

This one’s a bit tricky, since no longer drinking isn’t the answer.  The good news is that you’ve already kicked the bottle.  What an accomplishment that is—and doesn’t it give you confidence and courage for more improvements.  If you can tame demon alcohol, you can tame your own mind, right?

Photo Credit Piyushgiri Revagar on FLickr