The Fine Line Between Recovery and Being a Dry Drunk

Disclaimer: While the phrase “dry drunk” is used frequently in recovery circles, it’s generally considered a derogatory — and hurtful — term. For the purpose of this blog post, I will use the term “dry drunk” to refer to untreated substance use disorder. But the phrase should be avoided when speaking to or about people in recovery. If you think someone is exhibiting dry drunk behavior, try pointing out examples of their behavior rather than using this term. Dry drunk symptoms are frequently experienced by people in recovery and are nothing to be ashamed of.

What is a dry drunk?

A dry drunk is someone who has stopped using substances but still displays the same negative attitudes and behaviors they exhibited when they were actively using drugs and/or alcohol. The term was coined by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Founder Bill Wilson and is often used in the rooms of AA. Essentially, a dry drunk is someone with untreated alcoholism or untreated drug addiction. It describes a person who is abstinent from substances but still suffers from the unresolved emotional and psychological issues that started and sustained their use disorder. 

The first time someone said I was acting like a dry drunk, I almost fell out of my chair. “How dare they, my recovery is perfect! I thought. But then I realized that they weren’t insulting me — they were simply calling my attention to the fact that I was relying on old coping mechanisms and behaviors. Given the fact that these habits are just about as old as I am, it’s quite easy to fall back into them. So it’s helpful when people (gently and kindly) point out that I’m exhibiting old behaviors that no longer serve me.

What are the symptoms of dry drunk behavior?

Just as everyone’s use disorder is different, so are the untreated signs of it. Using myself as an example, one of my default drinking behaviors was believing I was a victim. The problems in my life were never of my own making — I always blamed them on other people. It was my parents’ fault that I was an alcoholic because they passed along their alcoholic genes. Or if work wasn’t so hard, I wouldn’t have to drink so much. Or my husband and I got into a fight last night and that’s why I drank so much. Basically, I never took accountability for anything I did, it was always someone else’s fault. 

In recovery, I learned that if I saw everyone else as the problem, it was more likely that I was the one causing the issue – or at the very least, I was partially responsible. So when I am struggling with untreated use disorder – i.e. exhibiting dry drunk behavior — I often find myself blaming someone or something else for whatever is upsetting me, rather than seeing the part I play in the problem. 

Am I a dry drunk?

Dry drunk behavior may be hard to spot within ourselves. So having a therapist, sponsor, trusted friend or family member gently point it out can help you work on modifying the behavior. And falling back into our old thinking and behavior patterns is totally normal. Change takes time and it’s important to be kind to ourselves — breaking habits we’ve had for years is no easy feat.

It’s also difficult to hear things about ourselves that we don’t like. But in my experience, when a loved one tells me I am exhibiting a negative behavior, they are usually right. I try not to be defensive and I take the time to do the necessary self-examination. The goal is for me to change my behavior so that I don’t fall back into my old ways. The more I act like I did when I was drinking, the more likely I am to actually drink. So dry drunk behavior can serve as a powerful warning signal for relapse.

What’s next?

Recovery is rarely linear. We are going to make mistakes, and that’s okay. We may fall back into old behavior and thought patterns, and that’s okay, too. What’s important is that we recognize when we’re taking steps backward and do what we can to turn ourselves around. And remember, the only thing you have to do perfectly in recovery is not pick up a drink or drug. On some days, that’s enough!

What do you think about the term “dry drunk?” Do you have any dry drunk behaviors you recognize in yourself? Share them in the comments.


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