What is a “dry drunk?”

Although the term “dry drunk” goes back to the creation of the 12-Step program and the early days of Alcoholics Anonymous, the behavior isn’t just limited to alcoholics in recovery. In the 1970 book The Dry Drunk Syndrome, author R.J. Solberg defined the term as “the presence of actions and attitudes that characterized the alcoholic prior to recovery.”

Nearly 50 years later, the term still gets thrown around with various connotations aside from the original definition of a dry drunk as a white-knuckled, newly sober alcoholic, which could refer to:

  • Resentment toward friends or family
  • Anger and negativity surrounding recovery
  • Depression, anxiety, and fear of relapse
  • Jealousy of friends who are not struggling with addiction
  • Romanticizing their drinking days
  • Being self-obsessed
  • Replacing the addiction with a new vice1

Beyond the signs and symptoms, however, a complicated reckoning is underway. Aside from craving that which addicted the person in the first place, interpersonal issues may be a driving cause for relapse, particularly if the “dry drunk” is a person who quit their habit without a professional team of experts supporting them.

So they go back to their old lives and struggle to repair the relationships with friends and relatives. The difficulty of this is often so overwhelming, that those who once defined themselves by the substance they were addicted to may choose to re-enter that life. That life is no doubt appealing when one’s existence seems devoid of its former pleasures.

Doing the work

This is not to say that every person in recovery feeling the overwhelm of their sobriety right this minute is destined to become a dry drunk. However, it does mean that recovery is an inside job. The big work gets done internally. The dry drunk may have physically participated in the ceremonies and sessions, but not fully absorbed the lessons.

Some typical signs of a dry drunk are:

  • Acting self-important, either by “having all the answers,” or playing “poor me”
  • Making harsh judgments of self and others
  • Being impatient or impulsive
  • Blaming others for one’s own faults
  • Being dishonest, usually beginning with little things
  • Acting impulsively or selfishly
  • Struggling to make decisions
  • Having mood swings, trouble with expressing emotions, feeling unsatisfied
  • Feeling detached, self-absorbed, bored, distracted, or disorganized
  • Longing for the drinking life
  • Fantasizing or daydreaming
  • Backing away from or dropping out of a 12-step program2

An article in the Australian scholarly journal Addiction Research and Theory states, “Recovery is best understood as a personal journey of socially negotiated identity transition that occurs through changes in social networks and related meaningful activities.3

But I’m already out of rehab…

Here’s the good and the bad news: In many ways, you will never be out of rehab. Though you may not have structured activities, therapy, and chores, etc., you will always have the opportunity to learn from your addiction. Those in recovery are often gifted with an internal energy that propels them toward their goals.

There are methods to fight off dry drunkenness, and some of those methods are geared toward including your rehab routine into life in the outside world. Build a network of sober friends and activities. Read books and memoirs about substance abuse and see what resonates with you. Exercise as much as you can—pick something that makes you lose your breath! Interact with yourself in a kind and thoughtful way.

Take more time with your choices

Austrian psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Perhaps the best thing we can do for our recovery is to make that space more expansive. Don’t push the idea that there should be some ideal state to your recovery. It will be hard. You will be challenged by stimuli. But for the first time in quite a long time, you will have the power and foresight to change how you respond. At that moment, you can truly become free.

Instead of choosing your old substance, choose to:

  • Write about your experiences (don’t self-edit; everything is important)
  • Connect with your family
  • Volunteer—selflessness has been shown to raise our estimation of ourselves as well as those we help
  • Discover a hobby you know nothing about and dive in
  • Include a meditation/yoga/martial arts practice into your daily routine
  • Be a mentor to others in need of help with substance abuse
  • Lastly, be gentle with yourself. You are human. Be a good one by being good to yourself.


Even if you’re out of rehab, we are always here for ongoing support. For more information on post-recovery and for anyone seeking help with addiction and substance abuse problems, please call True Recovery at (844) 744-8783
or visit us online.