Dry Drunk: A Hot Coal to be Dropped

“As rain falls equally on the just and the unjust do not burden your heart with judgment but rain your kindness equally on all.”

When I first came into the rooms, I was emotionally shattered, unsure of myself, unsure if I was in the right place, and frankly scared out of my wits. Like many people, I found that I was warmly welcomed by a group of strangers who had been exactly where I was each in their own way. After asking for help, I was given a list of names and numbers on the back of a piece of paper printed with the prayer of Saint Francis. “Welcome Home” was written at the top and I was told, “we’ll love you until you love yourself, keep coming back.” I felt absolutely no judgement from the group and for that I was thankful.

I’d read much of the Big Book prior to coming into the rooms and understood a lot about the program. I was uncomfortable with what I saw as overtly evangelical religious language in the steps but chose to ignore this and to “take what I like and leave the rest.” There were other things that I was uncomfortable with in the rooms, mostly the trite little sayings…

one day at a time

keep coming back

you’re only as sick as your secrets

let go and let god

just for today

I know it’s the first drink that gets me drunk

Over time, I became more comfortable with these little catch phrases, and I’ve been adopted some of them myself, because I now have a better understanding of just what they mean, even if I may think that they are overly simplistic in nature. I mean, lets face it, telling myself that I’m not going to drink just for today when I know damn well that I need to make sure I don’t drink for the rest of my life is a little mind game that I play with myself. And I’m okay with that. But there’s one turn of phrase that I hear in the rooms that really sticks in my crawl.

He’s a Dry Drunk!

People in the rooms use this particularly derogatory phrase to describe behavior that can better be described as acting like an asshole.

One of the problems I have with the term dry drunk lies in the fact that the phrase is an oxymoron. The idea that you can be abstinent (i.e., dry) and drunk (i.e., intoxicated) at the same time is absurd. Drunkenness is the result of drinking alcohol. (I know, the 12 Step Taliban will come out in droves against this post and I’m sure that I’ll get attacked for my stance. I will probably lose subscribers to this blog and Twitter followers over this. That’s fine.)

Now, I suspect that if you are in recovery you may be thinking a variation of one of these thoughts…

yes, but I drank to shut down those emotions

yes, but you’re not looking at the whole picture

yes, but there’s more to sobriety than abstinence

I don’t necessarily disagree with the intention behind these thoughts. Recovery is about much more than abstinence. It’s about becoming our best selves and part of that is working on our defects, behaviors, and interactions with our fellow human beings — without a doubt. But sobriety, well sobriety is about not getting drunk.

There is a lot of talk in the rooms about emotional sobriety which is basically being a decent human being and not acting like a complete asshole in your dealings with other people. It seems to me, that somehow over the years, the notion that bad behavior is limited to drunks has crept into the 12 Step psyche and lexicon. There’s a great deal of talk in the rooms about alcoholic thinking or alcoholic behavior that seems to center on very human tendencies such as comparing oneself to others, judgement of others, and feelings of inadequacy to name only a few.

Here’s a news flash: These are part of the human condition. Substance abuse is not a prerequisite for these feelings and actions. You don’t have to be drunk to have difficulty containing your emotions. You don’t have to be a drunk to act out. You don’t have to be a drunk to be an asshole.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a hall pass for those of us in recovery to ignore these important aspects of becoming our best selves. Quite the contrary, we need to focus on our emotional sobriety because failure to do so is inherently dangerous to us. For many of us, our emotions are the triggers that once tripped lead to the drink or the drug. Failure to address these triggers often leads to a slip or a relapse. But let’s not fool ourselves into believing that these tendencies are in any way unique to alcoholics or addicts.

Still, this is not the worst of it for me. What really niggles me about the term dry drunk is the judgement that it carries. Now, if you want to judge yourself, I suspect that’s your prerogative, however I have found that approaching myself in a nonjudgmental way leads to a greater sense of serenity in my life.

Judgement of others is dangerous. Judgement of others puts us in a place of authority. Judgement of others makes us feel superior. Judgement of others leads to the very opposite of emotional sobriety. Judgement of others can lead to a relapse.

When someone uses the term dry drunk in reference to another person, they are undeniably making a judgement of the other person’s sobriety. This is not, sweeping my own side of the street. We do have the right to express our opinions about another person’s behaviors and actions, but no one has the right to question the worthiness of another person’s recovery. I think we’d do well to remove this pejorative term from our collective lexicon.

25 responses to “Dry Drunk: A Hot Coal to be Dropped”

  1. Oh man do I hate that phrase, particularly since I’ve heard it applied to those who don’t go to meetings but are otherwise sober. I love your observation that a “dry drunk” is often used to describe someone acting like an asshole. Those of us in recovery hardly cornered the market on that. The flaws I have are not shared by everyone in recovery, though they are part of being human. Now maybe we’re finally in a better position to see what we need to fix, but again this epiphany isn’t limited to sober folks. Bravo on this post. I loved every bit of it.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Emotional sobriety is critical to me because I got “drunk” on power, control, manipulation, fear and anxiety that none of my “substances” worked. How fast could I spin the merry go round while still bobbing up and down? I must stay dry as well as sober. And the judgment implied with that term is not helpful to anyone working the steps to freedom from all things. GREAT POST! And I hope you feel better!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Awesome cautionary piece about judgement. We can’t judge people Damien, I wholly agree with that. Sometimes you have to filter through the jargon. I do believe there is emotional sobriety, I have my own definitions of what that means. But at the end of hell the day, we can’t lose the fact that sobriety is what is most important for people like us.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. If you are feeling ornery and you act like an asshole, and previously taking a drink would have temporarily (emphasis on temporarily) solved the issue, are you being a “dry drunk?” That’s how I interpret that term.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know HD. I never found that adding alcohol to the mix did anything to quell my inner asshole tendencies, more like adding a can of gasoline to an already raging fire, but that’s just me.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. If I quit following your blog because you don’t like the term “dry drunk”, I’d be a dry drunk. Keep coming back Damien. You’ll understand when you see one after the fog lifts. Oh, and don’t let me forget… that takes about ten years. Chuckle.

    Seriously though, I led a meeting at six months sober and this poor cuss kept droning on about how he just didn’t get the program and how hard it was to do the steps… I cut him off after ten minutes and told him he clearly needed to read the book again (just the first 164 pages of course, concentrating on the first three word on 112). He had 17 years, it turned out. After the meeting I said to my sponsor, “If my life sucks that bad after 17 years I may as well go back to drinking.” At least I’d get the escape!

    That’s a dry drunk, brother.


    • That “first three words of page 112” bit was tired before you laid it on me the last time. 🙂

      I know guys like you described — I just prefer to use the more more common vernacular term “miserable asshole” when referring to them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dude, first three words is freaking hilarious! C’mon, man! I almost thought about skipping it because I knew it was the second time.

        The idea is pretty simple though, if one can grasp the idea that the drinking is a symptom of the real problems. Once we take away the drinking we have to fix the underlying problems. Those who choose not to are your miserable assholes (I’d argue the entire ass, but you say tomato…) and my dry drunks. Either way, I’ll lay off the commonalities until such a time as you get out of your funk.

        Know that I am laughing as I write that last line. Not at you, with you. As they say. Oh, shit.


      • Ok, I’ll give you that the first thee words but has its charm. You’ve got me smiling at least.

        I also get that the drinking was a symptom of underlying issues and that failure to address them is the root of misery.

        As for my funk, well it’s true that I’m a bit cantankerous this week on account of being sick.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It’s all good, brother. Funny how a fella can pick that up out of a post and a couple of comments, eh?

        In the end, all that really matters is that you’re making it and working at it. Look at you! I challenged you, nicely, and even though you’ve been on the cranky side you still looked at it and copped to being in a bit of a funk. Holy cats! You’ve got a chance there big guy. Sounds like progress to me, man.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I loved this post! Thank you. It is always helpful for me to hear others express skepticism about certain parts of The Program. I’m in early recovery and to my complete surprise, after years of resistance I have found AA to be both helpful and enjoyable. But I don’t think it’s perfect and for myself I don’t think it’s a complete recovery plan on its own. I find therapy to be just as helpful and necessary and yes, enjoyable.

    “It seems to me, that somehow over the years, the notion that bad behavior is limited to drunks has crept into the 12 Step psyche and lexicon.” YES. All the talk of alcoholic mind just doesn’t completely resonate with me (but I’m in super early recovery so what do I know). I absolutely agree there is more to being sober than just not drinking and that working on my issues is essential to recovery. But it doesn’t ring true to me that because I am an alcoholic it means my whole mind is defective, but other people are okay because they don’t abuse alcohol. Being a human and living in this society is complicated and the reasons for the specific coping mechanisms each of us find are multifactorial. We can all be better and do better. That’s what recovery is about for me – figuring out where I’m messed up and addressing it. There are plenty of people in and out of AA that have no interest in doing that kind of self-reflection. And yeah, I have some judgements about that. But I try to keep them to myself!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Congratulations on your recovery, it is a marvelous journey.

      You will undoubtedly encounter people who will tell you that it’s best if you just listen, or that you’ll understand things better when you have more time, or other even more patronizing things. There is something to listening and giving the program time without a doubt, but be mindful of who is saying what. If you have questions talk to your sponsor who should be someone you trust. If he or she doesn’t have a good answer find others in the program to talk about your questions.

      You mention that you’re super early and so you may not know what you’re talking about – that may be true, but you know your experience and how things make you feel. Don’t let anyone deny you that just because you’re a newcomer. Most importantly keep coming back and make connections with people in the program. Your connections are your lifeline. Make sure they are strong.

      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to write a thoughtful comment. Hope to “see” you around here again.


  7. Thank you for this post. I was sober for several years (on my own blogging, no AA), drank again for a couple (did not work out) and here I am again. I went to my first (in a long time) AA meeting yesterday. Found the support I needed, going back again tonight…I had been “anti-AA” for so long because I was turned off by what seemed like some of the rigid beliefs. I’m going to focus on the work I have ahead of me now instead of criticizing AA…ie take what I like and leave the rest…as I really need the structure and support now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I stopped looking for things that I didn’t like, I found that there was a lot that I did like. It’s not perfect, but nothing is. I get a lot of support from the fellowship, and I’m grateful for it. Glad you’re here on the journey with me.


  8. I’ve not been to AA to hear “dry drunk” in person, but belle (of tiredofthinkingaboutdrinking.com) has an audio in which she also rants about this phrase. Her beef is that all she cares about is that you’re sober: “you are under no obligation to evolve!” Her reaction (she’s a sober coach, hence having an opinion at all) embodies the (anti)judgment that you note here, and seeing the inherent judgment in the phrase helps me complete her rant in my head. It’s interesting.

    I fully agree with you on the human condition, and one benefit of having to claw oneself out of the clutches of alcohol is that the process is most excellent at highlighting spots where evolution is just asking to be had.

    Just found your blog, I’m at day 214. Adrian

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: