Have you ever woken up in a panic unsure if what you were just dreaming was actually real or not? Sometimes our dreams can be so lucid it's downright scary. Even more so, when these dreams include drinking or using drugs. Chances are if you're sober, you've already experienced a drunk dream. When I got sober I had no idea what a drunk dream was and it took me months to figure out that was what they were called. Their frequency at the beginning of my sobriety was much higher than it is now. So, what is a drunk dream? Why do they happen and what do they mean? Unfortunately, these traumatizing experiences are a normal part of sobriety. But armed with information, we can expect that this is a part of our healing process on the journey of recovery.
What is a Drunk Dream?
A drunk dream is when people in recovery dream about their past. Normally, this includes a dream where we are drinking or using our drug of choice. It can also include old behaviors that we used to engage in. For example, cheating on a partner, stealing, lying, or being arrested. These have also been called relapse dreams, but I prefer the term drunk dream because I don't think we're dreaming about relapsing.
These dreams can deeply affect us. It's traumatizing to wake up and believe you were drinking again after being sober for some time. It can bring up a mix of emotions like anger, sadness, shame, and guilt. It can make us feel like we're doing something wrong when we're not. Depending on how real your dreams seem, it can often be difficult to separate dream from reality until you are fully conscious and awake. Other times we wake up and are incredibly relieved to find we're still sober and it was all just a dream.
I can't recall ever having dreams about drinking while I was still drinking and using drugs. It only started for me when I got sober.
What Do Drunk Dreams Mean?
In early sobriety, my drunk dreams occurred almost every night and the topics varied. I would be out at a club with loud music playing taking shots of tequila, or suffering through a hangover and wondering what happened the night before, or finding myself piecing together a night after a blackout. All of the things that I did during active addiction I was dreaming about. I would wake up with my heart racing and the guilt overwhelmed me. Looking back, I wonder if these intense dreams at the beginning had anything to do with all the toxic substances leaving my body.
As time as passed, my drunk dreams have become less and less frequent. The topics have also shifted. A few months back I had an intense dream that made little sense to me. I was at my parent's house that I grew up in outside of Philadelphia and the scene was that I was groggy and didn't really know what was going on. The house was a mess and it was clear that a huge party had just taken place. There were people passed out in the basement, all of them strangers. Tapped kegs, cups, and food were thrown about. The front door was wide open and I immediately wondered if my cats ran away. My head was pounding and I had that dry mouth that was so familiar from my drinking days. I didn't know where Fer was or what had happened. I was left there feeling helpless and I knew that the only reason I couldn't remember what happened was because I had been drinking. I awoke startled and sat straight up in bed. My heart was beating a mile a minute and it took me several minutes to make sure what I had just experienced wasn't actually real life.
What do this drunk dream, or any of my drunk dreams mean? I'm not sure. I wish I had a concrete answer to give you. I spent a few hours researching what drunk dreams could mean, from the side of being a recovering alcoholic, and from the side of dream interpretations. I didn't find anything 100 percent reliable, but many treatment centers and AA people have written that drunk dreams warn of relapse and that you need to get to a meeting or ask for help if you're having them. Personally, I think drunk dreams are part of the healing process. I think my own may even be a part of post-traumatic stress disorder. I haven't been formally diagnosed, but Google defines post-traumatic stress disorder as, "a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress occurring as a result of injury or severe psychological shock, typically involving disturbance of sleep and constant vivid recall of the experience, with dulled responses to others and to the outside world."
I think these sober hauntings are reminding me of a life I never want to go back to. I also think they play on feelings that I'm still working through, mostly shame and guilt. Although I'm three years sober and I don't live like that anymore, there are times when I still struggle to forgive myself. Drunk dreams are a difficult reminder that I cannot shut the door on my past, but I can learn from it and grow.
Even though drunk dreams are traumatizing and upsetting, there is always a sense of relief that what was going on in my subconscious during sleep was not real. No matter how real it seemed, it wasn't. And that is what we have to remember. We don't live in that dark, scary place anymore. We've already made the biggest change in our life, walking away from drugs and alcohol. If drunk dreams are part of sobriety, but it means I never have to go back to my former life, I'll take it.
At this point in my own sobriety, I've accepted that drunk dreams will probably always visit me, but I hope they continue to become less and less frequent. If we can accept and embrace them as a reminder of a past we are no longer participating in, we can still heal. So if you're reading this and you've experienced a drunk dream, know that you aren't alone, and you're on the right path because sobriety has taken you here.