Paul, a 40-year-old engineer with a full head of blond curls and the laid-back attitude of the small town in which he was raised, awoke one morning with a start, emerging from a dream where he was drunk and belligerent despite his six years of sobriety. At the time he was in his mid-twenties and battling a long history of depression. “I could taste the alcohol in my mouth and I woke up that morning with a strong desire to get smashed,” he recalls. “At the time, I was hitting a bottom in sobriety—I was going through an incredibly stressful period—and I realized that if I didn’t get help I’d be drunk by the end of the day. So I called my sponsor at five in the morning and worked through it with him. I ended up relieving myself of the craving and staying sober.”
According to Los Angeles-based psychologist and addiction specialist Melody Anderson, drinking dreams are a natural part of the anxieties that come along with being sober. “They’re like those dreams where you’re back in the test hall in high school and can’t remember anything,” she says. To Anderson, they’re about losing control. “They’re a sign of the battle sober people have with admitting complete powerlessness over alcohol or drugs,” she says.
Paul was at a crossroads at the time. “From a recovery standpoint, I look back at that period as one where I was going through a process of surrender,” he recalls. “I hadn’t found that sense of peace because I was still calling my own shots, and though I thought I was following sponsor direction, in reality I was the decider. It was like I was sponsoring myself.”
Dr. Peggy Ferguson, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Alcohol and Drug Counselor in Oklahoma, doesn’t believe a drinking or using dream necessarily signals an intended relapse. In fact, she cautions against placing undue significance on using dreams since “people are sometimes afraid it means something so negative they won’t bring it up with sponsors or friends from the program—which only makes their fear grow.”
Mary, a 38-year-old living in San Francisco, says her drinking dreams have decreased significantly throughout her two years of sobriety. “I used to get them a lot and they were extremely frightening: I would be in the middle of a dream when it would hit me that I was drunk. It was really vivid. Usually there were other sober people around me, and I was either trying to tell them I wasn’t drunk or they were trying to take care of me. When I woke up I wasn’t always sure whether I was dreaming or if it was real—I was hugely relieved to discover that I was still sober.”
Dr. Ferguson believes drinking dreams are an essential part of early sobriety. “There are so many things that go along with detox—so many issues come up, and people have so many mood swings and emotional highs and lows,” she says. “Our dreams are directly connected to our emotional states, but people can have them for a really long time after they’ve been sober. I don’t think they necessarily mean there is an intended relapse, or that the individual is not working a good program. Still, I think it’s worth paying attention to the details: if you’re a pure alcoholic and you dreamt that you were shooting up heroin, that might be a cause for concern.”
According to Anderson, it’s important to question whether your urge to imbibie is being triggered by other factors in life. “Are you visiting old neighborhoods or the people you used to use with, or watching movies with lots of drugs and drinking?” she asks. “The brain collects 11 million pieces of data every minute. Only about 40 pieces go into the conscious mind; the rest are in the unconscious, which has its own way of perceiving things. And triggers can cause the mind to perceive using as a good idea.”
Anderson cites a 1998 London study where 85% of the subjects who had been abstinent for six weeks or less had 2.4 using or drinking dreams a month. “Those who had a higher number of these dreams were more likely to use again,” Anderson explains. She suggests sharing with a sponsor or friend what you’re feeling, including whether or not you’ve recently done something that might be a trigger, if there are things in your life you feel like don’t have control over and fears. Then, she says, “Take responsibility for continued sober action. It’s a good hint that something might be off balance.”
Still, Ferguson stresses that there can be many innocent explanations for drinking or using dreams. “People often have them around the anniversaries of their sobriety, or other important dates that might prompt a flashback,” she says. “They can also come arise when addicts are forced to focus on someone else’s addiction—with friends, a romantic partner, or family. You can be sober for decades and after spending time with another alcoholic or addict, you might be triggered and have a using dream.”
Mary realized that she didn’t have to be scared by her dreams but she did have to take them seriously. “They make me take a look at what’s going on in my life,” she admits. “Afterwards, I’ll reach out more to people, get to more meetings, and begin to be more honest about what’s going on in my life.”
Anderson applauds epiphanies like this and believes that using dreams can provide a terrific opportunity for self-assessment. When you wake up from a dream where you’ve been clutching the bottle or emptying its contents down your throat, it’s time, she says, “to identify if something is going on that’s making you feel shameful.”
Jane, 26, a Texas housewife who went into recovery at the beginning of her marriage three years ago, is a petite brunette who believes that the most important part of using dreams is to disclose them to others. In her drinking dreams, “as much as I hated actually drinking in the dreams, I also remember thinking that I was getting away with it,” she recalls. “I would be plotting how I wouldn’t have to tell anyone about the slip—about how I would be able to keep it under control so no one in A.A. would know.
That’s why the first thing I always did was tell someone about the dream—that way it didn’t turn into a secret.”
Becoming that person who shares in meetings about their dreams may be worth the eye rolls you may cause. After all, Anderson believes in a Freudian interpretation of dreams—that they’re a manifestation of our suppressed desires. “For some people, using dreams leavs them wondering if they can control their drinking,” she says. “If they are addicts, they probably can’t, but those thoughts are still going to be there—and they need to be tended to.”