Simply put, a “dry drunk” is somebody recovering from alcoholism who has successfully abstained from drinking for a period of time but still displays the same dysfunctional behaviors they had when they were using. The term is believed to have originated from the Twelve-Step Program and Alcoholics Anonymous. In some ways, the term can refer to physical characteristics. For example, someone who is a “dry drunk” may wobble, stumble or slur their speech as if they were intoxicated even if they’ve been sober for weeks. On the behavioral side of the spectrum, a dry drunk may lash out at their families, put their professional lives in jeopardy or make impulsive, damaging life decisions. 

Dry Drunk Syndrome Doesn’t Just Affect Alcoholics

Based on the terminology, one might assume that “dry drunk” only refers to people in recovery from alcohol abuse. The reality is that anyone who is addicted has the potential to become a dry drunk once they experience sobriety. One of the reasons why dry drunk syndrome is so prevalent is that the absence of the substance of abuse leaves the dry drunk with the often-terrifying prospect of confronting reality. Their thoughts, emotions, and past actions come into focus and they can no longer push them into the background by using.

Effects of Dry Drunk Syndrome on Family and Friends

Friends and family members of people in recovery are usually elated when their loved one finally achieves sobriety. But those feelings are soon put to test when they realize soon after that much of their loved one’s old habits continue. Spouses of people who are experiencing dry drunk syndrome might notice that their partners are more irritable, distant, lethargic or impulsive than they were when they were using. They might even go as far as to say that they preferred dealing when their spouse before they became sober. On top of that, loved ones may be hesitant to express their concerns out of fear of their loved one relapsing.

Causes – Underlying Psychological Issues

People with dry drunk syndrome are often confronting two separate issues. The first is often the emotional or psychological issues that caused the individual to turn to drugs and alcohol in the first place. It could be a diagnosable condition like chronic depression or anxiety. Or, maybe the individual started using to deal with external struggles, like suffering a personal tragedy, and has still not dealt with these challenges in a healthy way. In these cases, alcoholism or drug addiction became the lens that blurred these issues. Once the individual becomes sober, the obscuring lens is removed and past troubles and underlying issues come back into focus. 

Causes – Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)

Another potential contributor to dry drunk syndrome is PAWS, which stands for post-acute withdrawal syndrome. Long periods of sustained substance alcohol or drug abuse actually create chemical imbalances in the brain. After the initial physical stages of withdrawal, known as acute withdrawal, most people in recovery enter this second phase of PAWS. Removing an activity that took up so much of their time before, like drinking or using drugs, leaves the brain scrambling to form new habits, routines and thought processes. The mental anguish caused by PAWS can be just as harrowing as, if not worse than, the physical pain that someone goes through during acute withdrawal.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.