Step into any gathering of people in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction—especially early recovery—and before too long you'll probably hear about the dreams. People with no intention of relapsing get high or drunk in dreamland all the time: In fact, about 85 percent of people addicted to drugs and alcohol will have a "using" dream within the first two months of sobriety, says Sarah Nowak, a Minnesota-based senior clinician and supervisor for the Hazelden Betty Ford Clinic.
These can be harrowing experiences, even after the dreamer wakes up and realizes it didn't actually happen. "L." has been sober for 20 months, and was dogged by dreams of drinking for the first year of her sobriety. "They were never fun," she says. "They were always similar: I pick up a drink or serve myself punch that I don't realize includes alcohol, drink it, and am terrified that I will restart my primal obsession."
For her, the stakes were especially high because in waking life—as well as in the dreams—she was wearing an alcohol monitor for the first 13 months of her recovery; a relapse could have meant jail. "I would wake up feeling scared and disgusted, then feel so, so grateful," she says.
Nowak says the dreams tend to decrease in frequency after the first couple of months, but she has spoken to people five, ten, and even 20 years into recovery who have them. She says they occur more frequently in people recovering from uppers like cocaine or meth, rather than downers like alcohol or opiates.
Dreams in general can be more vivid and disturbing when the sleep cycle is poor. And for newly abstinent people, Nowak says, it can take a year for the sleep cycle to normalize. Typically, they're heavy on the fear and loathing parts of getting high, rather than the fun parts.
"They are not dreams about the joy of use. More often, the dreams tend to be the worst parts of it—the guilt and the self-loathing that tend to show up," she says. "When someone wakes up after a dream like that, it can trigger a lot of the guilt from when they were in active use."
Despite a serious case of the sweats upon awakening, though, the dreams can actually be very useful for continued efforts at sobriety. The negative feelings, and the relief the dreamer feels upon waking, tend to remind the dreamer why they stopped drinking or using in the first place. Nowak tries to help clients avoid too much anxiety about them, and assures them that the dreams aren't unlocking a hidden desire to use, or exposing a fault line in their recovery.
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"It's not a cause for alarm, but it's something worth noting," Nowak says. "R." has been in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse for 13 years. Despite her lengthy recovery, she dreams about getting high about once a week. She has had the dreams for the entire time she's been sober, and tries not to dwell on them. If they trouble her a lot, she prays or meditates more, or talks about them with her spouse or therapist.
"The theme is, it doesn't matter what's in front of me, if it's pot or coke or shooting heroin," R. says. "I'll be with people with the drugs there and I'll think 'I can't do this, I'm in recovery.'"
Then, typically, she has a blank spot in the dream where the actual use occurs, followed by remorse—but never the enjoyment of the actual high. "'Disturbed' is the word I would use," she says. "When people say, 'Oh, it's a freebie,' I'm like 'Fuck no! I don't want to go back there!'"
In general, R. says she's a very vivid dreamer with excellent recall of all her dreams, not just the ones of using. The drinking and use dreams seem likely to remain part of her repertoire. "I'm an alcoholic and an addict and that's always going to be part of who I am," she says.
Dream experts say that, while they are upsetting, the dreams are mostly harmless. Rather than indicating that a person clinging to their recovery is headed to the nearest tavern, the dreams (and the relief and gratitude that can follow) can be a place to explore and deepen their commitment to sobriety.
Stanley Krippner is a professor of psychology at Saybrook University in Oakland, California and a member of the American Psychological Association. He says that drinking or using dreams, which he calls "user dreams" happen for four main reasons. First, they can function as a metaphor for another pattern of addictive behavior—perhaps someone has gotten clean from heroin, but has picked up a destructive gambling habit.
Times of stress can bring them on, too. A person's mind reaches for an old coping mechanism—never mind that it's been discarded. The third type are "affirmation dreams," which don't give the dreamer any of the pleasure they experienced from their substance of choice, and serve as internally generated congratulations to the dreamer on moving past their addiction.
Finally, there's the "prompt" dream, where the dreamer does feel the pleasure of getting high or drunk. This is the most common type for newly abstinent dreamers, he says. Jacquie E. Lewis, co-director of the dream studies certificate program at Saybrook along with Krippner, says that entrenched habits tend to come out in dreams. When she quit smoking cigarettes in the early '80s, she says, she would smoke in her dreams for some time afterwards.
Lewis calls it forgetting—our brain in the dream has simply forgotten that we stopped a given behavior. It happens in waking life, too: For a long time after she quit smoking, sitting down with coffee would give her the urge to light up. Her taste buds had just forgotten that they were no longer attached to a smoker, she explains.
"Dreams reflect waking concerns and experiences," she says. "They don't mean the person is going to go back to it. The most positive way you can look at them is just to reaffirm: 'That reminds me, I don't want that kind of life.'"
According to clinical psychologist Phyllis Koch-Sheras, an APA member in independent practice in Charlottesville, Virginia who specializes in dream analysis, every part of the dream represents the dreamer. "I like to say there are no bad dreams," she says. "They are a gift of what we need to pay attention to. If you have that attitude, perhaps it won't cause you so much distress."
Nowak adds that, from a therapeutic perspective, it's important for people in recovery to discuss the dreams because they stir up the anxiety, guilt, and shame they felt from using. "See if you can take a step back and separate that dream from your self-concept and your identity," she says.
"Look at it more in the context of this horrible addiction that has taken a toll on your life. Then appreciate that you're not in the throes of it anymore, and use it to be humble."
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