After numerous conversations with friends in which I knowingly invoke the concept of the “dry drunk” only to be pressed for a definition, I’ve decided it’s a good topic for a blog post, since there seem to be a lot of people who are tripped up by “well, they stopped drinking, so aren’t they all better now?”
One hallmark of addiction is that instead of facing life head-on and experiencing the growth that comes from resolving conflict, working hard to achieve goals, and learning let go of things beyond one’s control, the addict bypasses all of this and fills up the time and experiences that could have fostered growth with the addictive behavior.
So, if and when they stop the drinking or getting high, they will find themselves at the same emotional maturity as they were when they started the addictive behavior. And in some ways, worse off, because their addicted peer group won’t be able to help them grow up and their sober peers will have grown up and moved on long ago.
Some recovering addicts progress from abstention to true recovery – facing up to their errors, making amends to those they have hurt, and doing the hard work of cutting a new path in life.
But for others … if you think of addiction as a way for a person to avoid accountability/reality/growing up, a dry drunk does away with the substance but doesn’t engage in the personal growth that they have been avoiding. They just find new ways to avoid it.
My father is one example. He stopped drinking cold turkey while I was in high school (he relapsed later on, quite severely), but he never addressed his poor behavior or even acknowledged it, so even though he wasn’t drunk, he was still a nightmare to engage with. When confronted about the bad behaviors, his response was “Well, I stopped drinking, didn’t I? You’re the one who always said that was the problem. So, what are you complaining about now?”
To give other examples from my own observations: the person who pretentiously abstains from drinking at a party (“I’m in AA you know.”) only to disappear numerous times in order to get high (!?). The 45-year-old who stopped drinking 15 years ago, but interacts with other like a petulant teenager. The person who went to AA for a few years, but never faced up to the effects his drinking had on his family and looks to them to do all the emotional work.
And then there’s the public figure who is ostentatiously dry but, through defensive tweeting, ad hominem attacks on anyone who criticizes him, and public refusals to honor commitments, shows that he’s no more mature than someone who has spent the last 50 years in substance-enabled oblivion.
The elevator speech version: drinking (or abuse of other substances) is a symptom of a refusal to face life head on. A person can take away the substance and still find other ways to keep their head in the sand and put the responsibility for their life and screw ups at the feet of others.
I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, some quite negative, about how I ended Raising John, but I did it for a reason. I wanted to show that one of the main characters had truly faced up to the effects of his drinking and had grown from his original solipsism. I wanted to show that he wasn’t a dry drunk.