I’m in a house I don’t recognize, and I’m not sure why or how I got here. There’s a party going on, I can tell that much. Out of nowhere, a friend I haven’t seen in what feels like forever hands me a Pabst. “Just like old times,” he says, clanking his can against mine. “C’mon, you can have one.”
I stare at the beer in my hand and think, something feels off about this, but I can’t quite figure out what it is. I take a hesitant sip, and it all comes rushing back to me. The regret sinks in. After more than a year of sobriety, I just had my first taste of alcohol, and for what? Why’d I do that? Why’d I send myself back to day one? Most importantly, how do I tell my girlfriend?
Then I wake up and, after a moment of panic, realize it was all just a dream.
For people in recovery, “using” dreams are a frightening but almost unavoidable nightmare. They happen to just about all of us at one point or another, and not for no reason. “When we overcome an addiction, whether it’s drinking, drugs, smoking or overeating, it’s extremely common to dream that we’re still engaging in these activities,” says professional dream analyst Lauri Loewenberg. “In fact, it’s to be expected and can even be considered a withdrawal symptom within the first few months of sobriety. The subconscious mind, like the conscious mind, is accustomed to repetition, and when a behavior stops, the subconscious compensates for the loss by ‘allowing’ you to participate in the activity.”
Dreams in which we use drugs or alcohol can also be expressions of the bittersweet emotions we feel upon saying goodbye to what was an instrumental, albeit disturbing, part of our lives. After all, many of us clung to those substances, at the time, because we needed and cherished them.
“When the vast majority of people get clean, even if they’re truly committed and dedicated to recovery, it’s not unusual for there to be a small part of them, also perhaps unconscious, that’s ambivalent and a bit reluctant,” explains Dan Mager, author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction. “There’s nothing wrong with that. Any major life decision or lifestyle change is accompanied by ambivalence.”
To the non-sober person, a using dream may sound like a fun opportunity to indulge without real-life consequences — a chance to partake without officially breaking Dry January — but for devoted sober people, these dreams are usually miserable reminders of the damage our addictions caused. “I’m usually just drunk out of nowhere, but the people around me don’t know, so I’m trying to hide it,” says Casey, who’s in a sober living home after going through a couple months in rehab. “They’re hyperrealistic to the point where I think I’m getting kicked out of where I’m living, or that my sober streak is back to zero. When I wake up, I’m in a panic. For the first few minutes, it actually feels like I’m hungover. It’s never enjoyable in the dream, just anxiety-inducing.”
While horrifying in the moment, the good news is, using dreams should become less frequent the longer you stay sober. “A really good friend of mine, who’s been in recovery almost 30 years, describes addicts and alcoholics who are in recovery and not using as being in an unnatural state,” says Mager. “Depending on how long we used for and the intensity of our use, it can take months or years for the body and brain, in terms of neurochemistry and biophysiology, to rebalance.”
But once that rebalancing happens, you can expect your subconscious mind to become increasingly free of those self-destructive inclinations Loewenberg describes above, which means fewer using dreams. “There’s some renowned brain scan research, which demonstrates that, for instance, one year removed from active addiction, the brains of most people in recovery resemble the brains of so-called ‘normal’ people much more than the brains of people who actively use alcohol and other drugs,” Mager says.
In the meantime, know that using dreams are normal and natural, and nothing worth resetting your sober clock over. “It’s not an indicator of poor recovery,” says Constance Scharff, addiction recovery authority and VP of business development at Rock to Recovery. “I wouldn’t give it that much attention.”
However, Scharff does warn that using dreams typically happen more frequently during times of tension and strain, so you may want to check in on yourself after having one. “The dreams tend to follow a particularly stressful day or period in your life when you’d normally turn to your vice for relief,” Loewenberg explains. “As someone predisposed to addiction, that’s where the subconscious will go. But you should also use these dreams to check yourself and determine if perhaps your subconscious is alerting you to the possibility that there’s another addiction you’ve picked up to replace the former addiction.”
If you can’t shake the anxiety spurred by a using dream, addictive behavior relapse researcher Katie Witkiewitz suggests the “SOBER” mindfulness-based relapse prevention practice:
- Stop: Stop what you’re doing.
- Observe: Observe what’s happening in your body, emotions and mind.
- Breathe: Bring your awareness fully to the sensation of breathing for a few moments.
- Expand: Expand your awareness back to the body, emotions, mind and situation.
- Respond: Make a choice on how to respond mindfully. That could mean journaling, jogging, calling your sponsor — whatever you normally do when your sobriety comes into question.
But if everything seems fine upon waking up and checking in, think of the dream as a reminder of how far you’ve come. “It’s always helpful to remember from whence we’ve come,” Mager says. “Some people, they forget what it was like — all of the stresses, the anxieties, the damage, the loss that their alcohol and drug use created.”
“These dreams can be used as a tool to help you measure your success,” Loewenberg adds. “Naturally, you’ll wake up horrified that you were using or drinking again, but as reality sets in, so does the relief. That’s the moment you recognize your accomplishment: ‘Wait, that was a dream. I’m still sober!’ Look at it as a sobriety chip from your subconscious, and carry that relief and pride with you throughout your day.”
As for me, I guess that sip of dream beer marks day 393 of real-life sobriety.