In dreams…an illness that never sleeps!
It is often said that we have an illness of addiction that never rests, when you are in a meeting it is outside doing press ups, when you awake it is at the foot of the bed waiting, “hey ready to go!”
In the early weeks and months (years) of recovery I often had “drinking” dreams in which I would dreaming about drinking alcohol. In early recovery these used to scare the life out of me and confuse me greatly. Did I still want to drink?
The study (1) we cite today shows the opposite that “that alcoholics would have more drinking dreams if they wanted to stay sober and that to dream of drinking was a good indicator of continued abstinence.”
The drinking dreams, I later realised, would normally occur when I was fearful of anxious. They were fear based dreams not appetitive, i.e. they were not about wanting to drink but about being afraid of drinking again. That would appear to my greatest fear so when I was anxious about something in my daily life, at night I would have dreams about drinking alcohol.
In these early days, fortunately, in the drinking dreams the drinking would have dire consequences and I would get out of control drunk or dissolve like the Wicked Witch of the West from the movie “Wizard of Oz”.
Unfortunately in later years I have had dreams were I drank and could handle a few without dire results! My illness had apparently infiltrated by dreams and starting manipulating them.
Now if I have the odd drinking dream I simply use it as a prompt to look at what is going on emotionally in my life. I have to say that my dreams have increasingly used other symbols of fear and anxiety in recent years, like buildings collapsing, having to save people’s lives etc etc.
I must also be rigorously honest here and state that many of my fear based and drinking dreams occur when I have not done my step 10 properly or thoroughly. A way to a sound sleep is a sound step 10!
Anyway I came across this study (1) from a few years ago which looked at the dreams of alcoholics. It showed that the self esteem issues that sometimes plague alcoholics in revcovery are also present in their dreams lathough these lessen as time in recovery increases.
“This study focused on people who had self-labelled themselves as ‘Alcoholics.’ They all had a previously previous history of severe alcohol use, but were currently abstinent and recovering in Alcoholics Anonymous.
People who have been diagnosed as ‘alcoholic’ have been described as over sensitive, anxious, to have low self esteem (Fields, 1992; Christo & Stutton, 1994) and to be emotionally immature (Dayton, 2007).
Recovery form addiction has been described as a process (Larsen; 1985; Nixon, 2005; Nixon & Solowoniuk, 2008). Stage I recovery is characterised by the priority of learning how to be abstinent. Stage II recovery has different goals which emerge after initial withdrawal from active addiction. Larson states that Stage II includes the following goals: improving self-esteem, changing negative thinking, and discovering emotional sobriety. So if dreams do “cut through the pretensions and deceits of waking life, and lay bare the true feelings of the individual” (p229, Hall & Norby, 1972), dream content in Stage II recovery may explicate where in the recovery process abstinent alcoholics are compared to non alcoholic controls.
Moore (1962) predicted that there would be a difference in the dreams of hospitalized alcoholics compared to nonalcoholics. He found that alcoholics often dreamt of themselves as victims.
Scott (1968) compared the dream reports of male and female alcoholics and identified several differences. Both sexes dreamt less about joy, happiness, or their children, and were more likely to describe themselves as victims. Alcoholics reported significantly more dreams about drinking, often associated with guilt, than the control group.
Theme identification in male and female alcoholic’s dreams showed male alcoholics dreamt more about death, whilst female alcoholics had more colourful dreams. Scott concluded that alcoholic’s dreams depicted problems, conflicts, insecurity, and sadness…alcoholics were “unable to use their dreams therapeutically as do controls … alcoholics incorporate their feelings of helplessness whilst controls are able to integrate strength into their dreams” (Scott, 1968, p.1317). This idea that dreams provide a therapeutic function has recently been supported by Hartmann (2001).
Cartwright (1974) predicted that the ‘psychologically healthy’ would have greater continuity between their waking and dreaming life. This is due, in part, to the assumed internal emotional and mental equilibrium that exists in individuals with assumed psychological balance. This early literature suggests that alcoholics in early abstinence, or during hospitalization, may report dream content which is more unpleasant in terms of emotion and themes.
Studies have begun to focus on the reason why drinking dreams appear in alcoholism (or other substance misuse disorders). Choi (1973) compared those who experienced drinking dreams at 3 months, with those who did not and found that 80% of those who had drinking dreams were still abstinent compared to 18% of those who did not. He concluded that alcoholics would have more drinking dreams if they wanted to stay sober and that to dream of drinking was a good indicator of continued abstinence.
Denzin (1988) points out, using anecdotal reports from AA members, that drinking dreams are usually fearful, and this may reflect waking preoccupation with the fear of returning to active alcoholism, rather than a desire to return to drinking.
This study showed that abstinent alcoholics did experience more unpleasant emotion, make more negative attributes about the self and generally have a less pleasant dream experiences than nonalcoholics…one explanation is that these findings may describe permanent damage to brain function caused by severe alcohol use, and that abstinent alcoholics may experience more unpleasant dreams as a consequence, another is that rebound during REM sleep when executive commands are off-line (Maquet et al, 1996). More specifically, abstinent alcoholics may spend time during waking suppressing negative feelings, thoughts, and actions. Suppressing thoughts during waking has been found to cause them to rebound in dream content (Wegner, Wenzlaff & Kozak, 2004).
…(this has generally been the case with me) a longer period of abstinence may be needed before dream emotionality settles into a pattern reflecting non-alcoholic dream-life.
Abstinent alcoholics in Stage II recovery constantly strive to change, and observe their emotional life in order to make positive changes. They may therefore be predisposed to paying more attention to dream emotion as well as waking emotion…
The 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous provide a program of self-help where addiction is ‘accepted’ rather than ‘abstained’ from. The difference between ‘acceptance’ and ‘abstinence’ is the same as the difference between being highly motivated to not drink and being highly unmotivated to not pick up the first drink or drug (Colace, 2004; Berridge, 2001). This difference would be clearly observed in the self-construal of the ‘recovering’ alcoholics who took part in this study. If drinking dreams are indicative of where the person is in their recovery process, then wanting to drink intermittently is arguably the most natural of states that an alcoholic may find themselves in. Drinking dreams are not predetermine indicators of relapse: how they act on may be. Rather, the occasional presence of drinking dreams which are accompanied by unpleasant emotional affect, including guilt and remorse are a common part of the recovery process (Marshall, 1995). Knudson (2003) suggests dreams are seen as indicators of either the past (retrospective), or the present moment (concurrent), but includes a further prospective function used to make positive change. Using this model, drinking dreams can be seen as indicators of needing to take prospective action, such as increased access to support, talking about these dreams in AA meetings, or with sponsors and therapists (McEwing, 1991; Marshall, 1995).
1. Parker, J., & Alford, C. (2009). The dreams of male and female abstinent alcoholic’s in stage II recovery compared to non-alcholic controls: are the differences significant?. International Journal of Dream Research, 2(2), 73-84.