I'm clean and sober for more than 12 years. But I still have what we call "drunk dreams." Here's a recent one. Although I'm not a follower of hip hop, I dreamed that I was hanging out with the famous rapper Snoop Dogg. I waited all day for him to pull out his stash of drugs. At the end of the day he put out some big fat lines of cocaine and offered me one. I took it in like a like a dirt dog lapping up a few licks of morning dew off the desert floor. The smell was so fresh and it made me feel more alive than I'd felt in years. My heart opened. I loved my life and everyone in it at that moment. In my mind I remembered that I was an addict in recovery. But I couldn't reconcile the question that arose in my dreaming mind, "How could something that feels this good cause suffering?"
This wasn't my first drinking/using dream and it won't be the last. They're quite common for people in recovery. Yet many of us feel shame, remorse when we have them. When I woke up from this one I felt the usual confusion. But thanks to deep work in the Dharma and in the 12 Steps, I have tools to understand that this is an expression of the addict brain and mind on different levels. One such tool is something I was taught many years ago: the notion of these being part of the process of recovery.
In the treatment center in Fall 1984, our counselor told us not to be alarmed if we had dreams of drinking and/or using drugs. He referred to this necessary part of recovery as a "flushing of the psychic toilet." When I got my 30-day sobriety coin at a meeting I talked about my own drunk dreaming during the hospital stay. An old-timer shared that he'd been sober for decades and still had them too and that it was OK. What a relief! I'd worried it was because I wasn't serious about my recovery, as if these dreams revealed some secret desire to get loaded. But I really did want to stay sober, which made the dreams very confusing.
During my first decade of sobriety I always woke up from drunk dreams with a feeling of gratitude that it was just a dream. But the feelings seemed so real. From the cold droplets on the brown beer bottle fresh out of the freezer where I used to chill them up, to the life giving rush of a blast of cocaine, the experiences were totally convincing. I always feel a little doubt about the commitment to recovery when this happens. But I'm normally relieved to wake up and realize I'm really still sober.
But in 1995 I relapsed for real with almost 10 years of sobriety. But I couldn't wake up from that reality. It wasn't just a dream. It's quite shocking to dream that you've woken from a drunk dream but then discovered that it was not a dream at all.
When my Huff Po editors asked me to write about something related to sleep and recovery, I wondered how my fellow recovering people experienced dreams about using. I asked them to send me some dream descriptions by email. Here's a sample of what came through. Gender and length of sobriety precede the descriptions.
• Female, eight years: In all my drinking dreams my initial thought is to lie about it and see if I can get away with it.
• Female, 10 years: I do actually now have dreams where I have really been drinking all along. Like going to AA, but secretly drinking....for almost 10 years. They kind of mess me up in the morning.
• Male, four years: I still frequently have using dreams. They are not limited to drugs -- sex, money, and prestige are frequent motifs.
• Female, length unknown: I was riding a cart into a little small town haunted house. Upon entering the haunted house, I realized I was accompanied by others on the ride, all in AA-some I knew, some I did not. I was shunned by the ones I knew, and the ones I didn't might as well have been a part of the attractions, they seemed like ghouls. [sic] ... Maybe that is why I haven't been intertwining myself into AA? Or maybe I feel alienation because of my lack of (participation).
• Male, three years: I have a recurring dream that I smoke weed every so often and keep sweeping it under the rug as "not relapsing." In the dream I'll do it once every month or so, and keep saying I have the same sobriety date, and I'm full of guilt.
For those in recovery a familiar "dream theme" is that of our old friends trying to convince us to get loaded. I've had these for 25 years! Somehow we project the blame for relapsing onto old friends who convince us to use with them. For those with serious childhood trauma, we dream of flying, being someone else, having power or victory over our perpetrators or floating above the scene. The latter is common not only in dreams but in waking life with victims of serious childhood trauma. Yet others dream of aspects of addiction not related to substances, such as sex and co-dependency behaviors.
In the dreams we often have a sudden realization that we've just altered our sobriety date! This is a source of anxiety, which for me leads to nightmares with a sense of panic and disturbing imagery. Many dream that they have to keep the "relapse" a secret as they plan to continue attending meetings. Some dream that they've been using all along and that they've been "sober frauds" for years, as noted above.
Not everyone in recovery reports ongoing drunk dreams however. Several people with over 20 years failed to respond to my inquiry at all or reported that they no longer remember any dreams. In my psychology training I recall being taught that everyone dreams even if we don't remember. The REM studies are fairly definitive in this regard. But nearly everyone I've discussed this topic with has reported having drunk dreams at some point in their recovery. For some they go away and for some they don't.
Why do we have drunk dreams if we really want to stay clean and sober?
My guess is that the answer is three fold: Neurology, psychology and spirituality.
I'm not a neurologist and would welcome any professional insight into this. But I think part of it is due to the trauma that we create in our using. Our brains learn to be addicted. On an emotional level we deepen our early childhood traumas by creating situations through addiction that recycle the trauma. New neural pathways burned in to our brains during addiction won't disappear even after decades of abstinence.
In the 12-Step Buddhist Podcast Episode 11, I talk with Don Goewey, author of Mystic Cool and an expert on neuroplasticity, the brains' ability to re-grow itself. We discuss the background of "mirror neurons." Don offers some suggestions for how these play a role in the "social brain" and how new research might be beneficial in the study of addiction and recovery. He also gives a three-step method that he devised based on his work with long time friend, the famous psychologist Carl Rogers. The podcast is free and available on the12stepbuddhist.com as well as in iTunes.
From a psychological perspective, we work in recovery to understand the nature of our addiction but often split off Aspects of Self that are still with us. What is unresolved comes up in dreams. Sometimes we can't get over the guilt or low self-esteem. We can have difficulty feeling good about ourselves even with years of sobriety and may experience symptoms related to the original causes of addiction. As I outlined thoroughly in the 12-Step Buddhist, the problems leading up to active addiction are complex and varied. For this reason I always recommend therapy, 12-Step work and deep meditation practices to facilitate healing. One technique that I use in my workshops and weekly groups (gleaned from Genpo Roshi's Big Mind work) where we speak to and as these aspects. See the 12-Step Buddhist and my previous Huff Po posts for details on how this works for addicts.
On a spiritual level the process of deep meditation practice has, in my case, churned up some pretty ugly emotions. The 12 Steps, which are spiritual in nature, can also evoke feelings that the brain and unconscious mind need to soothe. We access old feelings such as rage during our meetings, therapy, meditation. Then when our cognitive guard is down at night our lower centers or traumatized brain tissue may be triggered into a drunk dream as a self-protection mechanism. After all, to the brain and body the dream is real. The physiological responses to dreams are almost identical to those of actual events.
There's much to say about techniques and practices in Buddhism that could be useful in exploring the issue of dreaming in recovery. Perhaps in a future article we'll discuss it. In the meantime, it's useful to be aware that:
• Drunk dreams are very common.
• Drunk dreams don't mean that we aren't committed to recovery.
• These dreams are a natural part of the process of processing.
• We can explore methods of meditation and therapy to use the dreams as tools for self-discovery and spiritual progress.
If you'd like to try a dream practice, I offer this from one of my teachers. Before going to sleep each night say to yourself, "I will awaken in my dream and I will know that I am dreaming." Keep a dream journal next to your bed and no matter what time you wake up, especially if it's in the middle of the night, write down all the details of your dream. If you're like me your hand might not be so steady at 0-dark-thirty, so as an alternative, use your iPhone or other voice recorder to verbally describe the dream. These recordings could be transcribed later and discussed in therapy or considered in meditation.