The Dreams of Alcoholic Men in Early Sobriety
Karen A. Peters, Ph.D.
"The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hours. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes" (James,1901, p. 387).
A controlled study utilizing manifest dream content analysis to explore the intrapsychic dynamics of alcoholic men with 3 to 9 months of total abstinence revealed significant dream content differences. Two-week dream journals were collected from 14 men in early recovery from alcoholism and a matched control group. Statistically significant content differences included the incorporation of alcohol and drugs, sobriety, institutions, and help- seeking interactions. A qualitative analysis of statistically significant themes revealed the progressive nature of addiction and the developmental stages of sobriety.
Despite its adverse consequences, drinking alcohol is perceived as an option in the dreams of the recovering men in this study. Initially, alcohol is a soothing substance that transforms emotions and stimulates feelings of wholeness, but its extended use ultimately destroys all sense of belonging and leaves the alcoholic alienated and psychically fragmented. This paradoxical quality of alcohol was poignantly illustrated in dreams that featured drinking and using drugs.
Despite its occurrence after 9 months of abstinence, the following dream, from a married, 40 year-old alcoholic with a history of relapse and participation in Alcoholics Anonymous, depicts symptoms of late-stage alcoholism.
Caught in the Act
My dream was that I was on vacation and now it was twice as hard to hide my early drinking but somehow I found a bottle and took a couple of drinks. I could taste it going down--straight Vodka. No one caught me but I did feel ashamed and guilty afterwards.
In late-stage alcoholism, drunkenness can temporarily relieve the physical pain associated with withdrawal and the emotional pain of isolation. In "Caught in the Act" the dreamer seems desperate and driven to drink. He seems to have an unstated craving that only vodka can soothe. Is it a craving for alcohol, the substance itself (physical addiction), or a craving for temporary relief from an intrapsychic conflict (psychological addiction)? Perhaps it is a spiritual thirst for feelings of wholeness and belonging -- a bit of mystic consciousness. His desperation and need are so great that he finds it necessary to drink in the morning and to hide it. Vodka vividly appears as a powerful substance the dreamer ingests and "tastes it going down." Although the dreamer is seemingly gratified and hasn't been caught, he feels guilty and ashamed. The dreamer's guilt and shame may not only be by-products of his sneaky behavior, but also of his awareness that the choice to drink is yet another avoidance of the recovery process.
Honesty with oneself and others is a basic tenet of Alcoholics Anonymous. Honesty extends not only to being forthright about sneaky behavior, but to acknowledging the existence and importance of fulfilling emotional and spiritual needs. Denial of such profound needs, coupled with sneaky behavior, isolation, and dishonesty, may enable the progression of alcoholism and become precursors to relapse. In commenting about the above dream, the dreamer stated, "I guess this shows that I can't lie to myself." Perhaps the dreamer has found that he can't lie to himself about his drinking and can't deny his thirst for integration and feelings of wholeness.
The dream may serve a compensatory function, reflecting the opposite of the dreamer's conscious attitude about drinking. Needing to defend against the temptation to drink in order to preserve abstinence, the dreamer may have repressed urges to drink. The dream, reflecting the unconscious wish to drink, perhaps provided the dreamer with a safe way to drink and a means by which to bring to consciousness his urges and deceiving tendencies. However, this dream may be continuous with the dreamer's waking life experiences if he has experienced urges to drink.
Whether the dream reflects the dreamer's waking urges to drink, or an unconscious wish to drink, is perhaps not as critical to the dreamer's sobriety as the negative affect in the dream and the dreamer's associations. The dream seems to have given the dreamer the opportunity to rehearse, or remember, the emotional consequences he suffers when he drinks and is dishonest. A relationship between drinking and guilt and shame seems to have been established. As such, the dream may serve to support the dreamer's waking sobriety by providing him with information concerning his need for honesty and previewing the relationship between drinking, guilt, and shame.
The function of the "Drinking and Using" dream is multi-faceted. When it is associated with negative affect, the Drinking and Using dream is in the service of the sober self. It can confront denial, reveal hidden warning signs of relapse, and alert the dreamer to intrapsychic conflicts and unmet needs. In its most adaptive form, Drinking and Using dreams strengthen commitment to sobriety by reminding the dreamer of the consequences of drinking. However, Drinking and Using dreams not associated with consequence and negative affect can potentially lure the recovering alcoholic into believing the illusionary promise that alcohol will relieve cravings for intrapsychic relief and change.
Recovery is experienced in the dreams of men in early sobriety as a conversion process that includes confrontation with undesirable behavior, character traits, stuck points, healing, fellowship, and spirituality. Just as the alcoholic once turned to alcohol for a transformative experience, he now looks to the process of recovery for inner peace and comradeship. Themes such as helping interactions afford the dreamer the opportunity to practice basic strategies for staying sober and illustrate the problem-solving function of dreaming. Themes of travel, motion, steps, and spirituality indicate that many are experiencing psychic reorganization and are attempting to adapt to a life of recovery.
The following dream is the fifth in a series by a single 49 year-old, late stage alcoholic with a history of relapse and 150 days of abstinence. The themes of travel and motion are illustrated.
We were driving through the mountains on windy roads, more like a back unused road, thick forest. It was a big four wheel drive station wagon type. There were kids (not any of mine). My neighbor and his wife were there. We were looking for some flashing for a house. I was driving because Sam, my neighbor, I thought was drunk. I remember hugging him and looking at his eyes. They were red and he looked very weak and tired. I told him he would get better. My daughter was in a car in front of where I was sleeping calling to me Sam died Dad!".
Looking addiction in the eyes as this dreamer did, seeing it as an illness, and embracing the wounds it has caused, are acts of compassion on behalf of the recovering alcoholic's psyche that wants health and a higher quality of life. Symbolically, the dreamer's alcoholic self appears to have died. Perhaps this death signifies transformation and further integration of a sober self.
As the recovering alcoholic must develop and implement new coping skills and healthy alternatives to drinking in order to maintain abstinence, finding his way into sobriety can be much like driving through mountains on back roads. A big four- wheel drive station wagon that can carry loved ones and support is an ideal vehicle in which to travel and overcome obstacles along such a road.
Friends and family are essential in helping some alcoholics to secure tools and materials for building a new house, a new life. Unfortunately, friends and family are sometimes alcoholic themselves. The newly-sober alcoholic finds that the sober self needs to be in the driver's seat of his new found sobriety and can't allow drunk friends (the addictive self) to drive. However, if he becomes complacent in recovery, the sober alcoholic can easily move from being awake in the driver's seat to being asleep and in denial in the back seat. This dream suggests that the dreamer is working through issues related to the early developmental stages of recovery, especially those concerning acceptance.
A focal point of the study was the hypothesis that recovering men who used their dreams to express cravings and to work through early sobriety issues would be less likely to have relapsed at follow-up. One recovering man indicated that he had relapsed at follow-up, while nine indicated that they had maintained continuous sobriety. Eight of the participants who reported that they had maintained continuous sobriety did in fact incorporate into their dreams alcohol/drugs and other aspects of the recovery process.
The dreamer who relapsed, a 41 year-old with a history of relapse, was significantly depressed, had many ineffective help-seeking interactions in his dreams, and did not incorporate any references to intoxication. His dreams were striking in their portrayal of preoccupation with women and sex.
The following dream illustrates how the dreamer's preoccupation with women interferes with his recovery, which he knows should be his priority.
Late for the House Meeting
Met beautiful woman at an AA meeting. We talked at the meeting and after went to a coffee shop. Long brown hair, light brown eyes, body beautiful. Kissing her, hugging. We decide that I would take her back to her apartment. Thought about where her car was, but then didn't care. She led me in to her dark apartment. Told her I needed to leave (bad timing) for my recovery house meeting. But with kissing and pressing her body upon mine, lose all sense of time. Again and again and again made love - sometimes violently, sometimes slowly and tenderly. Looked at clock. Panic. Had to leave.
Consistent throughout this dreamer's entire series were themes of inadequacy, threat, anxiety, anger, and rejection. The tone and themes suggest that the dreamer experiences himself as lonely, powerless, and isolated. Those themes that suggest relapse apart from depression could not be distinguished. The dreamer's series is most likely an illustration of the interplay of relapse and depression.
Based on the preliminary findings from this study, and a complimentary study by Kibira (1994) on the dreams of alcoholic women in early recovery, structured dream work with the chemically dependent client who volunteers dreams in early recovery may help to identify relapse warning signs that would otherwise go undetected. As such, there are educational and treatment implications to these studies.
The diagnostic implications of dream patterns and themes in early recovery are relevant to the education of 12-step sponsors, chemical dependency counselors, nurses, psychotherapists, and physicians. Also relevant, are techniques with which to work with the chemically dependent person who shares a dream and asks "what does it mean?". Training in dream work and common dream themes in early recovery can help guide discussions, treatment goals, and interventions.
In a treatment setting, a psycho-educational approach to dream work could be used to inform clients that drinking and using dreams in early recovery are common and do not necessarily indicate relapse. By exploring and discussing common dream themes in early recovery, clients can be taught how to use their dreams as sources of information for their recovery. Relapse warning signs, high risk situations, stuck points, and developmental progress in recovery can easily be identified through dream exploration and help clients to develop awareness of their recovery. Cognitive and behavioral strategies for the high risk situations and warning signs that are revealed could then be developed and rehearsed. Through dream work, clients can be guided to identify the sober and addictive selves. Awareness of the sober self and addictive self can help clients to identify distorted cognition and self destructive behavior that perpetuate the addictive process, as well as those thoughts and behaviors that support the recovery process.
James, W. (Eds.). (1901). The varieties of religious experiences. Penguin books. American library.
Kibira, C. (1994). The Dreams of Women in Early Recovery. An unpublished doctoral dissertation, California School of Professional Psychology, Berkeley/Alameda.
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