As a recovered alcoholic who has been sober for over a year and a half now, I’m frequently asked what to expect by those looking to give up the bottle.
Of course, I tell them about the good stuff: the energy (both mental and physical), the sharpened mental focus, the euphoria that comes with that happy convergence of sobriety and an uptick in physical exercise, and the way better sex (trust me on this one!).
But I’m also honest about the negatives. Namely, a sharp contraction in your social life, newfound awkwardness in longstanding relationships with friends and family, and, of course, the rage. The unfettered, unrelenting, oftentimes blinding anger. The kind of rage that makes you want to put your fist through absolutely everything.
I don’t care how “chill” you think you are. In your first year of sobriety there will be many, many times when you’ll fantasize about beating the shit out of absolutely everything. I know this from first-hand experience: your inner Gandhi will, upon (probably) the first month of kicking the bottle, be transformed into Floyd Mayweather. Virtually every person I’ve ever talked to who’s kicked an addiction has some version of this Jekyll-Hyde story to report. And if you’re the sort of living Buddha who can completely sidestep emotional toxicity, you probably wouldn’t have developed a dependency on booze or some other agent of stupefaction to begin with.
Many readers will have heard the phrase “dry drunk” in reference to this phenomenon. Coined by the creators of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Step program, “dry drunk syndrome” was further elaborated on by author R.J. Solberg in his 1970 book by the same name. He described it as “the presence of actions and attitudes that characterized the alcoholic prior to recovery.”
Psychology Today characterizes dry drunk syndrome by way of the following symptoms:
- Resentment toward friends or family
- Anger and negativity surrounding recovery
- Depression, anxiety, and fear of relapse
- Jealousy of friends who are not struggling with addiction
- Romanticizing their drinking days
- Being self-obsessed
- Replacing the addiction with a new vice (e.g. sex, food, and internet use)
While I generally agree with this characterization, and can indeed relate to many of these ailments (although not so much the last one, unless you count long-distance running as a “vice”), I’ve never particularly liked the phrase “dry drunk.” For one, it seems to reinforce the centrality of alcohol in a person’s life, serving as a constant reminder of what they’re trying to part ways with. This has always been my main issue with AA (that and the whole God thing): as an ex-drinker, I sought to build a new identity that had nothing to do with booze and my past relationship to it. Yet AA participants still appeared to lean on alcohol as a necessary villain in their life plot, in the same way every Star Wars movie needs a Sith Lord.
No. Fuck that! I’m not a “dry drunk.” I’m not any kind of drunk. Call me an angry straight-edger if you must, but I’m not an anything-drunk, thank you very much.
That said, the anger was real. For a time, they caused tremendous strain — both within my own head and in relationships with my closest and dearest. For a time, sobriety turned me into an often deeply unpleasant human being, and I’m frankly surprised my marriage survived it. As someone who’d long thought of himself as an emotionally restrained human being, I barely recognized the person who came out the other end of my decades of alcohol dependency. It was quite terrifying.
Sobriety and the Floodgates of Ugly Memories
My other issue with the aforementioned notion of the “dry drunk” is this: the rage I felt as a non-drinker was in no way characteristic of my behavior or emotional landscape as a drinker. Though my frustrations were not new, I was surprised but the untethered nature of my emotional responses.
My anger was not borne out of resentment towards not being able to drink. That feeling subsided much quicker than I thought it would, within a month or so of sobering up. I felt blinding rage on a very regular basis, but none of that seemed to stem from a sense of deprivation. In fact, I quite quickly became one of those intolerable sober people (like evangelical ex-smokers) who couldn’t stand drunk people or even the smell of booze. My rage seemed to stem more from an anger with my former self and a profound sense of shame vis-à-vis the identity I’d shed.
But it was more than just a sense of shame. With sobriety came a tsunami of buried emotional hurt dating back to well before I ever became a regular drinker. From virtually the instant I bid my final adieu to alcohol, two decades of unresolved “stuff” from my past immediately showed up at my door. It was like encountering two decades of required software updates to a computer that had been out of service for many years. I don’t think there’s a way to truly prepare oneself for being bombarded by a flood of unresolved personal issues that one has been procrastinating on for twenty years. The human mind simply isn’t designed to cope with that sort of stress.
I became a regular drinker in my teens. At first it was a party thing, but by the time I left for university I was regularly drinking alone in my dorm room. As I always (generally) had a high degree of self-control, I seldom got shit-faced, and as such was able to convince myself for well over a decade that I was a “moderate drinker.” But even moderation isn’t necessarily a healthy place to be when you’re as prone to depression and debilitating anxiety as this author happens to be. Even when I was limiting myself to a drink or two a night, I still felt like I needed it to feel relaxed. In hindsight, it’s clear to me that even my one-or-two-a-night relationship with booze was inherently unhealthy.
In retrospect, I should have seen a warning sign in the fact that while I frequently felt like I needed a drink, I never felt the same way about my other favorite depressant, marijuana. My weed consumption as an adult has varied considerably over the years, from very regularly to none at all (notably while living in Japan, a country that retains a more-or-less zero-tolerance policy towards cannabis and other controlled substances). Still, such changes have never been cause for consternation on my part. Like other substances I’ve taken and enjoyed (like psilocybin and other psychedelics) I always enjoyed weed but never felt like I needed it. By contrast, I felt conscious annoyance during the few times I needed to abstain from alcohol pre-sobriety (at temples and ashrams in India, or flying on Gulf Arab airlines like Kuwait Airways).
So what exactly was I getting from alcohol? Simply put, alcohol seemed to be the only thing in my life that neutralized the stomach-churning anxiety I remember feeling in elementary school, and that nearly drove me to suicide in junior high school. As a kid who endured some fairly brutal bullying and spent long periods feeling like a social outcast, I learned early on what anxiety and depression felt like. The gulag-esque architecture and adjacent gravel pit of Mount Newton Middle School, where I spent grades six through eight, resembled something out of a J.G. Ballard dystopia. While I survived, it most certainly claimed a piece of me — and it would take many, many years to come to terms with the trauma.
This — and nothing that happened during my lush years — was the shape in which my post-drunken rage came screaming into this world. My years as a drinker came to feel like a vacation from my unresolved “stuff,” and once I was sober I knew there was no going back. The seething, clawing fury I felt on a near-daily basis for much of my first year sober was born of the feeling of having been robbed. It was equal parts anger at all those who’d wronged me and at myself for letting it happen (and for having ignored it for all those years). My mind became a Battle Royale, with my untethered ego at the center of the ring. I was taking swings at anything that homed into view.
Moving Past the Anger
How did I get through it? I ran. Ran like a crazy person. I’d leaned on running to clear the windscreen of depression and anxiety, and it also seemed to do the trick with my red tsunamis of rage. I also began a serious practice of meditation, which I maintain to this day. Angry thoughts are nothing more than thoughts, ephemeral flickers of consciousness. When observed from a meditative standpoint, they dissolve like a packet of Splenda in a cheap cup of coffee.
I also wrote. Even before sobriety I’d begun creativity guru Julia Cameron’s recommended morning pages: three pages of uninterrupted, stream-of-consciousness writing right after waking up (longhand, not typed). This practice has not only made me a much better writer than I otherwise would have become, but they made my roller coaster of sobriety much easier to understand.
Plus, I read. A lot. And I talked a lot about what I was going through. I’m deeply fortunate to have relationships with my spouse and family members. While far from perfect, these relationships have facilitated open communication. Of course this is still a work in progress, as am I as a person, but it’s something I don’t take for granted. Many who try to break free from addiction are not so lucky. Many are alone in the world, and reliant on whatever networks happen to be available to them. While I have serious problems with their underlying mythologies and practices, 12-step programs like AA do indeed provide these. If nothing else, they’re a bazillion times better than the “friends” waiting for you at your old watering hole of choice.
And yes, the anger does subside. At the one-year-seven-months mark, I can honestly say I no longer feel the blinding rage I felt on a regular basis a year ago. My life has steadily improved in almost every way. All the “good stuff” about being sober still stands, and the nice thing about being a recovered alcoholic is that these things continue to seem novel for a long time thereafter. But the ugly side to recovery does have a time limit. It can indeed be weathered with the right set of mental habits and discipline.
You’ll always be tempted to repress the anger (as well as to go back to the bottle). Don’t fight it. Feel it. Turn on some Black Flag, crank it up to 11, and wreck something if you have to. (Just don’t do it with anything valuable.) Run until you bleed through your pores and your leg muscles scream like a victim of the Inquisition. Write page after page of profanity-laced letters to your junior high school bully. Get a tattoo. Hurl heavy objects and build those muscles you wished you’d had in grade 7. Go to your local slam poetry meet and lay down some obnoxious verse. The possibilities are endless. But whatever you do, just really try not to take it out on your partner, spouse, or family members. What you’re going through is not your fault, but it’s also not theirs — and the fact that they’re still by your side is evidence enough that they’re on your side. Recognize the anger for what it is before letting your words fly in way that can’t be undone.
Also, don’t call yourself a dry drunk. If you’ve reached this point in your recovery, you’re no longer a drunk of any kind. You’re a badass straight-edger who wants to put his/her/their fist through shit and make everything bleed. That’s not the alcohol (or lack thereof talking). It’s your younger self bleeding and sobbing in some desolate corner of the Junior High Archipelago. Honor them. Love them. Fight for them.