The Difference Between Being Dry and Sober in AA

Two symbols of the letter A in wood

May 8, 2021

By Andy F

Categories: Untreated Alcoholism

When I first arrived at AA, it took quite a while for the alcoholic fog to clear. During that time, I was unable to take in any new information. One day, I heard a unique expression. It sounded like a complete contradiction. People were describing a phenomenon called ‘the dry drunk.’ How can you be dry and drunk at the same time? Years later, I heard another definition for the dry drunk: – ‘Untreated alcoholism.’ That wasn’t very clear. How could my alcoholism be untreated if I was no longer drinking?

Was I a dry drunk?

My initial understanding of the dry drunk syndrome was minimal. I concluded that it was describing the same type of behavior as a drinking alcoholic. The only difference, I imagined, was that in the “dry drunk,” alcohol is no longer involved.

Until I got serious about the twelve steps, my behavior as a dry alcoholic was just as destructive as it was when I was drinking. Not only harmful to others but also harmful to myself. In many ways, my behavior was worse. I could no longer depend on the sedating effects of alcohol, so my reaction to life was even more volatile and unpredictable.

Untreated alcoholism: – Impact on relationships

My untreated alcoholism was most apparent in my closest relationships. I was frequently angry and abusive. I thought only of myself, believing that my point of view was the only valid one. In hindsight, I have to admit that “Selfishness” and “self-centeredness” (BB p. 62) ruled my life.

These two character defects harmed all of my relationships. According to Bill, these defects were “the root of my troubles” as a drunk. (BB p. 62) I was “driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity.” * (BB p 62)

“Belligerent denial” BB p,568

Was it possible that I was on a dry drunk? I remember this thought crossing my mind, but I rejected it. At the time, denial was the easier, softer way. My lifelong pattern was to stay in denial rather than face the truth. It was me that was the problem, not everyone else.

My behavior in recovery was selfish, self-centered, and self-seeking—all the symptoms of a dry drunk. True to form, I blamed others for problems that I was creating. When that stopped working, it was easier to blame my childhood for dysfunctional behavior.

“Where other people were concerned, we had to drop the word ‘blame’ from our speech and thought.”

(12 & 12 p.47)

“Total inability to form a true partnership” (12 & 12 p. 53)

In early recovery, most of my relationships would break down sooner or later. Whenever I got close to someone, I would become very demanding. People started to pull away because of my unreasonable expectations. At other times, I would become needy and clingy. I would take hostages rather than develop healthy boundaries with others.

“Either we insist upon dominating the people we know, or we depend upon them far too much.”

“If we lean too heavily on people, they will sooner or later fail us, for they are human too and cannot possibly meet our incessant demands. In this way, our insecurity grows and festers.”

(12 & 12 p 53)

Was this the dry drunk that people in meetings were talking about? Were these the symptoms of untreated alcoholism? Looking back, I couldn’t deny that the AA literature described me perfectly.

I could not form a “true partnership with another human being.” 

(12&12 p.53).

Symptoms of untreated alcoholism

In AA, alcoholism is also called ‘the disease of perception.’  I had an uncanny ability to distort my perception of reality into something other than it was. I later learned that my maladapted ego does this very efficiently. That way, I don’t have to face myself or take any responsibility for my behavior. When I came into recovery, I was a survivor. I would use people to fill the emptiness and loneliness within.

For many alcoholics, the symptoms of untreated alcoholism are most apparent in their relationships with others. We have a saying in the UK fellowship. ‘ For an alcoholic, getting into a relationship is like putting ‘Miracle-Gro’ on their defects of character. Undoubtedly, they brought out the very worst in me.

I had no relationship with myself, so how could I have a meaningful relationship with anyone else? When I was in enough pain, the time came to ask for help. My sponsor’s suggestions became a power greater than me. It amounted to a willingness to take Good Orderly Direction – a helpful acronym for GOD.

The eight bedevilments

The eight bedevilments on page 52 of the Big Book are the best way to describe my untreated alcoholism. I once attended a Big Book Study. When given the assignment on Step Two, we learned that the eight bedevilments accurately described the “insanity” mentioned in the second step. I suffered from every one of them. They did not leave me when I stopped drinking. Some of them get worse.

 “We had to ask ourselves why we shouldn’t apply to our human problems this same readiness to change our point of view.

  1. We were having trouble with personal relationships.
  2. We couldn’t control our emotional natures.
  3. We were prey to misery and depression.
  4. We couldn’t make a living.
  5. We had a feeling of uselessness.
  6. We were full of fear.
  7. We were unhappy.
  8. We couldn’t seem to be of help to other people …

…. was not a basic solution to these bedevilments more important than whether we should see newsreels of lunar flight? Of Course it was.”

(BB p.52)

Step Two – “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Sanity comes from the Latin root word Sanus. It means “healthy, whole, sane.”

The diagnostic criteria for untreated alcoholism

While on the Big Book study, these eight bedevilments were offered as symptoms of untreated alcoholism. They may be seen as the diagnostic criteria of the illness. It is quite remarkable how every alcoholic I have ever spoken to has suffered from some, if not all, of the bedevilments.

…………“An illness of this sort” (BB p. 18)

The eight bedevilments may well suggest that alcoholics are all suffering from a common illness, which Bill describes as a spiritual malady.

“When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically.”

(BB p. 64)

The twelve steps: treatment for the dry drunk

AA presents the twelve steps as a treatment for alcoholism. They are a mechanism for spiritual healing and transformation. What came as a complete surprise was that the steps did for me in less than a year, what talk therapy failed to achieve in ten years. This truth went a long way in convincing me that I had been spiritually ill.

“You may be suffering from an illness which only a spiritual experience will conquer.” 

(BB p. 44)

The suggested program gradually helped to free me from the eight bedevilments. My recovery from alcoholism is based on AA’s daily practice of love and service to others. It is simple but not always easy. Compared to the broken person I was when I first got sober, I have been given a life beyond my wildest dreams.

In fellowship

Andy F

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