Giant spiders. Headless horsemen. Waking up naked in the middle of Times Square. Those are the things many nightmares are made of. But when you’re an alcoholic in recovery, there are far worse nightmares that like to come around from time to time. It’s those pesky drinking dreams.
Are drinking dreams common?
Known as drunk dreams, relapse dreams or what-the-hell-did-I-do-now dreams, drinking dreams are quite common for folks in recovery. Stats reported in an American Journal of Psychiatry article by S.Y. Choi say 83 percent of alcoholics in recovery for more than a year had dreamed about relapsing at least once.
While some have reported having dreams where they become rip-roaring, fall-down drunk, others may have dreams that involve alcohol or drinking in any number of ways.
My first drinking dream
I recall my very first drinking dream quite well, as I woke up in a sweat-ridden, terrified panic. It was early in my recovery when I had a few months of sobriety under my belt, after struggling through that first dreadful week of out-of-my-mind alcohol cravings followed by a hideous bout of delirium tremens (DTs).
The dream had me at a bar somewhere with a collection of drinks in front of me. I had grabbed for a beer and was about to place it to my lips to take a sip – when I woke up in that aforementioned sweat-ridden panic.
My biggest panic wasn’t about all the dumb things that were sure to follow the moment I put the beer to my lips, but rather the sheer agony and shame at having to start my day count all over again. (Insert horrified scream here.)
Those first 90 days can be a pretty tough road, but if you stick with recovery for the long haul, you only have to go through them once. Once was more than enough for me, thank you very much.
And I was soooooo glad when I realized I didn’t drink in reality. In fact, I had woken up before I had even taken a sip in my dream. But the experience was still too close for comfort.
Once the panic of the dream subsided and I was flooded with massive relief, it seemed only logical to try to decipher what this drinking dream meant.
What do drinking dreams mean?
As with any type of dream, drunk dreams come with limitless interpretations and can mean different things to different people at different times of the day, month, year or moon phase.
But as any good alcoholic knows, one of the most torturous ways to interpret these dreams is as a dire warning that we’re about to fall off the wagon, roll underneath it, and get crushed by a 2,000-pound horse (perhaps one even being ridden by a headless horseman).
Here comes a rundown on a variety of drinking dream interpretations I’ve heard, read or pondered over the years:
- The gloom and doom interpretation: OMG. That drunk dream is a sign that I’m about to drink. I better stay home locked in a closet for the next 11 months.
- The out-of-control interpretation: Being drunk and out of control in a dream can mean something is out of control in real life. What is overwhelming me that I need to get help with or pay attention to?
- The buckle-down interpretation: Woah. That drinking dream freaked me out. It must be God sending a sign I need to get back to the basics of my recovery program.
- The gratitude interpretation: Yessss, yesssss, yessssssss! I am soooooooooo grateful that I didn’t drink for real. And I’m going to stay diligent in my recovery to help ensure it stays that way.
- The live-it-up interpretation: One woman noted that in the middle of her drinking dream, she realized it was a dream. So she went to town getting drunk and living it up with no holds barred, knowing she’d wake up sober. (This tactic may actually help people stay sober, according to Choi’s article.)
- The protection interpretation: A drinking dream I had soon after my dad died had him all dressed up and tending a home bar at a Christmas party. I asked him to give me a beer and he said, “No. You don’t drink.” I took that was a beautiful sign that my dad was still protecting me, even in death.
- The symbolism interpretations: Looking at what alcohol symbolizes in general and in your life in particular can open up another Pandora’s box for interpretations. Alcohol can symbolize:
- Ability OR inability to control impulses
- Excess, either with drinking or other areas of life
- Façade or cover for what really lies beneath
- Fear of being let down badly by those you can’t trust
- Long lost friend
- Fearsome enemy
- Someone or something that has power over you
- Spirits, as in ghosts, the spirit of man, or dozens of other spirit meanings
The list can go on and on ad nauseam, getting as complex and out of control as drunkenness itself. Or you can a cue from a wise woman who helped me calm down after my first ever drinking dream in early recovery.
Bottom line on alcohol dreams
When I ran to my pal screaming “I dreamed about alcohol – What’s does that mean?!,” her answer was straightforward and made too much sense.
“You’re an alcoholic,” she said. “OF COURSE you’re going to dream about alcohol.”
Anything that’s made an unforgettable impact in our lives for any amount of time is destined to show up in our dreams, whether that thing is alcohol, living in a roach-infested Brooklyn apartment, or even positive things like taking a hot air balloon ride.
Drunk dreams appear to be par for the course for most alcoholics, so take them with stride – even if they also come with giant spiders, headless horsemen or waking up naked in Times Square.
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