A Drunk Dream is Harmless. Right?

A Drunk Dream is Harmless. Right?

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This post was originally published on March 30, 2015.

On a quiet Sunday morning a few weeks ago, my legs kicked out and my body sprang upright at about 5 am. I was soaked in sweat. No, I wasn’t breaking a fever. I was waking up from a “drunk dream.” This one had ended just as I was about to crash a car I was driving into a telephone pole. I had been speeding away from police, swerving all over a series of narrow, twisting streets. My only companions were a bottle of Absolut Citron on the floorboard and a small mountain of cocaine—enough to make Tony Montana proud—on the passenger seat.

I had been plowing coke up my nose by the handful in the dream, but that wasn’t the part that disturbed me the most. No. It was my state of mind as I dreamed. I felt drunk and high in a way that was far too realistic for my liking. In my sleep, I was right back in the frantic tension and misery of active addiction. The calm that I’ve managed to find most days in sobriety—in part because I’m no longer running or hiding from anything or anyone—was gone. Poof.

Dreams of relapse began early in my sobriety. And they weren’t fun dreams about a great night out in a club with friends. They were stressful and scary, extreme and realistic-feeling scenes of outlandish events that theoretically could have happened if I relapsed.

One morning, I woke up feeling shattered, believing that I had just been at work doing lines of coke off a conference room table in the middle of a meeting with the partners at my law firm. Not only had I trashed all of the hard work I’d put into sobriety, but I’d also exposed my secret publicly. As I blinked my eyes awake, I felt an ache in my stomach. What am I going to tell my sponsor? Was I fired?

Then my brain came around and I realized that I was safe in my bed. That horrific meeting at work never happened and, thankfully, I was still sober. I was overwhelmed with relief and gratitude, as if I had just avoided getting hit by an 18-wheeler that ran a red light. But it was a combination of feeling lucky that disaster hadn’t struck and terror at how easily it could have. Scary.

My sponsor told me to share about these dreams in 12-step meetings, so I did. I saw a lot of people nodding around the room when I talked about that initial moment of waking up and truly believing I had used.

Afterward, an old-timer came up to me and said, “Lucky you! You got a free one!” Really? I thought. Had he missed the part about the anxiety and fear? His comment, however, made me wonder if there could be such a thing as a “free one,” a dream that approximated using without any horrible consequences. It seemed to me that if picking up looked appealing—even in a dream—that would create a whole new set of problems. It didn’t sound exactly “free.”

“Let me tell you about my best drunk dream ever,” a long-time sober friend said to me when I asked him about this. “I was in a bar shooting pool with my brother. I picked up a beer and my brother said, ‘Hey, put that down! What are you doing?’ I told him not to worry. ‘This is just a dream!’ I said. ‘I’m going full bore while I can!’”

With that, in his dream, my friend donned a grass skirt and danced a hula to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock ‘n Roll.” He laughed at the image. The dream didn’t seem to bother him. “If I’ve gotten to the point where my brain knows it’s just a drunk dream when I’m having it, I think it’s okay,” he said. I couldn’t argue with him.

For me, it’s different. Maybe it’s because my average nightmare-to-good-dream ratio has always been about 30:1, but I can’t imagine having happy drunk dreams that I could smile about later. Even if I did, the fear of that kind of dream making me think picking up could be anything less than dangerous is enough to make me hope it doesn’t happen.

Through a lot of discussion with my sponsor and my sober friends, I’ve decided that what these dreams are for me are reminders. Should I ever start feeling overconfident or complacent about my sobriety, a serious drunk dream can put me in my place fast.

They give me a reason to pause and check myself. I have a tendency to go through life telling everyone, including myself, that everything is great and I’m just fine. When I have a drunk dream now, I try to stop for a minute and ask myself why it might have happened. Is there something under the surface that I’m not acknowledging and that needs to be addressed?

For a long time, I was having hardcore violent nightmares about gruesome murders and torture. My husband said, “Maybe you should stop watching those reality shows at bedtime about people who come home from work one night and stab their spouse 137 times. Maybe that would help.” I have to admit that it did. I could see the cause and effect.

Similarly, with drunk dreams, the cause can be as simple as anxiety about a situation or project at work. I’ve also found it happens if I haven’t gone to enough meetings because I’ve been “too busy.” Or maybe the margarita I saw someone sipping at a sidewalk café on a warm evening looked a little too good.

A crazy drunk dream can be like a two-by-four hitting me in the head to alert me that something’s off. But I also need to remember that, just as most two-by-fours don’t actually measure two feet by four feet, a horrible drunk dream in which I’m about to smash into a telephone pole doesn’t mean I’m about to go off on a three-day bender in real life. And sometimes there isn’t a clear explanation. A drunk dream can be just a dream.

I’ll err on the side of caution, though, and pay attention. And that’s not just because I don’t look good in grass skirts.

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Lisa Smith is a lawyer and writer in New York City. She is the author of the memoir Girl Walks Out of a Bar, which recounts her experiences as a high-functioning alcoholic and drug addict.