I still remember my very first ever relapse dream quite vividly. I was still in inpatient treatment when it happened; probably about 2 months into the program. It terrified me. I remember waking up in a cold sweat, wondering how I was going to tell my group that I had relapsed. Being brought back to reality after several panicked moments; the relief that swept over me as I realized that it was all just a dream. I remember sharing about my dream in group, asking the overseeing therapists what it meant. Was I on my way out?
They assured me that it was normal; an expected part of early sobriety. “Oh great,” I thought to myself. “Something else to look forward to.”
Relapse Dreams and Early Recovery
I dreamt that I was walking through a big, outdoor farmer’s market. I strolled past the colorful fruits and vegetables, stopping to sample the fresh crop every once in awhile. I approached a big tent, inside of which two happy farmers were sampling their product. It was some kind of beverage. I took a small paper cup and downed the liquid without thinking twice. Oh God. Oh God, it tasted of beer. “Um… hi, excuse me. What is this?” I motioned to the empty cup.
“Oh, that’s beer. We brew it ourselves.”
I dropped to my knees, tears streaming down my rapidly paling face. I couldn’t believe it. I had been duped into relapsing. All of my hard work for naught – I was now back at square one.
And then I woke up.
Looking back, I can see how absolutely ridiculous that dream was. At the time, however, it was absolutely terrifying. It rocked my world in a very real way. Since its occurrence, I have had many similar dreams – most transpiring during the first several months of my recovery. My relationship with alcohol has changed quite a bit since then, and these dreams no longer plague me. I don’t live in fear of accidentally relapsing anymore. I don’t fear alcohol at all, in fact. Sure, I still have a healthy fear of relapse, for I know that relapse will lead to an ultimate and rapid deterioration of everything that I have worked so very hard to obtain. But my subconscious is not afflicted the way it used to be, and that is for certain. And that is a blessing.
What is a Dream?
In most cases, a dream is but a subconscious interpretation of events that happened over the course of your day, or of thoughts that weigh heavily on your mind. Dreams can be funny, frightening, bizarre, or unsettling – sometimes, dreams can work to offset your entire day. When I was younger, I used to have very vivid, recurring nightmares. Someone once told me that in order to take the power away from a dream, it was a good idea to share it with someone at once. Now whenever I experience an especially unsettling dream, I am sure to share it with a close friend or family member upon waking. Keeping a dream journal is also an ideal way to work through dreams. Keep a notebook by your bed, and jot down any particularly noteworthy dreams that you recall when you wake. This exercise will help you to process the memories, fears, or deep-seated anxieties that certain dreams may be tied to.
Research indicates that most dreams contain at least some content that is drawn from autobiographical memories and personal experiences. And, of course, research continuously suggests that our waking lives have a great deal of influence over the content of our dreams. For example, if we have been spending weeks studying for a major exam, it is plausible that we dream about taking the exam regularly – maybe failing it, if we are under a lot of stress to do well. Our fears often manifest themselves in our dreams. If we are going through a particularly difficult break up, it is likely that we dream about our ex-lover. If we are in early recovery for drug addiction, it is realistic to assume that we will experience quite a few using dreams. Dreams are not red flags or warning signs or psychic indications of future events – they are merely fragmented demonstrations of the innumerable thoughts whirling around in the depths of our minds.
Dreams and Unresolved Trauma
Researchers suggest that another likely function of dreaming is processing and coming to terms with past traumatic events. Fear, grief, loss, abandonment, and emotional and physical pain will frequently replay themselves in dreams, and indicate that the process of grieving is in effect. A study conducted on individuals who had lost a loved one concluded that the majority of individuals dreamt of the person they had lost in one way or another. Many reported similar themes: they saw their loved one happy and alive, at peace, or they received an important message from the deceased. The same study found that about 60 percent of these dreamers felt that their grieving process was greatly influenced by such dreams.
What has this got to do with relapse dreams? When we enter into recover, we must undergo the process of grieving the loss of a loved one – the loss of our drug or drink of choice. We must grapple with all of the uncomfortable emotions that tend to linger in our subconscious minds – the fear of newfound sobriety, the fear of living a life without chemical substance, the anxiety of untainted social interaction and learning to live a self-sufficient and productive life. Uncharted territory.
As we conquer all of these fears and anxieties, which we inevitably will if we remain sober, our dreams will begin to normalize. We may still experience the occasional relapse dream, but it is important that we recognize this as a normal and expected part of the lifelong process of recovery.
Recovering from Relapse Dreams
Relapse dreams can be so vivid and unsettling that they make the dreamer feel as if he or she has really used. It is important to remember that just like every other symptom of post-acute withdrawal, relapse dreams will dissipate the longer one remains sober. Everything is temporary! And just like the feelings that they may inspire, dreams are not facts. If you do experience a dream that screws with your mind, be sure to share it with a trusted support as quickly as possible. Raise your hand in a meeting, or call a sober support. You may feel silly about focusing on something that has not even really transpired – but most individuals will be able to relate! Take it one day at a time, and remember that things get better. If you have any tips on working through relapse dreams or on preventing their occurrence, please feel free to share.