All about drinking dreams

In the last few nights, my dreams have been wild. I’m going through a lot of changes in my life, and any modicum of control I’ve managed to secede in my conscious life is positively tearing about my unconscious like a toddler in an antique store. Consciously, I’ve been remarkably good at not catastrophizing, of taking every turn or unknown in stride. But unconsciously, I’m losing it. There’s glass on the floor.

If, in these dreams, I was simply late to everything, or everyone was mad at me, that would be one thing. My typical nightmare is often comprised of both. Two nights ago, for example, I was late to a flight, missed it because I was shopping at Dollar Tree, and Delta promptly rebooked me for an alternate flight which cost me a lot of money. I was furious with myself, not to mention mystified at my choice in Dollar Tree.

Last night, my unconscious was more creative. Last night’s was a drinking dream.

I was surrounded by close friends who drink but are not alcoholic. I told myself I would attempt not to drink, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing ever if “it happened.” (The passive voice is always a red flag, conscious or not.) I let my friends know that I was sure I could drink responsibly, and this was met with a cheerful shrug: “Ok!”

I have to hand it to my unconscious: she knew exactly what my sponsor would say, and exactly what I would feel in turn. What matters is you came back. (Yes, but I would’ve rather never left.) Check your ego at the door. (Ok, but I’ll just hang out by the door then.)

3 ½ years feels special. There’s nothing special about one day.

(There is, of course, everything special about one day.)

I think it’s worth nothing that my nightmares about relapse are marked mostly by ego, by the feeling of failure involved in going back out. I wear my 3 ½ years - which is actually still “early sobriety,” by AA standards - like a proud little boy scout. Even in my dream, losing sobriety felt like a demerit, like losing a badge.

I was, clearly, thrilled to wake up, with my sobriety still intact, all my badges still firmly in place. I was thrilled to return to problems that feel big, tough to manage, but nowhere near as big as drinking once was. Drinking dreams give me a sense of perspective with none of the consequences. They’re a blessing disguised as a bad night’s sleep.

Why do drinking dreams occur? For every scientific reason, I’m sure there are three scientists willing to bet against it. I’ve come to believe the only real meaning in a dream is the one you choose to make of it - or not.

I’m a big fan of psychological theorists who aren't taught much anymore - Freud, Frankl, Jung, Rogers. People who thought in gratuitous detail about the self, about the different parts of the self, about what happens when these parts are discrepant. If my worst nightmares tend to feature being late - rather than, I don’t know, a friend or family member dying - it isn’t because I just have weird priorities. For me, it’s because lateness represents incongruence between the selves, actual and ought. Being late means I was faced with an easy task - being on time - and I failed. I had an opportunity to be better - if only slightly better - and I didn’t take it. Am I'm lazy? Disrespectful? Irresponsible? Spiraling?

If a drinking dream occasionally finds its way in between “late” dreams, perhaps that isn’t so surprising. I’m reminded that the pain of bottoming out was not dissimilar to the pain of being late, albeit on a much larger scale. Both cases boil down to self-discrepancy, incongruence: The person I wanted to be - indeed, the person I felt I really was - felt perfectly attainable. And yet, alcohol surreptitiously kept that person just out of reach.

To the extent that this realization helps me stay sober, it is useful. However, I'll be honest: I smell a lot of super ego here too, a lot of uncompromising "shoulds." Lazy, disrespectful, irresponsible, spiraling. The attributions I make about my late self are just as unkind as those I’ve made about my drinking one. At least unconsciously, I am still understanding alcoholism as a moral problem, rather than the disease it is. That lets me know I have more work to do.

When you wake up from a drinking dream, mixed with relief is often a sense of guilt. Would I really do that? Do I secretly want to drink again? Perhaps replace a few of these accusatory questions with kinder, more productive ones:

Have I forgiven myself for drinking?
Have I forgiven that part of me that still wants to drink?
Do I feel like a bad person?
How much do I believe that I'm good?

When there’s glass on the floor, we sweep it up. We give the toddler a safe toy, guide him or her towards the swings or the monkey bars. We are compassionate, acknowledging chaos as integral to human nature. All I’m saying is: if you’re having drinking dreams, might be time to find a safe playground.