Is ‘dry drunk’ a real medical diagnosis?

Readers Question Readers Question: (Name changed for privacy)
Stanton Peele Response by: Dr. Stanton Peele
Posted on January 17th, 2009 - Last updated: February 4th, 2014
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Dr. Peele:

I emailed you a few weeks ago regarding the definition given by a therapist of a “dry drunk” as someone who was an alcoholic who never drank. I thought this an aberration, of sorts, until I read in the Recovery Liberation Front of a Captain Dr. Becky Gill’s (Director of the Addiction Rehabilitation Department, Naval Hospital, Camp Pendleton, California) remarks made during a session with a “patient,” Tommy Perkins, while he was in treatment in which she referred to his deceased father, who had never had a drink, as a dry drunk. I find this so alarming and I can’t imagine how this can possibly go unchallenged by others in the (bogus, in my opinion) field? Surely some of them must find this unbelievable. It’s as if someone had a license to not just accuse but to make the statement as some sort of “medical” fact. If anyone else made accusations such as these, it would seem they would open themselves up to charges of slander. But what upsets me the most is how patently absurd it is just on the face of it.

Thank you,
Maureen O’Connell

Dear Maureen:

As I told you at first, a dry drunk is one of two things in my experience. On the one hand, it is a way to denigrate those who choose a path other than AA to quit drinking. Such individuals are often accused of being “dry drunks” — the implication is, they are people who have not really dealt with their drinking problem (unlike AA members) and whose remission cannot be taken seriously.

On the other hand, AA uses the term sometimes to defend themselves against their own failures — like Joan Kennedy or Darryl Strawberry. These are people who have been through 12-step treatment and attend AA, who ostensibly are following its precepts, but who nonetheless fail. Here the implication of dry drunk is that these people only outwardly adhere to AA — but, deep down, they had not really accepted the AA worldview.

As you point out, the term is so fluid and malleable that it has no observable reality — it means people who look to be acting one way (“dry”) but who are actually in another state (“drunk”), known only to the keen-eyed observer, or else only to be discovered when the individual subsequently falls off the wagon. Additional meanings, as you point out, concern people who have never been drunk or have even had a drink, but who are hypothesized to be alcoholics by observers (or, possibly, themselves) based on their pedigrees and fears.

You worry that the term is taken as some serious diagnosis; in my experience, it is a sign — not of the person being labeled — but of the idiot making the diagnosis.

Yours sincerely,

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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