Have you ever had a terrible dream of loss or grief only to awake and feel immensely grateful that it was not true? Well this occurs quite frequently with addicts and alcoholics in early recovery such as those in addiction treatment centers. They experience “using dreams” or “drug dreams” that gallingly pop up at crucial moments of recovery.
Many of those who awake from a drug dream report being filled with gratitude that they have not picked up. They value the days, weeks and months that make up their sobriety and they wear their time sober as a badge of honor resembling hard work. Many dream that they have used, lost their sober time, let others around them down, and they experience feelings of guilt mixed with a murky darkness or impending doom. Just like anyone who has experienced a bad dream, they wake up thankful that it was only a dream.
Others report awaking with a feeling of relief but also find the dreams triggering. This is because they actually experience being “high” in their dreams, which may spark cravings the next day or a few days following the dream. The thought of being high in their dream permeates their waking hours and they find themselves suddenly preoccupied with using despite being strong in their resolve not to pick up just the day before. The dream then just seems downright unfair. For an addict’s hard work to be temporarily undermined by a using dream feels like putting salt on a wound.
There is limited research on why drug dreams occur or if certain groups experience them more often than others. However, some addiction treatment professionals say that drug dreams can indicate something positive – that they are the brain’s way of healing – of closing the gap between a painful and dramatic past with a serene future. With each dream the brain is healing – by reconciling the addict’s new way of living by playing out the past in a dream rather than in real life. Many believe the dreams occur more frequently in early sobriety because the brain is healing the most then. Using dreams may reappear at stressful times in life – sometimes even years after being sober – because the life situation may resemble something the sober brain has not conquered yet. However cumbersome and annoying using dreams might be, the bottom line is that they are just a dream and we can choose how we react to them. We can play into the disease of addiction by letting them be triggering, or we can let them fill us with gratitude that the brain is healing and we are sober in real life.