Coping with Drug Dreams

coping with drug dreams

Early recovery comes with a lot of physical baggage that results from years of abusing substances. Even after being successfully detoxed at a medical facility, many times the patient suffers from various withdrawal symptoms known as post-acute withdrawal symptoms, or PAWS, for weeks or even months following. Drug dreams are no different. While not necessarily a physical correlation to the cessation of substance abuse, drug dreams tend to be more of a mental symptom of withdrawal. As with any habit or addiction, it is partially physically and partially emotionally based. Many recovering addicts newly in recovery are bombarded with drug dreams in the beginning and are completely blindsided by the arrival of this not so welcome addition to his or her life. Dealing with drug dreams can be challenging, but it is possible to overcome.

Every night when we sleep, we dream. Dreams are the images created by our subconscious mind during the REM phase of sleep. Many experts believe that our dreams are directly influenced by our encounters and emotions we experience during our waking hours. It should come as no surprise that many newly recovering people experience what are known as drug dreams, or dreams in which the recovering addict is using or around drugs and/or alcohol.  These dreams are often extremely vivid and can leave the individual confused or truly believing he or she had used even after waking. This is a completely normal portion of the recovery process, especially in the beginning, and should not be a source of shame or fear. But the dangers posed by drug dreams are very real nonetheless, and it is extremely important for a person newly in recovery to know how to handle drug dreams and the resulting feelings that stem from them.

The first thing you should do after awakening from a drug dream is to bring yourself back into reality. The vividness of the dream may have seemed completely real, but it is important to recognize it for what it was: a dream.  Much like waking up from a nightmare as a child, remind yourself that it’s not real. Many people report feelings of shame or guilt after having a drug dream, feeling as though it is somehow his or her fault that he or she is dreaming about using. It is impossible to control the subconscious mind. It is not that you are not doing enough for your recovery or that you’re failing in any way, it happens to the best of us. Even people with years of sobriety report having drug dreams on occasion. Do not beat yourself up. A drug dream itself is not a relapse.

Many people who have drug dreams fail to report them to any sort of support system out of fear of judgment or ridicule. A great method for battling drug dreams is by being open and honest about them with the people in your support system, such as fellow recovering addicts or your sponsor. By sharing your struggles with others, they can actively offer their own experiences and advice on the matter, as well as reassure you that everything will be okay. Remaining open and honest is a key element in recovery, and since drug dreams typically occur more often in early recovery, it is healthy to begin to practice this level of openness with your support system from the very beginning.

Sitting on a Three Legged Stool

Imagine trying to sit on a three-legged stool.  Eventually, if you are unlike me, you may be able to pull it off and balance for a little while.  However, with any slight movement you will fall. It is inevitable. Successful addiction treatment needs to ensure that fourth leg is a vital component of the program.  

The treatment community has finally embraced the traditional three-legged approach of physical, mental, and emotional treatment, yet continues to lack the fourth leg, spirituality. The physical level of self involves what we do; the mental – what we think and believe; the emotional – what we feel; and the spiritual – who we truly are.   Without spirituality in recovery, treatment is incomplete and our we will wobble and fall with only the slightest movement.  

here are some ideas that can create an opening for a supportive, recovery-based conversation about developing spiritual competencies:

  • A good place to start is just listening to what people have to say about spiritual issues. As simple as this may sound, it’s a step many of us haven’t yet taken since we have not been open to having this conversation.

  • We can ask how people understand the words “spirituality” and “religion,” and if they view them as distinct. Listen deeply to what they say.

  We can ask what gives their lives purpose and meaning. For example, the following questions were developed for use by physicians: “What do you hold on to during difficult times?” “What sustains you and keeps you going?” “What aspects of your spirituality or spiritual practices do you find most helpful to you personally?” “Is there anything I can do to help you access the resources that usually help you?”2

  If people express interest in gaining spiritual competencies, we can describe some practices that many others have found helpful, such as: prayer, meditation, contemplation, reading inspirational books, journal writing, spending time in nature, taking part in religious services, or volunteering services to others.

  We can show interest in and provide support for their spiritual findings and encourage them to stay with practices that support their recovery, and to let go of those that don’t.

Spirituality is different from religion. It has less to do with organized approaches and is more individualized. There are several national polls reliably indicate what our society says and feels about spirituality. They say that spirituality is an important facet in the lives of the vast majority of Americans.

Why would we assume that people with who suffer from addiction are any different? Anything that can support the resiliency of the people we serve should definitely be our business. We must move beyond our ambivalence about including spirituality in treatment programs if we intend to provide holistic, culturally competent, and recovery-oriented services.