I don’t remember dreaming a whole lot when I was drinking. I think that’s pretty common. As James Hamblin noted in his article Never Say Yes to a Nightcap in The Atlantic, alcohol disrupts our circadian rhythms and reduces REM sleep – when dreams are most likely to occur.
When I do dream, I have good dreams and bad. One of my bad recurring dreams is of being chased and/or attacked by a grizzly bear. I’m not sure why a bear – although there is a certain scene in The Revenant that guaranteed I’d have bear attack in my rotating nightmare repertoire, along with being naked in public and unprepared test taking.
Of course I have pleasant dreams too – which I don’t need to elaborate on here – except to say that Anthony Bourdain is a national treasure, and can visit my dreams any ol’ time he pleases – with or without reservations.
Usually after a night spent boozing, I would end up sprawled face down in bed, mouth agape, drooling, with approximately the same level of brain activity as a starfish. Those times, it’s questionable if an alien invasion or a strolling band of mariachis randomly wandering into my bedroom could wake me.
I actually passed out on a toilet once, apparently channeling my inner Fat Elvis. Until I fell forward and hit my head against the side of the tub, giving myself a black eye. Did I mention how classy I am when drinking?
But since I’ve quit, I might as well keep a bowl of popcorn on my nightstand, because my dreams have been like watching movies. Granted – like movies directed by Guillermo del Toro or David Lynch – but still, they are incredibly vivid and detailed. As the hours pass, the memory of them slowly dissipates, and all but a few shadowy images remain. Yet I remember them enough to know that there is a common theme running through them – namely me drinking.
Since my Day One 25 days ago, I’ve had people hand me beer at parties without me even asking. I’ve had waiters pour glasses of wine at dinner that I didn’t order. I’ve sneakily sipped whisky mixed with diet cola in a can, thrown back a couple of swigs from a secret stash I kept hidden in my glove compartment, and sat at a bar, said fuck it, and ordered myself a double vodka soda with a twist of lime.
All of these things happened in my dreams – not my waking life. Yet I still wake up feeling like a failure. I experience relief as well – but also disappointment and a sense of being betrayed by my subconscious brain.
I’ve been doing so well, after all. The cravings to drink haven’t been easy, but so far they’ve been manageable, and I’m putting in the hard work to protect my sobriety. So why do I keep blowing it when I go to bed at night? Is it a sign that it’s only a matter of time before I find my way back to the bottle?
I know from talking to other recovering alcoholics that these falling off the wagon dreams are not uncommon. And I have my theories as to why they are happening, at least to me.
The first, is good old fashioned Catholic guilt. I was the kind of kid who would confess my actual sins during confession, not those made up ones so I could get off with just a couple of Hail Marys and an Our Father. Good thing I never pursued a life of crime, because I would have been like the villains on Scooby Doo, who cop to every detail of their crime as soon as their monster disguise is ripped off by those meddling kids.
I have a lot of well-earned guilt around my drinking. I’ve hurt people emotionally, but somehow I have been able to retain relationships with almost everyone I love. I’ve done things like drinking and driving that would be unfathomable to sober Anna, but because of nothing more than stupid luck, have never gotten a DUI. I’ve had dear friends that took great care of themselves but still died of cancer, while I went about blithely playing russian roulette with my own health through my destructive habits.
Now that I’m no longer numbing my uncomfortable emotions with alcohol, I think I’m just beginning to process these feelings of guilt.
The second theory is problem-solving. Maybe these dreams are an opportunity to play the relapse scenario forward in my mind, and experience how terrible it would leave me feeling afterwards. Perhaps that rush of relief that I feel upon waking up and realizing that I haven’t actually fucked up, reinforces my still tenuous sobriety.
Or maybe Freud was right, and all of these dreams go back to the the simple fact that I don’t have a penis and I’m envious of those who do. Whatever. I may have drinking dreams, but at least I’ve never had a wet dream, which is more than the good doctor could say.
Regardless of the reason for my relapse dreams, I hope I’ll eventually stop having them, or at least they’ll start becoming less frequent. Maintaining my sobriety during the waking hours is hard enough without having to worry about what I do in my sleep. For now, I’ll gladly take being attacked by a bear while walking naked to my calculus exam over wine tasting in Tuscany with the oh-so-sexy Anthony Bourdain.