The Addict’s Dreams: Relapsing in the Unconscious & What It Means for Recovery

Addictions1 comment


In the psychotherapy field, one area that often gets overlooked is a person’s dream state.  Yet because my focus is also in addictions, this is an area that must be not only examined but encouraged for the client to share.

Case in point, I was running an addiction group and a new member sheepishly asked if she could still consider herself sober since she had a dream where she was drinking alcohol again.  In her mind, the dream was so real, vivid, and brought on such shame that she truly believed she had relapsed despite being sober for almost two weeks.

The other group members reassured her that these “using” dreams were quite normal, especially during a person’s early recovery journey when they’ve stopped their behaviors for any significant period of time.

For sex addiction clients, these dreams are just as normative but even more shameful as men and women share of being sexual in their dreams.  In either case, I help educate clients to the recovery process and how dreams are a way for an addict to “clean out their hard drives” so to speak.  After a person has engaged in a compulsive or addictive behavior for any length of time, just stopping it doesn’t stop the cravings or urges.

In recovery, it’s important to not only share these urges in therapy but also the unconscious ones that come up in one’s dream state.  It’s significant because through time, new scenarios will come up where the addict will seemingly be given a choice to engage or not engage.

While I’m careful not to read too much into an addict’s “relapse” in their dreams, I am more effusive when an addict turns down a drink, decides not to gamble, or avoids sexual temptations in their dreams.  This is because the brain is actually rewiring itself unconsciously and building new neuropathways in responding to urges.  Even though it’s a dream, I’m aware of the power this holds for clients as many in early recovery have only known defeat, shame, and self-hatred.  Once they see glimmers of hope (even in a dream), these dreams can become stepping-stones to real change in real life scenarios of temptation.

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