Sunday, March 20, 2011

Dreams of using in recovering addicts and its psychology

Recovering alcoholics and drug addicts often report dreams of using their drug of choice, and express surprise at it emergence in their sleep. They express their annoyance at its happening and try to convince us that they have no wish to go back to drugs despite what the dream shows.
Narcotic and Alcoholics Anonymous (NA and AA) spokesperson view their assurance with some suspicion, and consider the dreams part of "stinking thinking", and a warning sign of possible relapse.
What lies behind these "dreams of using?
The patient is at a loss. During the day and in his conscious mind he does not want to "use', and feels a little nonplussed at the dream's creeping into his sleep. He will ask the therapist the reason for such stupidity on part of his dreams. In the beginning I was at a loss too, for these dreams appear to contradict the psychoanalytic theory of dreams. Dreams are wish fulfillment and the dreamer wishes just the opposite: freedom from addiction not going back to drugs.

Or does he? While he may in his conscious mind he may be full of resolve to give up using the drug, the cravings for doing it may still be active in the unconscious, and when he falls asleep and the conscious mind goes to rest the unconscious wish to do the drug may come to the fore and attract consciousness, resulting in the formation of dream.

While the explanation is true there is a twist to it. The wish is not so much to do drugs as the wish to do those forbidden things that he can only do while under the influence of drugs. Perhaps people do drugs to make it possible to indulge in forbidden wishes; wishes that the addict's conscience will object to if he is in sober state.
And here we come across the empirical observation that an increase in stress and other adversities in life makes a person seek illicit and forbidden pleasures, partly as defiance because of life's unfairness, and partly because the pleasure obtained from fulfillment of base wishes counters the pain of stress. Drugs silence the conscience and allow one to indulge in low-life pleasures that can make one forget the pain and stress in one's life. 

So NA and AA people are right. Dreams of using are "stinking thinking" and indicate that the person wants to start fulfilling those wishes which his conscience will object to if one was not intoxicated.
The following dream from a heroin addict who is currently on Suboxone and doing her best to kick the habit shows an interesting relationship between stress and dreams of using.
The patient dreamt the following:

I am in downtown Detroit, in real bad section. The road is desolate and dark. I am looking for Josh, who I have not seen in 6 years. Then I am with him. I see a house. It looks familiar. It is a drug house. Party is going on. I am asking for cocaine and ecstasy. Which is weird because they are not my drug of choice. I went to those places only for heroin. Then I see my 3 year old son. A woman comes and smacks him. I attack her and pummel her till she is knocked unconscious. I notice her hair and her pasty face. Also her stringy hair as if she just came out of shower. She looks dead. Lips blue, face white. Then some other things happen that I cannot recall now. Then I see the woman who had attacked my son back again. This time I throw her down the balcony. She falls with the loudest thud. The blood from the injury comes up in huge quantity and spatters my and my son's face. We run. A man from the party chases us. I go to another house and drop my son off. I explain I have killed somebody and I have to leave. You have to take care of my son. The man who
is chasing me catches up. I am hiding behind trees. He catches up and shoots me in the face. Then everything turns white and I wake out of the nightmare, my heart pounding with fright

The patient produced following associations:

To the desolate road she associated that when she was abusing drugs once she went to a crackhouse in a real bad neighborhood and while returning, ran out of gas, and had to walk a mile through the most dangerous and desolate section of the city. The whole ordeal was as good as nightmare, since all the while she walked she feared she will get attacked and raped.

So here was the wish to do drugs again, but along with it came the danger of going to the crackhouse and it sordid surroundings.

Other associations led us to conclude that Josh comes in to the picture because he was her drug buddy in her days of heavy addiction. Her marriage - at the time of the dream - was on the rocks and in the dream she was trying to deal with it by going back to rehash her relationship with her parents. Her parents were drug addicts themselves and were mean and abusive to the children. So she was returning to her parent's house to get even with her mother for making her life trajectory miserable and holding the mother primarily responsible for the breakup of her marriage.

However, the dream shows her returning to the drug house instead of her parent's house. The dream had superimposed [condensed] the two houses. Her house of origin was as chaotic as the drug house. Breakup of her marriage meant return to the lifestyle of her parents and the continuous parties and drug abuse that characterized their house. In her teenage years she had sought the same pleasures and now that her marriage was breaking up she was being tempted to return to it - the stinking thinking.
Why cocaine and ecstasy instead of heroin, her drug of choice?
Her conscience was objecting to slipping back into drug habits even in dreams. Conscience [superego] which becomes less watchful in sleep, thus allowing the primary process thinking that enables the formation of dream images - which themselves are compromise formations between primary and secondary process thinking - nevertheless still keeps tabs upon the ego. In her case it was still objecting to going back to heroin. So a compromise was reached and instead of heroin she was using less dangerous drugs like cocaine and

The woman with whom she had a fight and whom she killed because of her attack upon the son, was her mother. On her own she would not attack her mother out of filial piety. But if the mother attacked her son then she could justify turning her revenge feelings towards her mother into deadly action.

The last part of the dream is punishment in hands of a strange man - substitute for father - who would punish her for killing her mother, but also underneath the punishment was wishes for sexual satisfaction.

The love making with this stranger (father) was being depicted in regressed sado-masochistic fashion. Instead of being spattered with sexual substance from the father the scene was replaced with being shot in the face with a gun. So it was a typical anxiety dream where sexual act was being shown in sado-masochistic language. The fright of genital sex had caused the sexual process to regress into seeking satisfaction in the sadistic visual imagery of getting shot at.  Children regularly conceptualize sexual act as something forcibly done by man to a woman. In fact the most common way of describing sexual intercourse in Hindi is: man hitting the woman on her vagina or buttocks.

Anyway, the dream of using had occurred because of the stress of failing marriage. The forbidden wishes were oedipal in nature in which she could not indulge without being intoxicated with drugs even in her dream. 


  1. Well this proves one thing for sure that
    dreams are related to whats happening and what is going to happen in your life. They are not just random in any sense.

  2. Thanks for the comment. The message that nothing psychic - including dreams - is random in any sense needs further appreciation. In God's universe nothing is random.
    The Activation-Synthesis hypothesis of dreams has captured the imagination of psychiatrists for the last 30 years and no doubt because they lack imagination and the unimaginative proposition that dreams have no meaning but are random firing of subcortical pontine cells that chaotically activate cortex and produce dreams has great appeal for the slothful.
    Activation-Synthesis hypothesis has done great harm to practice of psychiatry. Since its appearance Mental health professionals en masse abandoned taking dreams as the royal road to the unconscious.

  3. I saw the word "God" and wanted to stop reading your comment. I don't feel that an omnipotent deity created by men has any place in scientific reasoning. There's no evidence whatsoever that nothing is random. In fact, all evidence supports the opposite and the burden of proof lies not on the scientists, but on the godly-believers. As for the meaning and significance of dreams to one's conscious most everything else, the answer lies somewhere in the middle; dreams are probably a combination of random firing of cells AND subconscious desires. The trick is to weed out which parts of the dream are significant and which are nonsense. This statement brings us full-circle, back to the one point you made that I agree with: this middle-road does not appeal to the slothful mind and can only be accurately accomplished by someone with sufficient imagination and knowledge in the subject at hand.

    1. The word God was used rhetorically. It is to emphasize that nothing in the universe happens by chance. It is actually paraphrasing Einstein's famous quote :God does not play dice with the universe.
      Your knee-jerk antipathy to the word God itself may have its roots in ambivalence towards your father. God replaces father once we are indoctrinated with religion, and the emotional attitude towards one's father is reflected in one's attitude towards God/religion.
      Your view that parts of dreams are significant and other parts have meaning is echoing of the views of Hobson and McCarley. After embarking upon the project that dreams are chaos, and going on lecture circuits proclaiming that they have proven Freud wrong, soon even they, despite their blinkers, could not help but notice that some dreams are unabashedly coherent and some dreams cannot be viewed in any other way but as wishes coming true. So they came up with this brilliant compromise that well some parts of the dreams can be wish-fulfillment but overall they are as stupid as we.

  4. As i sit here awake and with tears in my eyes, I wonder how I can beat a drunkiness that comes to me in my sleep. I live a sober life now, I can control my thought process during the awake hours its the sleep time what ever u want to call it I cant control. It Is scary to have my old ways so vivid and real in my sleep. From the feeling of being drunk to the search for money and how I am going to get my next drink, it makes me want to drink terribly bad upon waking which is not good, hopefully through time and working my program I can one day have peace from this disease.

    1. I am the director of a year long in-house Treatment center and every other person that enters the program has "using dream". What we tell them to do "because it works" is while the dream is going on repeat Jesus Name over and over again and for 99.9% of those in the program the dream stopped. I only report what works!

  5. We have greater control over our problems when we are awake than when asleep. The problems that drove you to drinking they are no longer overpowering you during daytime. But they continue to emerge in sleep when your conscious mind (ego) is taking rest.
    It is good that you are indulging in drinking only in dreams. Dreams are like safety valve. They allow you to act out harmful behaviors in sleep/dreams rather than in real life. The painful emotions that were driving you to drink during the day are now driving you to do so only in dreams. This is a step forward. It means they are losing their grip over you. They are forcing you to drink but just in dream where it is kind of make belief not real drinking.
    If you continue to resist the temptation to drink during the day the dreams/nightmares of drinking and living your former lifestyle will become less and less strong.

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  18. It would seem to me that the nightmare that goes along with the seeking and finding of drugs may strengthen your resolve when it comes to relapse while awake. Many of relapse dreams have been similar to the heroin addict. After those dreams, I am repulsed by going back to that lifestyle.

  19. Im going on 6 months sober and DO NOT want to go back to the using again, I am a recovering meth addict and every single night since I got sober I have these using dreams. They scare the living shit out of me, I go to several meetings a week, but it doesn't seem to help. I don't want to get high ever again yet this article say's I do. I do not understand this crap article.

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    1. Gerald,
      I do not doubt your sincerity to give up your addiction. However, if you dream about something then it means in some corner of your mind you wish the thing. So if you dream of using drugs that means at least partially you wish it.
      That does not mean that other parts of your mind do not find doing drugs reprehensible. Also the painful emotions that occur while you are indulging in "using dreams" are punishment for wishing to slip back in to your habit.
      It is not that once you resolve to give up drugs the temptation to do them again is completely wiped out of your mind. The temptation persists and you have to constantly fight with it. The fight persists in the dreams as well, where the temptation to do drugs is shown as once again using them and the scary emotions that turn the dream in to nightmare emerge to put a halt to this temptation.

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    3. No more dreams about it, 2 years+ sober with an awesome job at the treatment center I went to.

    4. No more dreams about it, 2 years+ sober with an awesome job at the treatment center I went to.