I had this horrible dream! I was drinking again! What does it mean?!
–> It means you were sleeping!
(a variation of Steven Wright joke)
If you’re like me, you’ve probably had these horrible, guilt-ridden drinking dreams in sobriety. They’re a frequent topic of conversation in recovery meetings. While nobody can say for sure what these dreams mean, they may actually be GOOD news! Thought I would share some information I’ve found while researching these dreams.
Warning: Like any other topic, there’s a LOT of misinformation out there. As you might expect, much of it implies things like “you’re not working your program hard enough” or “you’re going to fail”. Those explanations seem simple-minded and I could find no supporting scientific research.
What are Drinking Dreams?
Many people in recovery have dreams where they’re drinking alcohol again. They can take many forms, as shown in some examples below. Researchers refer to these as Dreams of Absent-Minded Transgression (DAMT), meaning “the dreamer absentmindedly performs an action that he or she has been trying to stop (one classic example is of a quitting smoker having dreams of lighting a cigarette). Subjects who have had DAMT have reported waking with intense feelings of guilt.” 
Examples of Drinking Dreams:
- The “should I drink?” / ”should I not drink?” dilemma, where you’re constantly questioning until it wakes you up. You’re frustrated that you’re thinking these things in your dream.
- The “no decision involved” dream. You suddenly realize you’re already drinking without ever making that decision. You’re simply not in control. There’s often an overwhelming sense of guilt that makes you wake up. And, even after realizing it was just a dream, it may take a while for that sinking guilt feeling to go away.
- The “post-blackout” dream. Kind of a dream-within-a-dream. While still in your dream, you “wake up” from a blackout-type event. You may not actually recall drinking, but there’s “evidence” of drinking (hangover, bottles, questioning what you did).
SOME GOOD NEWS
One of the most positive things I found about these dreams was in the study “Dream of absent-minded transgression: an empirical study of a cognitive withdrawal symptom” in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology . They actually found a positive association between having these types dreams and successfully stopping the behavior. In the study group, as the length of abstinence increased, so did the percentage of subjects reporting the dreams (from 33% of subjects within 1 month to 63% in one year). And, each subject’s dream occurrence increased to an average of five for those who remained abstinent for a year. (This study actually dealt with tobacco withdrawal, but research has shown similar dreams occur across addictions.)
Paper abstract: 
Among 293 smokers abstinent for between 1 and 4 wks, 33% reported having at least 1 dream about smoking. In most dreams, Ss caught themselves smoking and felt strong negative emotions, such as panic and guilt. Dreams about smoking were the result of tobacco withdrawal, as 97% of Ss did not have them while smoking, and their occurrence was significantly related to the duration of abstinence. They were rated as more vivid than the usual dreams and were as common as most major tobacco withdrawal symptoms. In Ss abstinent for 1 yr, 63% recalled having dreams about smoking. They had on average 5 of them, and about a quarter occurred after the 6th mo of abstinence. Having dreams about smoking was prospectively positively related to maintenance of abstinence. An explanation of this finding based on the association of smoking in dreams with aversive emotions is offered.
Another summary provided by Reliance Medical Information, Inc.: 
Despite the stories that former smokers tell of being distressed by dreams in which they smoked, the phenomena has never been studied and it is not included in descriptions of tobacco withdrawal syndrome. Dreams of absent-minded transgression, as these dreams are categorized, during abstinence from smoking were studied and compared with the occurrence of other tobacco withdrawal symptoms. Researchers asked 293 individuals who were beginning a smoking cessation program to filled out a dream questionnaire. The study group consisted of 65 percent women. The subjects’ average age was 38.2 years and they had smoked an average of 23 cigarettes per day. After a four-week program of abstinence, 97 (33 percent) of the subjects, reported having dreams about smoking during the program, and 94 (97 percent) of these subjects reported that they had never had such dreams while still smoking. For 63 percent, the dreams were more vivid than their usual dreams and for 4 percent, the dreams were less vivid than usual. The range of occurrences was one to nine dreams, with an average of 1.9 dreams per subject who had them; this is about the same rate as other tobacco withdrawal symptoms. The dreams overwhelmingly elicited feelings of panic and guilt upon waking, and relief when the subject realized that he or she had not really smoked. In subjects who remained abstinent for a year, the occurrence of the dreams increased to an average of five dreams about smoking; having dreams of absent-minded transgression, therefore, positively correlated with maintenance of abstinence.
Some references are provided below for further reading on dream theory. But, consider too that the dreams could mean absolutely nothing – of course we’re going to have these dreams. Recovery is hard work and we’re quitting something we’ve lived with for years. Maybe the best approach is to just practice mindfulness: acknowledge we had the dream, understand the reason (withdrawal & recovery), and decide to just let it go.
by Steve W., Colorado
Disclaimer: These are my views, not necessariliy those of LifeRing Secular Recovery.
More On Dream Theory/Psychology:
For the motivated reader, you might read more on the following dream theories and how they may be related to drinking dreams.
- Dreams as excitations of long-term memory – maybe just refreshing past events.
- Evolutionary psychology theories of dreams – dreams have evolved for “threat simulation” to continually practice dealing with them.
- Apparent precognition of real events– on why dreams are not predictive of future events.
- Wikipedia: “Dream” & “Dreams of absent-minded transgression (DAMT)”, downloaded 10/27/2015.
- Hajek, Peter; Belcher, Michael, “Dream of absent-minded transgression: An empirical study of a cognitive withdrawal symptom”, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol 100 (4), Nov 1991, 487-491. doi:1037/0021-843X.100.4.487. PMID1757662.), downloaded 10/27/2015.
- Summary of above study , provided by Reliance Medical Information, Inc.