The worst drunk dreams usually come in the middle of the night. They creep into my sleep, giving no warning. Nothing during the previous day or any dreams or waking that night presage the horror. Without cause, they pester my me, get into my deepest sensibilities. They are so real they convince me that, yes, I have been out in the bars or sitting with a bottle in front of my television. I feel good and drunk.
I wake with a groan and sit on the edge of the bed. “My god, it can’t be true,” I say, not referring to another dream but to the fact that I have been drinking again after 28 years of sobriety. Horror fills me, the nightmare seems real. The feeling, physical and mental, sit with such astonishing reality that I’m convinced I have been guzzling like I used to. My heart sinks and I can feel my shoulders droop. Despair washes over me. I suffer “pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 30) I’m filled with dread. How could I have done this? Everything was fine. I blew it after all this time. My life is ruined.
I put my hand to my mouth and smell my own breath. Only then am I swayed to believe that I have only had another nightmare. I feel a kind of peace and slowly move toward the bathroom. I turn on the light to get a look at myself in the mirror.
I have several kinds of drunk dreams. The simplest and most benign happen on a regular basis. Hardly a week goes by without them. In one version, I am manipulating the people and events in my life, rearranging things, so that I can go have a drink and return without raising suspicion. I call friends so we can meet earlier than we planned. I set up doctors’ appointments for the morning. I end my classes before time. The dishes are done and the floor swept. Nothing is out of place. Just about the time I’m going out the door to the liquor store, I wake up, puzzled but assured that I don’t have to go through the nightmare of drinking again.
In another version, I have been drinking. But sober again, I have to fit back into my daily life without letting anyone know what I have been doing. I go to AA meetings and hang out with friends. The whole time, I am keeping an ugly secret that belies my character. My friends know me as someone who doesn’t drink. I am no longer that person, yet I have to face them. The truth sits in a box on my heart. I’m filled with guilt and shame. These dreams end on their own, when the story is played out. There is no sudden jolt or change in direction. I wake feeling depressed.
In yet another of these low-level misery dreams, I have had a drink and must be around others. Cough drops and minty drinks, I think, cover the smell. But I can feel the suspicion. The more I feel it, the harder I try to convince people that I have not been up to any malfeasance. The charade takes on surreal dimensions. I do things a drunk person can’t normally do. I catch a fly on the wing and make sure everyone sees my accomplishment. From these dreams, I wake feeling chagrined and silly. What did I think I was getting away with?
Then, every now and then, a couple of times a year, I have a whopper. The sensation of inebriation creeps over me. I feel again the warm burn in the belly that can only come with a few stiff drinks. I can taste the alcohol. Maybe I’m sloshing away my favorite drink, a Manhattan, or I have my nose in a snifter of Armagnac or a glass of some flinty Riesling. But that fades, and in a reanimation of what happened in real life, I’m awash in whatever I can get my hands on. A 12-pack of warm beer and a fifth of cheap brandy or vodka later, I’m sodden, crying about what a terrible person I am. My gait is unsteady, sometimes I can hardly stand. I’m seeing double. People look at me with puzzlement and alarm. What words I can utter are intelligible only to me.
These dreams, severe or gentle, have causes; they must have. I suspect they are related to instances of selfishness I’ve perpetrated throughout the day. Dishonesty doesn’t sit well with me and I’m mostly honest these days. If I lie, it’s to myself. I have a set of alternative facts I tell myself sometimes as I go through a day:
- I’ll make up for these extra five brownies (mouthfuls of chips, pieces of pizza, etc.) by fasting tomorrow.
- I’m a safe driver so I can speed.
- I’ll remember those extra speaking engagements when it comes tax time.
- This can of tobacco will be my last.
- My students and colleagues don’t realize I’m a fraud.
The list goes on. I don’t pretend to be the only person that lies to himself. But it doesn’t matter what lies you tell yourself or those anyone else tells themselves. My lies matter. They build up over the day. If, at the end of the evening when I take a little inventory of the day, I have not admitted to myself by writing in my journal the transgressions of the day, then I may be putting myself in a position to have a drunk dream.
Or not. I have heard all sorts of explanations for the dreams. My AA sponsor says, and I believe him, that the dreams are the last bits of the causes of our alcoholism fighting and scratching on their way out. But, goddammit, you’d think that after almost 29 years, my soul would have purged the vestiges of self-delusion, pride, fear, and anger left over from 16 years of drinking. But my drinking caused a lot of damage. I suppose there’s enough crumbs in there to cause distress.
Some say that significant changes in life trigger the dreams, and there’s some validity to this for me. Two years ago, just before my family and I were headed off to visit friends in Germany, I had a powerful series of dreams over the course of two weeks. One is explicable. Two, OK. But they quick-fired at me night after night. They were like body shocks, one after the other. I felt physically beat after about a week of them.
I went to my sponsor and told him, hey, I’ve having issues here. What do I do? He told me to take it easy. You’re going on a big trip to visit some people very important to you. These things happen, he said, and the events that bring them on don’t have to be bad or detrimental things, just changes.
I took heart in that. After that meeting, it was another year before I had another drunk dream of that magnitude.
Others say that the dreams are just part of an alcoholic’s life. I’m beginning to come to this view of things. All the inventories and confessions of wrongs done, all the amends and meditations don’t seem to have cracked the spell that produces these dreams.
But I go into the night with a sense of confidence. Regardless what happens in the dark, I didn’t have a drink today. In the end, that’s what matters most.