“Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy.”

Sigmund Freud, Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis

We were both addicts when we met. A college party, my band of brothers along with all the girls we knew, and a few we didn’t. The hard liquor flowed, and the weed got smoked. We met at a time when we’re both looking for the same thing. Romance? Ha, you’ve got to be kidding. Ecstasy, that’s what we both wanted. The kind that comes in a little pill. Put it under your tongue, and dance the night, and your cares away.

We got it, too. And that’s where we met, halfway up the third flight of stairs over an abandoned 4-story building, both looking for ecstasy, and chaperoned by a local drug dealer.

In time, we shared an apartment. To be honest, we shared a few, as the rent was always hard to find, and we were always getting moved on. We shared whatever drugs we could lay our shaking, sweaty hands-on, shared the food we bought when we sometimes had the money to eat, and we shared our lives if that’s how you would refer to an addict’s existence. We existed, that was about it, I guess, but at least we existed together. For a while, anyway.

We first got parted by our joint decision to go and get ourselves clean and sober, with the rehabs we could manage to get ourselves into three states apart. She went to a Denver rehab facility, specifically for women. She had suffered a seriously traumatic family upbringing (boy, did she tick that box), and she believed if she was going to get well and stay well, it was the best place for her to go. Me, being the less adventurous maybe, well, I stayed in our home state, attending a rehab that my doctor had recommended.

We kept in touch during that time by writing each other letters. I still have hers, and I hope she has mine, wherever she is now. Yes, we met up after our bodies had been detoxed, and our minds had been rehab-ed (I’m not sure if that’s even a word, but you get my drift…), but we both knew things between us had changed.

We had both learned about “enabling” and “codependent” relationships during our rehab classes, so I guess we learned the real truth of why we were together. And why we had to part. That was the second and last time we parted. We stayed as penpals, maybe for about a year or so, until her letters dried up. Like I said, where she is now, I simply don’t know. I do hope, however, she has stayed, like me, living a clean and sober life.

We were young, and, like all young people, we had our dreams of the future, of life, no longer addicted, and of life together too. These dreams were a strong element of our letters, and I guess, they were a strong element of us if the truth be told. Dreams, fantasies, call them what you will. In reality, we were just stuck in the same daily nightmare. In rehab, we began to have pretty much the same dreams – dreams of using again or, as addiction professionals refer to them, “Drug Dreams.”

We shared the experiences of our dreams and nightmares once we had both gotten clean, while still in rehab. Because of the questions that arose in my mind, I spoke many times at length with my counselor, trying to understand what they meant exactly, and, more pertinently at the time, this. Why did I still keep dreaming about smoking weed, popping pills, getting drunk, and picking up a needle? Here’s what I learned about why people continue to dream about substance abuse in addiction recovery

Drug Dreams: An Introduction

Drug dreams, as we’ll call them from now on, are pretty disturbing to a former drug addict in recovery. Worst of all, you wake up thinking you’re still in your old life, with your addictions and the cravings that come with them. And then – BOOM! The realization that you’re not.

And that feeling, in all honesty, is like the best feeling, and, yes, the worst feeling. It does your proverbial head in, believe me. And, recovering addicts being the kind of people they are, you feel like you’ve just had a long dip in the swimming pool of guilt. Boy, you feel guilty for thinking such things.

If you fear one thing in recovery, it’s this… Relapse. Drug dreams make you think you’ve had one. However, as several addiction counselors have stressed to me, it’s a normal part of the recovery process, and can even be looked upon as a positive step.

Drug Dreams: Their Function

Recovering addicts dream of drug abuse simply because it was their life, the mainstay of their existence. It’s very difficult to not think about your past – the good, the bad, and the decidedly ugly. Once you abstain from drug use, you cannot help but remember the details of that former way of living. Such memories and thoughts obviously will influence your dreams, in some manner. For a former addict, that would be using and abusing. One counselor said to me, “Dreams are like our subconscious putting the television on to entertain itself, while our brains are asleep.”

The actual function of drug dreams is unknown – experts consider the following to have some bearing as to why we have them:

  • Dreams are random images your brain has created as a response to events during your day.
  • Dreams condition the mind for possible future stresses.
  • Dreams allow your subconscious to simply play out scenarios of stressful situations.
  • One theory behind why we dream in the first place is to realize our wishes; therefore, in a recovering addict’s case, they are a response to cravings.

Drugs Will Suppress Dreams

Drug users do not experience dreams as non-drug users do because of the influence such drugs have on the brain. In other words, drugs suppress the normal dreaming process. This is why, for recovering addicts, many of their dreams will be “consolidated memories.” It is certainly clear that the longer you abstain from drug use in recovery, the greater the likelihood that you will experience drug dreams or nightmares.

I’m a kind of testament to that – I have been clean and sober for over 6 years now, yet I still experience dreams of substance abuse. These are definitely less frequent than in the early stages of my recovery, but that do still come along once in a while. For me now, they are a source of motivation to continue working on my recovery.

For many others in addiction recovery, dreams can be memories of the experiences that led to their initial drug use and abuse, such as childhood or adult trauma, and periods of depression or anxiety.

Drug Dreams: Scientific Research

One recent study, entitled, “Relationship Between Drug Dreams, Affect, and Craving During Treatment for Substance Dependence,” studied the prevalence and effect of drug dreams on 86 addicts participating in a 5-week substance dependence treatment program. They found that ex-crack cocaine users had more drug dreams than those with a history of opiate and alcohol use, but all participants experienced the negative effects, ie. increased cravings.

It was concluded  that drug dreams were a drug-conditioned stimuli to heighten negative effects and increase cravings among abstinent drug users. It was also found that, after a 6-month follow-up study on the participants, that those who had experienced more regular and more realistic drug dreams were clearly more likely to relapse, and this was especially true with crack cocaine users. Many other research studies that involved a follow-up on participants had also previously found this to be the case.

If you wish to learn more about the science of drug dreams, here’s a good place to start: “The Incentive Sensitization Theory of Addiction.”

Drug Dreams: A Phase in the Recovery Process

Drug dreams can be horrifyingly real and true to the recovering addict. However, addiction treatment professionals believe this is a phase in the recovery process, and there is simply no avoiding it. Our active, “awake” brains – our conscious minds – understand the need for complete abstinence from our previous drugs of choice. However, our subconscious minds take far longer to make this adjustment.

If you are experiencing drug dreams during your recovery (the likelihood is that you will be), you should share these dreams (and their associated thoughts and memories) with your addiction counselor, your support group, or other treatment center staff. Many people need to be supported through this natural element of addiction recovery – I certainly did. You may well need this support too.

Drug Dreams Don’t Last Forever – Eventually, You Wake Up

Yes, you wake up. And maybe you wake up to the understanding that more work is needed in your addiction recovery, and that recovery is a long road to be traveled. But you will get there, as long as you also understand that drug dreams as just part of that journey, and that they will subside to something that’s pretty meaningless, just old, battered memories of what your life was like before, and can never be again.

Have you ever experienced drug dreams? What was their effect on you? Did they frighten you, or just make you even more determined? Please feel free to let us know with a comment below to be shared with other readers. Thanks. And remember, you do wake up.

Cite this article as:
Editorial Staff, "Why People Continue to Dream about Substance Abuse in Addiction Recovery," in Medicalopedia, July 20, 2019, [Permalink: https://www.medicalopedia.org/7625/why-people-continue-to-dream-about-substance-abuse-in-addiction-recovery/].