Of all the obstacles that lay in wait on the road to recovery, the phenomena of the using dream can be the most frightening and ominous. I remember back to my earliest days in the halfway house when I first heard of the using dream. I heard it being brought up in group meetings and in my one-on-one with my counselors, and the pictures they were painting were all broad strokes and dark hues. Experiencing a using dream was being in your worst nightmare than waking up wondering if you backslid and gave in to those forbidden desires.
I will be honest in saying that I didn’t experience a using dream while I was in the halfway house. My focus was squarely on letting the dust claim my addictive ways and being born again to the new, saner way of life recovery laid out in front of me. It was all about having the tunnel vision and putting one foot in front of the other and not looking back, not even one nostalgic backwards glance. Once I got the taste of what true freedom was, the rush that it gave me pushed those old thoughts and behaviors to the back pages.
It didn’t happen right away after I left treatment, but I started having using dreams…and I was having them frequently and I will never forget the feeling. Those first few using dreams seemed to drag on forever. The theme was the same: I was out on the town and without a second thought I was pulling back beers and downing shots. All the while I would be saying something like “Oh, it is just one night”. These dreams were so real…I could actually taste the alcohol in the back of my throat.
I would wake up in a panic and my heart was literally ready to break flesh from my chest. I would look around my room and realize that I was in bed, yet I questioned things. Where was I tonight? Have I been in bed this whole time, or is this a ruse? A million questions spun around in my head and while the answers were obvious they would dissipate as they would materialize. It took me awhile to actually realize that I was dreaming.
I realized what power the subconscious and unconscious mind has on a person, especially the newly recovered person like myself. I spent a lot of time in treatment not wanting to drink or use and not wanting to be that old soul that I used to be, all sour and broken. My focus was so singular that I pressed down those forbidden desires and wants deep into a hole that was still open and when I slept they emerged, all in Technicolor and texture.
Using dreams are so scary because they give a glimpse of what was our past and what could be our future. Some may think of the using dream as a form of “stinkin’ thinkin’” and could portend a relapse. While there can be merit to that line of thought, the using dream is a normal occurrence in recovery and within the using dream there are clues to what may be lacking in our recovery plan. Using dreams contain powerful lessons, the most obvious one being that addiction is powerful.
For years, the substances we used created powerful bonds and through reinforcement and associations the hardwiring in our brains changed to support a way of life that was ultimately destructive. While the substances may no longer be there, those associations still roam free and have shape and substance. In order to move forward in recovery, there needs to be acknowledgement of those feelings, wants and needs that are manifest in a using dream. Once we can acknowledge those things, recognize them for what they are, and move past them, the using dream starts to dissipate.