You Quit Drinking, Smoking, or Drugging, So Why Do You Keep Dreaming About it?

Tracy Stengel

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I didn’t start smoking until my early twenties. Dumb move. It was something to do during the slow periods of my serving or bartending shifts or in between college classes. I’d bond with my peers in freezing Midwestern winters, huddled together in circle on the leeward side of a building. That’s where we shared secrets and cracked jokes. We made plans for our future while potentially shortening it.

I knew I wasn’t going to smoke forever. I’d quit by the time I was thirty — for sure! I wasn’t going to be attached to an oxygen tank when I got old. No way!

Well, I was right and wrong. I didn’t quit when I turned thirty, but I quit eventually. It was one of the best gifts I gave myself, but I’m not going to say it was fun or easy. And I’m not going to lie and say I don’t ever miss it.

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An elderly friend’s smoking dream 50 years after he quit

I used to work in a small-town café and there was a couple who came in for breakfast every day. Frank and Gigi were both retired. She was always on him to order oatmeal. He’d nod his head in acknowledgement and order the sausage gravy and biscuits. Every time.

Gigi tried haranguing him into a healthy diet, but she was no icon of fitness or clean living herself. She started her day with a whole lot of coffee and a half pack of Camel Lights.

Frank didn’t like her smoking but knew there wasn’t anything he could do about it. He’d quit as soon as he got out of the Army and now considered the habit disgusting.

I found their constant quibbling both endearing and tiresome.

Then, Frank had a heart attack and needed a triple bypass.

Gigi was a wreck. They’d been married since they were teenagers.

We all gathered around her the day after the surgery, eager to hear Frank’s condition.

“He’s going to be fine,” she said, with a terse grin, “but that man makes me so damn mad.”

Our eyes widened and we weren’t sure what to say.

After a bit of prodding, she spat out, “They let me go into the recovery room. I wanted to be the first thing he saw when he woke up. I hadn’t slept a wink the night before and my nerves were about shot.”

We nodded, sympathizing with her. Wondering whether her husband was strong enough to survive heart surgery must have been agonizing.

“And then,” she continued, “he opened those blue eyes of his and I just wanted to hug him. But I couldn’t. Not with all the tubes he was hooked up to. And, ya know, his incision.”

One of us reached for her hand, but she pulled away.

“And then he opened up his mouth and said, ‘I want a cigarette.’ Can you believe it? He hasn’t had a cigarette in over fifty years! And that’s the first thing he says?”

I wanted to giggle, but she was truly angry, as if he’d blurted out the name of his secret lover or something.

Later, when he was well enough to return to the restaurant, he told me he’d had a dream about smoking, and when he woke up, his craving was stronger than it had ever been.

In case you were wondering, Frank began eating oatmeal and Gigi preened like a proud, all-knowing peacock. That lasted about three months. Then he was back to sausage gravy and biscuits.

Gigi stuck with coffee and Camel Lights.

Then I heard more stories of addiction dreams

A friend, I will call Jamie, started using cocaine right after she started dating a man, I’ll call Jake. She thought he was “the one”. Of course, he wasn’t. But they dated for three years and were briefly engaged. When she decided to cut Jake out of her life, she cut the cocaine out, as well. They were both too costly, unreliable, and destructive.

I know staying away from Jake and the cocaine were equally heart wrenching for her. She struggled for several months before she was done with them completely.

One day she said to me, “I had a dream last night that freaked me out! I was at a party and did three huge lines. I woke up panicky and sweating. I’m so glad it was just a dream, but it was so damn real.”

I was surprised she was so shaken up.

Then, Nathan, a friend who’d been sober for over ten years, told me there wasn’t anything unusual about Jamie’s dream. “I still have drinking dreams. Not has many as I had when I first quit, but yeah, they still pop up.”

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I had an addiction dream of my own

When I finally quit smoking, after a dozen or so attempts, I began to believe I was really going to do it this time. I had been smoke-free a couple months, and sure, I felt like I had lost my best friend and there was no longer a reason to get of out bed. (Kidding! Sort of.) I had done some research and expected to experience sadness. But I believed I would eventually find my “happy” again. This article from Science Daily explains how nicotine withdrawals affect the brain’s chemistry and make the person melancholy.

Then, I woke up one night with my heart hammering against my chest. I dreamt I had been smoking. The dream was so realistic — holding the lighter, lighting the cigarette, and inhaling — until I woke up rattled, my nerves jangling. I thought I had given in! It was sweet relief when I realized it’d been all in my head.

Since then, I’ve had many more, yet as time passes, they have become much less frequent.

Why are addiction dreams so common?

The Cabin in Chiang Mai, a behavioral health and addiction treatment center, explains drug dreams in their blog. They state the dreams are normal for recovering addicts who are new to their recovery journey or are many years into it.

The subconscious mind, even in recovering addicts who are doing extremely well in the recovery process, often still craves the substance the person was addicted to. For example, the conscious mind of a recovering alcoholic knows that having just one sip of alcohol is a bad idea, and is aware of the negative consequences that would follow. The subconscious mind, however, may still be fixated on the addiction. When the individual falls asleep, it is the subconscious mind that brings forth vivid images of alcohol consumption and over-indulging.

What fascinated me about the article was that it stated how the person feels after they wake up from the dream was an indication of how recovery was going.

For instance, if the person woke up from a drug dream, and wistfully thought about how nice it would be if that hadn’t been a dream and they could actually feel the rush of getting high, that would be a warning sign the person was vulnerable to relapse.

However, if the person woke from a drug dream frightened or guilt-ridden, then relieved it was only a dream, it’d be a good sign the person was committed to their sobriety and they’re not as likely to slip up.

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Coping with the aftermath of substance-abuse dreams

The Cabin acknowledges how unsettling drug dreams can be and suggest four ways to cope:

  • Understand your feelings. After you wake up from a dream, take inventory of the emotions you are having. Are there feelings of self-loathing? Guilt? Remorse? Take a moment to write down your dream and how it made you feel. Keeping a record of your drug dreams will allow you to compare and analyze them later.
  • Talk to someone you trust. Acknowledging your dream aloud helps you understand the dream and sort out your feelings. Choose someone who supports your recovery from the substance you are addicted to.
  • Look for triggers. Is something going on in your life that triggered the dream? Did you see someone you used to use with or go to a place that reminded you of using? If you can narrow down what triggered the dream, try to avoid the place or person, if possible.
  • Create a relapse prevention plan. If you are having drug dreams, that means your subconscious mind is still focused on your addiction. Put together a relapse prevention plan to help you stay on track.

Takeaway

Substance abuse dreams aren’t pleasant, but if you are having them, know that you aren’t alone. If it has been years since you used the substance and start having dreams, it may be your brain’s way of telling you that you are under a lot of stress. I think that is why Frank craved a cigarette coming out of heart surgery. His body was undergoing a lot of turmoil and his brain relied on an old coping mechanism.

Pay attention to your subconscious. If your dreams become more frequent, be aware that you are vulnerable to relapse. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help. If you need to find support, look for hotline resources in your area. Most are free, confidential, and available 24/7.

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Tracy explores the world with a positive eye, an open heart, and a sprinkling of humor. Without laughter, she would be lost.

Onsted, MI
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