Popular recovery groups advocate for a complete break from alcohol, but can problem drinkers learn to engage in successful moderate drinking?
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” — Mark Twain
Time magazine recently released a special edition issue entitled “The Science of Addiction”. While waiting in line at the grocery store, I plucked it off the rack and flipped through it.
I happened to turn right to the page containing a passage stating that there are problem drinkers that must quit drinking completely because they can’t control their drinking and there are others able to successfully moderate. I wondered, what draws the line between the two?
I attempted abstinence several times over the past five years. My “dry periods” were usually between 30–90 days and were basically waiting periods until I could drink again. I had no intention of quitting forever, I was merely curious about what taking a break would do for me. The benefits of sobriety from the short breaks ultimately bolstered my current attempt to remain abstinent.
Between the breaks from drinking, I dabbled in moderation, sometimes successfully, other times not. During my last couple of years of drinking, I was actually doing quite well. I didn’t drink during the week, and on weekends I regularly limited my intake to two or three drinks per day.
From an outsider’s perspective, it may seem that I didn’t have a problem. However, it wasn’t just the amount that was an issue, it was the reasons that I drank, and all of the thinking and planning that even moderation involved. I felt angst over drinking, over not drinking, and over moderate drinking.
Furthermore, moderate drinking was not the release from the hell of binge drinking I had hoped. Instead, it was its own little cage within hell in which I was trapped, with the relief from five or six drinks always out of my reach.
Why do some of us get stuck in moderation mode over and over again? I believe it is because the disease theory is so prevalent thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA preaches that “alcoholism” is an incurable disease and if you have a problem with your drinking you are indeed an “alcoholic” for which lifetime abstinence and endless meetings are the only “cure”.
Those of us who do not believe that we are alcoholics, that our drinking doesn’t fit the alcoholic stereotype and that our lives have not become unmanageable, is not interested in joining the AA group.
Add to that the social stigma of being labeled an alcoholic, the shame of disclosing your drinking problem, and the fact that alcohol is so weaved into our society, and it becomes difficult to break away and be different. Combine these factors with the lack of prevalent effective treatment programs and quitting drinking forever is not the least bit desirable.
So, where does that leave abstinence?
On one hand, it seems almost like a death sentence, but on the other hand, moderation isn’t exactly a walk in the park. After reading “The Abstinence Myth,” by Dr. Adi Jaffe, I agree with his premise that the answer lies somewhere in the middle of all of the reasons that we drink excessively in the first place.
For each individual, the reasons vary. There is no “one size fits all” theory or answer to addiction. We all have different reasons that drove us to overindulge regularly, to the point that trying to avoid discomfort made us uncomfortable. Dr. Jaffe proposes that there are societal pressures, psychological issues, environmental, biological and spiritual factors to consider.
The key is to start working on the issues and see where the self-discovery leads you. Once the underlying issues are revealed and a person begins actively working on them, maybe it is possible to be a successfully moderate drinker — whatever that means to each individual.
I started working on myself and my issues long before I quit drinking. In addition to my breaks from drinking and moderation trials, I engaged in reading about addiction, visiting a therapist and using additional behavioral modifications to address my drinking problem.
I was my own experiment and sometimes still am. So far, it is easier for me to abstain than to try, for the millionth time, to moderate. One or two drinks was never really the answer for me. Not only that, but my constant strive for perfectionism never allowed me to truly feel successful at moderation — even when I made progress.
My transition from moderation to complete cessation enabled me to work on other issues. The attempts at moderation and the brain space it occupied no longer crowded out my ability to clearly identify what was going on inside of me.
Even the current popular sobriety influencers that don’t subscribe to the disease model and AA’s definition of an alcoholic reframe abstinence in way that works for them. Whether they are “sober curious” or made a “proud choice,” abstinence prevails.
After a period of abstinence and all of the rewards that come with it, why go back to drinking and the struggle with moderation anyway? What is there to gain from alcohol once you know you can live without it?
Alcohol is also associated with higher incidents of depression and anxiety, increased body weight, heart disease, birth defects, and type 2 diabetes. If all of that isn’t enough for you, alcohol also plays a large role in crime and violence.
According to Healthline.com, heavy drinking is the most common form of drug abuse. Yes, alcohol is a drug and a highly addictive one. A CNN.com article listed the five most addictive substances in the world as: 1) Heroin, 2) Cocaine, 3)Nicotine, 4)Barbiturates and 5) Alcohol. If a person who smoked cigarettes or better yet, shot up heroin tells you they quit, are you likely to say, “Oh, c’mon, can’t you just have a little?” Instead, you might reply by congratulating them.
Any former drinker or “sober wannabe” knows a different conversation takes place, even when you only refuse a drink without revealing that you have given up alcohol. Eyebrows raise and everyone wants answers about what is going on with you. It is no wonder that so many of us have tried moderation over and over again to avoid judgment and shame.
There are a lot of mixed messages out there about alcohol. No one wants to give up on finding a place for it in society and in our lives, but any way you try to slice it, it is an addictive drug. Maybe there are those who can become a successful social drinker even after problematic drinking. More power to those who somehow use alcohol without incident. For me, abstinence remains the watchword.