Seems sort of like the Holy Grail to many of us. We drink at a level that causes us (and those around us) real problems; and we watch with envy how others seem to be able to enjoy the pleasures of alcohol without feeling the pains.
Could we learn to be like them?!?
Firstly, we, most of us anyways, like to drink. That’s why we got into trouble in the first place. Few of us quit drinking because we all of a sudden stopped enjoying feeling high – we stopped (or are thinking about stopping) because the negatives associated with our drinking have escalated to a point that makes continuing to drink heavily a very bad idea.
But what if we could somehow learn to drink in moderation? Learn how to stop after a drink or two, drink only in social situations, and never again need to experience serious problems from our use. For many of us, this would be ideal.
I have just finished reading Dr. Michael S. Levy’s (Cambridge Medical & Harvard Medical School) book "Control Your Drinking and You Might Not Need to Quit". Dr. Levy is a clinical psychologist with more than 20 years of clinical experience counseling people with alcohol problems, and a pioneer in the field of moderation for substance abusers.
A very interesting book…and a book that rang very true with me.
I am not one of those people that can achieve stable moderate drinking. I know this, and I have no desire to change a course away from the abstinence that has been working so well for me. Substance abuse and addiction remains somewhat poorly understood. We do not yet have all the answers, and although terms like alcoholism do seem to have a basis in fact, they remain somewhat abstract, and it can be tough to diagnose someone with certainty as an alcoholic.
Alcoholics, so the story goes, can never learn to drink moderately, and the only course for them is to abstain for life. Alcoholics can rarely quit on their own, we are also told.
Problematically, research shows that many people who would almost certainly be classified as "alcoholics" tend to do both of those things, and in fairly large numbers as well. More people with drinking problems quit on their own without any outside help than by any other method, and a lot of these people who have managed to quit drinking, and often for many years, do manage later in life to drink with moderation, and keep it in moderation.
Alcoholism is clearly not a one size fits all moniker for the problem (and problems caused) by drinking too much.
Also problematic is that the vast majority of those people classified as alcohol abusers or alcohol addicts never get any help for their drinking, and many never change their ways. There are of course many reasons why someone might choose not to get help or make an effort at quitting, but when alcoholics are polled, the single biggest reason for not stopping is simply not being ready to give up alcohol!
People like drinking, and it can be hard for a lot of people to even imagine a life without drinking, forever.
Moderate Drinking – The Advantages
Moderate drinking, as a therapeutic solution to alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction, is not going to work for everyone. Some people, with lengthy histories of abuse, with severe addictions, or with co-occurring mental health challenges or very weak social support, are unlikely going to have much luck with anything other than abstinence.
But it doesn’t matter!
- Firstly, beginning a program of moderate and controlled drinking sure sounds a lot more inviting and a whole lot less scary than beginning that long journey of abstinence. Many people, who might not consider quitting completely, may find the idea of learning how to drink responsibly very attractive, and if having a more flexible approach to the problem gets more people thinking about and working on their drinking, this is surely a very positive thing.
- Secondly, there is real value in even trying to adhere to a structured program of moderate drinking (the key word is structured…more later) and value even in failing at it. Those people who make an honest and structured attempt to limit their alcohol consumption, and fail, have at least begun a journey towards recovery, and gained self awareness about what they need to do, no doubt about it, if they want their lives to get better.
How does it work?
For moderate drinking to work, it has to be very structured. Informally just trying to drink less will not work. There is a distinction made between a social drinker, and a moderate drinker. A social drinker does not have an issue with alcohol, and doesn’t need to think about it much – it’s just never a problem.
A moderate drinker is not a social drinker. A moderate drinker does have to work at it, and although the goal is to mimic the ways a social drinker might drink – it has to be conscious, controlled and planned.
Here are the steps of the program as outlined by Dr. Levy. The point is to take a shot at this thing, and it might just work. It’s quite important to stick to the plan absolutely. No bending of the rules, ever, and if you can’t seem to do this, moderate drinking is not going to work for you.
1…Think about the problems alcohol is causing in your life, and think about how your life will improve if you didn’t have a problem with alcohol. Write these things down – be thorough and be honest.
2…Take a couple of weeks off from alcohol, completely.
3…Draw up a contract for your moderate drinking. The rules are: *Never more than 3 drinks (2 drinks for women) per day. *Never drink more than 4 days per week. What days will they be? *Never drink in situations that you know are problematic for you…better to avoid these situations completely. You need to plan exactly what situations you will allow yourself to drink in, and what situations you won’t. If you tend to drink too much watching sports on TV, you cannot allow yourself to drink at all in these situations. *Never drink a form of alcohol that you have a problem with. If you’re a whiskey drinker, switch to wine or beer, it will make things easier.
4…Follow your contract to the letter for at least three months. If you can’t, and find yourselves consistently breaking or even bending the rules, moderate drinking is not going to work, and over time, you will be back where you started.
5…After a few months, you may be able to make some small changes, but only small increases, and you must always stick to the rules.
6…A drinking contract is forever. You will never again be able to drink healthily, without thought and planning.
Moderate Drinking Can Work – Sometimes
For some people, people serious about making a change and willing to work at moderate drinking as the most important thing in life…it works. Some people, even those people able to follow the plan, find the whole thing so stressful and miserable, that abstinence is surely the better choice.
Now, if you are already sober, and happy, and it’s working, YOU WOULD BE CRAZY to read this and think about beginning a program of moderate drinking. Don’t risk your hard earned sobriety for the few pleasures found in a bottle.
If you are reading this, and think that although you need to make a change and that your drinking is getting out of control, you just can’t consider giving up alcohol entirely; maybe moderate drinking is a good place to start your road to recovery. We’re all different, what works for one won’t work for another, and there are no clear and universal solutions to the societal and personal tragedies of alcoholism and addiction.
Drinking less is better than drinking more. It might work for you.