Is Moderate Drinking Possible for Everyone? The short answer is yes. Because there is no actual loss of control with respect to drinking, that means that moderation is always possible for anyone. With that said, for many people who drink heavily and consistently, actually drinking less can seem very difficult and quite complex. This occurs for a number of reasons not the least of which is that there is a societal belief in Western Culture that some people cross a line where they become “alcoholic”, meaning they lose control of their drinking. If you buy into even a sliver of that belief, then it’s likely you will feel out of control when drinking, but know this: there is nothing clinical or biological that forces you to drink heavily.
So on the one hand you have this belief that alcohol is powerful and can enslave you — based on what you’ve learned, but on the other there is a part of you that knows the truth — you’re not really out of control, but you’ve experimented and can’t seem to stop at one or two drinks. Debunking the loss of control, powerless, disease myth fully is the key to opening the door to making moderate alcohol use possible for you, but for some heavy drinkers that’s just the beginning. In The Freedom Model for Addictions that’s one small component to demystifying heavy substance use. Many people, especially long time heavy drinkers, seek out The Freedom Model hoping to find a magic bullet that will make drinking less just happen to them. They will say they genuinely want to moderate their drinking, while still hanging onto their love affair with alcohol, and they continue to struggle.
Let me explain: for heavy drinkers, and you can substitute any addiction here, alcohol becomes an important and integral component in their lives. For me, I drank for a myriad of reasons. It was my go-to activity whether I was happy, depressed, anxious, stressed out, angry, bored, etc. Even after I had quit all other drugs, I still drank heavily. I never questioned whether drinking helped me with any of my problems or gave me what I wanted from it, I just knew I wanted to be drinking. I wanted to keep a buzz and at times I wanted to be wasted. If someone asked me why I drank I would give a bunch of reasons that were half-truths. The full truth was, for me, alcohol was everything, and I now know that was because I didn’t believe I could be happy, even for a moment, without it. The more I used it, the more I felt I needed it to function.
Once I reached the point where I was shaking in the mornings, those physical consequences of my heavy drinking only reinforced my perception of needing it. So, yes, I was that kind of drinker; I was the “real alcoholic” as many call it. I had withdrawal symptoms when I stopped drinking, and I was fortunate that I was young and relatively healthy because I made it through detox without needing hospitalization. So the question is, how does someone go from that kind of drinker, to being able to drink moderately, occasionally, without having any issues? The way to do this is to analyze exactly what you like and love about it; not just your drink of choice itself, but the ritual surrounding it, the ways in which you do it, the reasons you tell yourself and others, your entire relationship with the drug and the activity of doing it. And, this is so important, you must change your entire relationship with alcohol. For some this happens in an instant, with a quick shift in perspective, belief, and preference, while for others, like me, it takes several months or even years.
I stayed abstinent for nearly 20 years, and during that time alcohol went from being my everything, to literally being nothing to me. I learned that I could deal with stress, anxiety, anger, heart break, loss, elation, celebrate, and everything in between without alcohol. I learned that alcohol had no power, and I learned just how powerful I was. I learned that I could be happier without it.
A little more than 10 years ago, I decided I wanted to have a drink. I made that choice for very specific reasons. First, my children were becoming teens and I wanted to show them unequivocally that alcohol has no power – you see they’d been learning about addiction in school, and they were learning the addiction myths that could potentially lead to them struggling with alcohol and drugs. As an educator myself, I was open with them about my work and my research, so they already had a sound education that went directly against what they were learning in school, but they needed to see that I had the courage of my convictions. I needed to become a power of example to them, and I’m happy to say it worked. If there is a way to actually addiction-proof your child, I found it! Simply teach them the truth and lead by example, what a novel concept.
Second, I’ve dedicated my life to learning the truth about addiction while helping people to make lasting changes in their substance use and their lives. All the research I was analyzing and my years of experience helping people showed me that there is no loss of control whatsoever, making moderate use possible for anyone. Even knowing all this, there was still nagging anxiety and doubt in my head. Being raised in the 12 step, AA world as a kid and then spending 7 years there myself had taken its toll on my psyche. I needed to erase those last shreds of doubt, so I ran the experiment with myself. Once I did I could finally say without a shadow of a doubt, that yes, even for this “real alcoholic” moderate alcohol use is possible.
Certainly for everyone, reducing your drinking is a different experience. It’s important to keep in mind that knowing moderation is possible is much, much different from truly wanting to drink less. To drink less requires that you see value in doing so — when I was drinking heavily and for the first several months after I stopped, I saw no value at all in having one or two drinks, once in a while. Alcohol was my everything — and for me, it had to become nothing first.