Is Drinking in Moderation Possible for Alcoholics?

close-up shot of depressed young man with glass of whiskey

Many people who realize they have an alcohol problem wonder if they will ever be able to just drink normally, in moderation. For anyone who is addicted to alcohol, the answer will almost certainly be no.

I am 21 years in continuous recovery from addictions – and this is my feeling on it from what I’ve heard and learned in that time. 

There might be some people, I am sure, who can manage it, but they will be a rare exception. 

I have also never seen anyone who tries drinking the “non-alcoholic” versions of beers or wines stay away from going back to alcohol.

I’ve certainly seen many try drinking in moderation who eventually go back to their unhealthy drinking habit, usually within weeks or months.

There are others, too, that I know of who had a drink problem that gave up in their own way – rather than through a recovery program – sometimes for many years. They might totally stay away from alcohol or attempt drinking in moderation. But to my mind they are “white-knuckling” it, which is no way to live – and in most cases is unsustainable.

“White-knuckling” is a phrase used to describe someone who’s hanging so tightly from a cliff edge that their knuckles have turned white. They often seem to be holding a lot of negative emotions, most likely because their alcohol consumption was their way of previously trying to deal with this. Without the alcohol, they have lost their coping mechanism and it is only a matter of time before they “fall off the wagon”.

There’s even a joke that goes around in alcohol recovery circles about an alcoholic and drinking in moderation that goes: “If I could drink like normal people, I’d drink all day every day…”.

Powerless over alcohol

The book called Alcoholics Anonymous, more often known as the “Big Book”, describes the difference between normal and alcoholic drinking.

“For most normal folks, drinking means conviviality, companionship, and colorful imagination. It means release from care, boredom, and worry.

It is joyous intimacy with friends and a feeling that life is good. But not so with us in those last days of heavy drinking. The old pleasures were gone.

They were but memories. Never could we recapture the great moments of the past. There was an insistent yearning to enjoy life as we once did and a heartbreaking obsession that some new miracle of control would enable us to do it.

There was always one more attempt – and one more failure.”

This is why the first Step of the Twelve Steps is about acceptance that there’s a problem. When an alcoholic starts drinking, they simply seem to have no power to stop. So there really is no chance of drinking like normal people.

They might be able to drink in moderation for maybe a week, a month, or possibly even more. But, without addressing the underlying issues, an alcoholic will eventually slip back into their old habits.

Thus, Step One states: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Is someone an alcoholic because of how much they drink?

focused image of bottles standing one after another

It’s important to note that an addiction to alcohol is not defined by how much or how often someone drinks alcohol. It is more about why they are drinking excessively, and what alcohol does to them. 

Alcoholics will experience overwhelming painful remorse and shame after yet another drinking session.

Much of this feeling of remorse is because they are bewildered and ashamed that it’s happened yet again. Maybe they spent days, weeks, or even months vowing never to get drunk again – and then they do – and it shows them just how powerless they are over alcohol.

Some people drink too much and too often. But they are not necessarily alcoholics.

They can be described as “big drinkers”. 

The difference between big drinkers and alcoholics

How a big drinker drinks is not healthy for them and it might cause some problems. It might even cost them some years of their life. But these are people who could most likely stop if, for instance, a doctor said they needed to quit.

Big drinkers also won’t have such overpowering feelings of remorse and shame after a drinking session. Of course, they might be hungover and wish they hadn’t drunk so much – but the terrible remorse and shame will not dog them as it does an alcoholic.

Their heavy drinking is perhaps more to do with it just being a bad habit. They enjoy the release it gives them and maybe the social aspect too – but they are not addicted to alcohol.

They might at some point cross that line and become an alcoholic, but most will stay as what can be described as big drinkers.

So, while big drinkers can control their drinking to some extent and could become moderate or even non-drinkers if they choose, alcoholics will not be able to reach this level of control over their alcohol consumption. This will remain true regardless of how many years they’ve been in recovery from alcoholism.

Life on life’s terms

focused image of a bottle and glass of alcohol

An alcoholic’s drinking is for different reasons from a big drinker or “normal” drinker. It is basically an attempt to push down their inner pain and to change the way they feel. 

Someone who feels generally happy and positive does not have such a compulsive urge to do this. 

This is what the Twelve Steps help to solve, along with providing certain “tools” for living that anyone attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings or most recovery centers will be given.

These include learning to change how one responds to “life on life’s terms” situations and events, and how to focus on positive aspects of life rather than negative ones.

Some people joke that AA could stand for Altered Attitudes. Most people addicted to alcohol will need to learn different ways of reacting and being – or they will just keep having the same feelings, some of which were behind their compulsion to drink.

The Twelve Steps, as with good therapy, will guide those who have been addicted to alcohol to look at the reasons behind and beneath their compulsive drinking. Frequently, these reasons go back to their childhood.

These need to be investigated. They are one reason behind why someone who drank addictively felt powerlessness over drinking so much and so often – and why drinking in moderation will never really work for them.

The scars may be healed, but there is always the risk of triggers taking them back.

Many experts in addiction believe that people who have been addicted will always have the propensity to get addicted to things.

What is “The Doctor’s Opinion” on alcoholism?

Then there is a physical aspect. The AMA (American Medical Association) recognized alcoholism as a disease in 1956. AMA experts based this on the belief that alcoholism is caused by a disease affecting the brain’s function and structure. 

William Duncan Silkworth was an American medical doctor who specialized in the treatment of alcoholism. In the AA Big Book chapter entitled The Doctor’s Opinion he wrote: “We believe, and so suggested a few years ago, that the action of alcohol on these chronic alcoholics is a manifestation of an allergy; that the phenomenon of craving is limited to this class and never occurs in the average temperate drinker.

These allergic types can never safely use alcohol in any form at all…”.

A progressive illness

Mostly written by an alcoholic New Yorker called Bill Wilson in the 1930s, AA’s Big Book also talks about the idea of drinking in moderation for an alcoholic in its chapter called More About Alcoholism

“The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker.

The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or death…

We alcoholics are men and women who have lost the ability to control our drinking. We know that no real alcoholic ever recovers control. All of us felt at times that we were regaining control, but such intervals usually brief were inevitably followed by still less control, which led in time to pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization.

We are convinced to a man that alcoholics of our type are in the grip of a progressive illness. Over any considerable period we get worse, never better.”

Switching addictions

As well, without looking at what’s behind the addictive drinking, people will all too often switch to another unhealthy addiction to replace alcohol. It might be a less obvious one, such as workaholism or exercise addiction.

These addictions are even “approved” to some extent by Western society. For this reason, they are extremely difficult to see as a problem, yet they can end up being just as unhealthy as a drink addiction. 

As with drink addiction, these substitute addictions can leave someone feeling isolated. Also, they can be detrimental to their physical health and emotional well-being.

Switching an addiction can also mean a person turns to drugs, including marijuana. Or a behavioral addiction such as to gambling addictively, addiction to sex, or using food in an unhealthy way. 

Admitting to having an alcohol addiction is an opportunity to fix what’s broken inside so that there is no desire to drink again – or to replace the addiction with another. Any other way – as well as being difficult to sustain – is, I feel, missing the point.

Daily maintenance of recovery

Challenges of Journaling

Therapy or the Twelve Steps will look at what’s behind and beneath any addiction. When these things are dealt with – and combined with new ways of living – people who have had an addiction will start to lose the compulsive urge that used to dominate them.

But this is based on it being a daily reprieve. So, certain things need to be done every day to maintain sobriety – that is contingent on growing emotionally and spiritually.

Everyone understands this if it is physical. For example, someone who spends six months eating healthily and exercising every day will get and look fitter. But if they stop these healthy practices, they will soon start to return to their previous state. It is precisely the same for recovery.

However, this can be seen as a positive thing because it means people will keep growing. Recovery is the opposite of addiction and other mental health problems, which in most cases will get progressively worse.

If a new way of living is embraced and a few basic things are carried out daily – perhaps such as writing a gratitude list, meditation, and reading helpful literature – recovery gets progressively better.

Life for alcoholics who look inside themselves at what was behind and beneath their addiction, as well as learning new ways to live life on life’s terms, becomes overall better the longer their sobriety goes on. This is a world away from white-knuckling it and/or switching to another damaging (but maybe not so obvious) addiction.

Psychiatrist and author of the bestselling self-help book The Road Less Traveled, M Scott Peck, even described alcoholism as the “sacred disease.” He explained that: “the great blessing of alcoholism is the nature of the disease. It puts people into an obvious crisis.”

This means they are much more likely to seek the help they need. This is the opportunity to look at themselves and to finally heal.

A life beyond wildest dreams

Stopping and staying stopped from any addiction is about so much more than the quitting. While that, initially, is clearly the priority, it is only the tip of the iceberg.

An addiction is what alerts us to the fact that there’s something that needs to be looked at in considerable detail. To look at not “what is the addiction” but “why the pain” is the key to full healing.

When all of this is looked at and when they have healed themselves, many alcoholics in recovery would not drink in moderation even if they could. Their new way of living gives them what is often described in alcoholism recovery circles as “a life beyond wildest dreams.”

Our experienced team of experts at Tikvah Lake Recovery, has helped people with all types of addiction, including alcohol addiction. No matter how desperate someone’s situation seems, there is always a solution.

Call us today to see how we can help you or someone you love.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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