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The Myth of Moderation

Why You Can’t Just Drink Less

I’ve been having an eye-opening experience with Caroline Knapp’s book, “Drinking: A Love Story.” Before I get started with this train of thought, I will just say that anyone who has or has had a bad relationship with alcohol should read this book. I find myself stopping to highlight and make notes a lot while I read. Often her words sound like conversations I’ve had in my own head.

“Me too,” I say.

Yesterday, I read her thoughts on moderation and the self-help trend during the 90’s that she dubs the “moderation movement.” She calls the idea that you can teach or train an alcoholic to moderate her drinking a contradiction in terms.

The inability to moderate is, by definition, what makes us alcoholics. Most of us have never moderated alcohol.

She writes, “The struggle to control intake – modify it, cut it back, deploy a hundred different drinking strategies in the effort – is one of the most universal hallmarks of alcoholic behavior.”

Why so many of us can’t moderate our drinking


Trying (And Failing) to Moderate Alcohol

I know this behavior all too well, as did Knapp, as do probably a million folks worldwide who experience the same struggles with alcohol that we do.

I chuckled a little to myself reading the various examples she gives the reader: switching from hard liquor to beer (me, except cider), setting time limits on drinking (ex. I won’t drink before five – also me), and my personal favorite that never worked but was suggested to me by a women’s magazine, “have a glass of water for every glass of alcohol.”

The amount of mental energy I have wasted negotiating with myself on alcohol consumption, finding ways to get out of stopping and just change it up a little, is both astounding and laughable. What was I doing? Why do I STILL find myself engaging in this self-sabotaging behavior?

You Can’t Go Back

As an anecdote, Knapp tells the story of “Scott” who was sober for three years. He decided to test the waters to see if he was better. Could he now drink moderately?

He bought a bottle of scotch and poured himself a glass. All was fine. He poured another. Then another. Nothing terrible happened, but by the end of the night, the bottle was empty. “I’ve failed the experiment,” he proclaims.

This is true for me as well. Even after months of sobriety, when I have had alcohol, it has always been a binge. There is no moderation.

“Why can’t you have just one?”

This reminds me of an episode of The West Wing where the character Leo McGarry, played by the late John Spencer, is speaking with a White House aide who has been fired for leaking information about his stint in rehab for drug and alcohol addiction to a political opponent.

When he asks why she did it, she reveals that her father was an alcoholic. She then asks Leo how long it took him to get cured. He tells her that he isn’t cured.

“You don’t get cured,” he says. Leo continues by telling her that he’s been clean for six and a half years. The aide asks why he can’t have a drink now and he says something that has stuck with me from the first time I watched this episode.

“The problem is I don’t want one drink,” he says, “I want ten.”

I want ten.

Every drink is a gamble. 

This scene is one I think about when I need to remind myself why I can’t have alcohol. Like Leo McGarry, I have never wanted just one drink or two for that matter. I want to keep going until I can’t go anymore.

Even now, as I’ve reached this odd place where I’ve opted to drink three times in three months, every single time has been a binge. Sure, I don’t engage in the binge nightly or weekly like before, but it’s a binge nonetheless.

My brain is still very much broken. The impulse is always there. It’s just not as loud as before. It doesn’t beg to be let out of its cage on a daily basis. Make no mistake, however, it can (no, WILL) come back with a ferocity that I have little power to control.

I can easily wind back up where I was one year ago: smoking a pack or more a day and drinking five to six nights per week.

Why do it? Why take that risk once or twice a month?


The Appeal of One Last Time

As Mark Twain so eloquently said of smoking, “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it a thousand times.” The same is a bit true of alcohol.

The lure and sexiness of “one last time” are strong. I’ll have these little treats, this scotch, these cigarettes, just tonight, this one last time.

There’s something gleeful in conspiring against yourself this way. The magic of buying the pack of cigarettes for the first time in a while and going to the liquor store to get that old familiar bottle; it’s all so enticing.

Setting up your drink, organizing the lighter and ashtray, hunkering down for the binge one.last.time. There’s an excitement to it. Adrenaline starts flowing and the pleasure centers in your brain light up. You’re having one final hurrah, one last time.

Except that isn’t true.

The Only Logical Conclusion

In my case, I’ve engaged in this ritual a handful of times since going four months without touching booze or cigarettes. Reading books like Knapp’s helps. Remembering scenes like the one I mentioned from The West Wing help.

I’m beginning to reconcile myself to the fact that the impulse doesn’t go away. My brain’s penchant for bingeing is never going away. There is no fabled “last time” that finally gets it out of my system and opens up space to be all better. There’s just a decision to stop and make today a sober one. Wake up tomorrow, repeat. To say otherwise is to kid yourself.

I’ve realized through my reading that throughout my life bingeing has manifested in a variety of ways and that this story runs deeper than just a dysfunctional relationship with alcohol. It’s a topic I intend to explore further.

Today the goal is simply to erase the idea of moderation from my brain. It’s false. It isn’t about strength or willpower. I have the capacity for both in my life, except where alcohol is concerned. Time to stop pretending otherwise.

Some people can hold their breath underwater for over three minutes. Some people can go out for one drink and be satisfied. I can do neither.

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  1. Why was it that we were willing to accept that we could not drink in moderation, but still refused to admit that we could not quit drinking on our own? Until we accepted that our failed attempts to drink in moderation were rooted in the same spiritual malady that prevented us from quitting (for good) under our own power, we were bound to drink again. Only when we stopped “trying” to quit and instead gave ourselves over completely to a power greater than ourselves (call it what we want) were we were relieved of the burden of self. One of the many benefits of being relieved of the burden of self is that we no longer drink, nor do we obsess over the thought of it. But sobriety is only the beginning. Alcohol is the symptom, not the disease.

  2. I keep reading articles like yours… Not because I can see myself in it, I never had an issue with controlling my drinking, I rarely feel the desire to drink and I would have no problem to stop it all together. I am browsing through these articles in the hope to understand my partner (of 10 years ) and to find out what I can do to make him realise that he has a drinking problem in the first place. I absolutely don’t like him when he gets drunk and even when he claims he “only had a few beers”, I can straight away feel the difference in the way he talks, looks, behaves, how his mind works… He has a heart of gold and I love him and I’d be willing to support him but I don’t wanna be accused anymore of trying to change him, to put him in a cage, not to love him the way he is… I wanna be a partner, a friend, a lover, someone to laugh and cry with and go through ups and downs of life together… I don’t wanna be a prison guard. I try to tell myself that he doesn’t really mean it when he says things like that, that this isn’t really him… but it hurts nevertheless. And I think I cannot take it anymore despite the good times we have. It’s never reliable. I’m afraid of looking forward to anything because I never know how it might turn out…
    He makes promises and tries to “moderate” his drinking. Like, “I stop drinking spirits, I can’t handle it”. I only gonna drink 2 beers a day – but you have to give me two days per week on which I can have a “proper” drink…”, “I’ll drink beer with only 3,8 % “… and so on…
    And I just hate the fact that alcohol takes so much space in our life. It’s late me he always has to make sure there is some beer, if he can’t be sure, he takes his own – just in case. We can’t meet friends or family without having a drink. I think he just cannot imagine how to reply enjoy himself without a drink.
    But how can I reach him?
    I have been a few times at the point where I wanted to leave (even though it breaks my heart) but he then would tell me that he doesn’t want to lose me, that I am important to him and that he will make changes. I believe he does mean it at the time, but then only makes these “half promises to moderate his drinking” and bit by bit slides back into his old habits.

  3. Reading this in 2020 after lots of searching for the right advice over many years – honestly everything about this article resonates with me. I only drink at weekends but when I do, I go big. When you tell friends you’re wanting to try out sobriety you’re met with “just limit how many drinks you have” or “you don’t need to cut it out altogether”. But everything in this article proves that my gut feeling is right – moderation doesn’t work. A glass of wine feels nice. So you have two. Then three. And before you know it you’re saying things you shouldn’t, behaving in ways your sober self would cringe at and waking up to a day of vomiting (in my case, anyway). I really appreciate this article – you sound like a voice inside my head. Truly sound arguments that make a lot of sense to me. I’m trying to start my journey to a life without binge drinking so will be referring back to this frequently I’m sure. Thank you!

  4. Those who can start seeing negative consequences and just stop their substance use have always kinda been my heroes. If only I could have done that then I would have saved myself many, many years of misery. It took me several stints through rehab before I got a grip on it some 3,600 days ago. Moderation management is a slippery slope for anyone who SHOULD always remain abstinent. I don’t even want to risk it. Thank you for sharing this post.

    1. Thank you for this! I saw a meme somewhere that said if you have to moderate your alcohol then you need to quit (or something to that effect). I wasted a few years as well, but I’ll take the lessons I can from them and keep it moving. Congrats on 3,600 days. That’s incredible!

  5. I’ve quit alcohol several times for varying lengths of time. Unfortunately, I always find myself back at it trying to moderate my drinking and failing miserably. I feel like I knew in the back of my head that moderation wasn’t working, but I think I needed to hear it from someone else. Drinking is counter productive to my goals and prevents me from doing some of my favorite activities. For instance, I can’t drink and paint at the same time unless I want to ruin a painting. So if I’m not thinking, I’ll have a drink and lose a whole evening that I could’ve spent making art.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing this! I can relate to everything you just described. I did the back and forth and song and dance for years dipping through various stages of functionality and squandered so many talents and passion projects in the process. It sounds like you see what’s up and I am sending you some good vibes to get to a better place, hopefully a sober one. 🙂

          1. Thank you all. I am an old man (67). I am sick of alcohol. I have just gone 100 days and relapsed yesterday. Yes I am going to quit again. I’ve lost count how many times I have tried. I don’t handle stress well enough. The alcohol menace is always there in my mind and gets stronger every time i relapse. But i will try again. Thanks for listening. All the best to all of you for your courage.

  6. I love this, I honestly feel like you have described me to a tee. I used to drink heavily but a year sober stopped that. When I started again, under the guise of my brain telling me ‘hey, you’ll be able to moderate now’ I found although I was drinking nowhere near where the amount I used to, when I did I binged. There is no ‘one or two’ for me and I’m well aware of the slippery slope that could lead to.

    So I quit again recently, this time I know there’s no going back and I’m ok with that.
    Alcohol adds nothing to my life.

    Thank you for sharing and I’m going to order that book.

  7. Terrific post. I had much the same reaction to Knapp’s book when I read it immediately prior to getting sober. Thanks for sharing. I appreciate it.

  8. A really nice piece there Kimberly. I’m coming up to about 50 days now without drinking, and I am really seeing that I have a huge amount of power in making plans for my future and cutting alcohol out of my life completely. Comparing how things were when drinking to how they are now is like comparing someone stuck in a rotting cell to someone who is prancing around a fresh meadow…..naked……ok…..not naked, but you get me (hehe)

    I really like how you linked the ‘powerlessness’ to the act of the actual “drinking binge” once an ex-addict goes back. This is very important to me, because for years addicts have been labelled powerless to alcohol and that their last drink is merely the link to the inevitable next drink.

    Personally I have found the “disease” myth to be utter unscientific hog-wash, and when I hear the term “powerless” I usually think “disease” because it’s what A.A have been churning out for decades upon decades. You, however put things differently, and I commend you for that.

    The reality is that whilst I am totally in power of my non-alcohol life and all of the wonderful things that have come with knocking booze on the head for good, if I made the choice to go and put alcohol into my body today, it wouldn’t be 2 cans of beer. I wouldn’t have the power to stop there. It would look more like 10!

  9. This is absolutely me to a tea. Thank you for writing this. I can now go for months without a drink but one drink is all it takes and the next thing I’m blacking out drunk and unable to remember getting home. I always kid myself it’s okay I can drink in moderation or have five drinks instead of ten. I justify it like you by drinking cider instead of spirits and by any means necessary to convince myself it’s okay.

    1. Thank you for sharing this Kimberley! It’s helpful for me to hear that other people are going through the same kind of struggles. Having troubles with alcohol can feel lonely sometimes. It’s good to have a network of folks who “get it.” Wishing you a happy New Year!