Recently on the Spiritual River forums we had a discussion about this topic, and someone asked if they could go from being alcoholic back to “just being a problem drinker.”
I don’t blame anyone for hoping or thinking that might actually be possible. And for all I know, someone out there might just prove me wrong. In fact, there are organized programs that attempt to teach moderation to alcoholics so that they can drink “like normal” again, so what do I really know? Maybe it works.
For me, it did not work. I tried and tried for years to put the genie back in the bottle, and I failed miserably. But this was not for lack of trying. I really tried many different strategies to get my drinking back under control, and it never lasted. Eventually I had to admit to myself that I really was a “true alcoholic.”
There is also this idea that there is such a thing as a “real alcoholic.” If you go to AA meetings you will hear people use this modifier, this “real” label. They are implying that some people are just problem drinkers perhaps, and that those people might be able to solve their problems with an easier, softer way. But if you happen to be a “real alcoholic” then you will need to take certain actions–you will need to surrender, to ask for help, to turn your life over to a higher power, and so on.
In some ways I have to admit that I agree with this argument. Say that someone is an alcoholic and then they teach themselves to drink in moderation again. In my opinion one of two possibilities exist:
1) The person has regained temporary control of their drinking, and it will not last.
2) The person is not a real alcoholic. Therefore their new found ability to control their alcoholism is fake.
Who am I to make such judgments, right? But I can’t help it. This is based on my own experience and my own struggles. I also worked in an alcohol treatment center for 5 plus years. So when this sort of thing happens I just don’t believe it. If you are a “real” alcoholic then in my mind you are addicted for life. You cannot undo the condition. In my opinion it is permanent.
The temporary illusion of control
Any alcoholic can sober up temporarily.
This is not a big deal. Every alcoholic can and sometimes does sober up. Maybe they go to jail. Maybe they run out of money. Maybe they lose their job so they have no way to drink. Or maybe they just can’t get a hold of any alcoholic for a day or two. It does happen.
And so most drunks who do this realize that they could, in fact, stop drinking if they really wanted to.
And this is how denial works. They then tell themselves that they just don’t want to quit. So they continue to drink, not realizing the hold that alcohol has over them.
Nearly every alcoholic can avoid their drug of choice in the short run. They may have to be gritting their teeth in order to do it, but they can do it. And then they will use that brief time period as justification that they are not really alcoholic. They will tell themselves: “See? I quit drinking for a week, and I didn’t go crazy. Any real alcoholic would have gone nuts, they would not have been able to do it, but I did it!” That sort of thing.
In the short run your sobriety does not prove anything. If you go back to heavy drinking then it was all for nothing. Whatever pain and misery is in your life it will come back many times over if you continue to drink and self medicate.
The alcoholic believes that they can control their drinking, and the tricky part is that they actually can…..but only for a brief period of time. If they try to sober up permanently then their life falls apart and they talk themselves back into a drink.
For the alcoholic, control is definitely possible, but only on a temporary or very short timeline. In the long run their disease drives them to lose control, and they are back into trouble again.
Examine the consequences and the long term trends in spite of those consequences
In order to get back this illusion of control the alcoholic will need to consider the long term trend in their life.
For example, one thing that you might do if you are an alcoholic who is stuck in denial is to start keeping a record of your happiness. That might sound a little strange, but there is a very important lesson if you can force yourself to do this simple exercise.
Get a notebook. A blank pad. Anything with multiple pages to write on.
Then write the date down and put how you feel today. Are you happy? Is your life going well? Get it down on paper.
Then do it again. Do it next week. Do it in a month. Do it a year from now. Keep doing it over and over again.
If you are an alcoholic who is stuck in denial then this will force the issue. You will start to see the long term trend in your life because you will be writing it down.
Don’t worry about the details of what is happening in your life. Don’t try to assign blame or justify the events. Just write down if you are happy or not.
You are measuring your happiness on paper. Write it down. Keep writing it down.
The true alcoholic will find this very difficult to maintain. The reason is because it will force them to break out of their denial. You cannot deny your feelings or you happiness if you are logging it down every single day. You cannot escape from yourself when you put your true feelings down on paper. When you are miserable, you are miserable. There is no getting around it.
And this is what I try to get the struggling alcoholic to see. That they are not happy drinking, and they never will be again.
At some point in the alcoholic’s past they were happy with their life and they were happy with their drinking. And they need to realize that they can never go back to that. Ever. It is gone forever. Drinking only leads to pain and chaos and misery for the alcoholic.
Of course this assumes that you have tried to control your drinking and failed. This assumes that you have made peace with the fact that you are, in fact, an alcoholic.
Many alcoholics struggle for years or even decades pretending that they are not addicted. They try to learn how to control their drinking while still enjoying it.
Here is the truth of the matter for any real alcoholic:
2 percent of the time they can control their drinking while also enjoying themselves. This is the rare moments that they cling to in their denial.
49 percent of the time they are miserable no matter what.
49 percent of the (other) time they are drinking so much that they are blacked out, passed out, or just plain oblivious. They are not having fun because they will not remember it.
Are you clinging to the 2 percent? To the very rare instances when you can both control and enjoy your drinking?
Are you hoping that every day will be like that in the future, and that if you can just learn to control it enough then every night will be fun and you won’t lose total control?
Is that what you are hoping for?
Then you need to ask yourself a very important question:
How long are you going to hold out hope that this 2 percent will suddenly transform into an everyday experience? How many years or decades of misery are you willing to go through to get to this place that might never even exist for you? (And most likely never will come pass, unless you miraculously learn how to moderate your drinking again?).
How many more years of misery is enough?
What to do once you believe you are truly alcoholic
Once you agree with yourself that you are truly a “real” alcoholic, then you are ready to get busy and take action.
This is the only place that you can create real change: From a point of true surrender.
In order to turn your life around you have to reach this turning point. Once you reach it, everything should hopefully fall into place as you ask for help.
Step one is to ask for help. Find people you trust and ask them to help you quit drinking. Once you realize that you can never again control your alcohol intake (for any extended length of time) then it is time to make a decision. You should make the decision that you want to achieve abstinence at any cost, and that you will need help in order to do that.
Step two is to take action. It does absolutely no good to seek out advice if you are not going to act on that advice. The ideas that people give you have to translate into real world action. Without taking action your efforts at recovery are meaningless. You transform your life through doing things, through action.
Once you decide that you are a “real” alcoholic then it shuts the door on the idea of trying to control or moderate your drinking.
I had to make peace with this identity. I had been resisting the idea for so long that I was alcoholic, that I was not able to control my own drinking. I did not want to identify as an alcoholic. I wanted to be free, and I wanted the freedom to drink when I wanted to.
It was a tough pill to swallow. Many alcoholics never fully make the leap to the point where they say “I know I am alcoholic and that I can never drink successfully again.” It is a really difficult to thing to admit to yourself. But you have to do much more than just admit it. You have to accept it. You have to believe it deep inside and be willing to act on it, to take action to fix your life. For me it was just a bitter pill to have to swallow, to admit that I could not drink successfully and that I needed help in order to live.
How to get the help that you need to stop for good
You basically have two choices as someone who is on the edge of being an alcoholic or a problem drinker:
1) Decide that really do not have a serious problem and therefore you are not going to seek help for it, but continue to drink instead.
2) Decide that you are a “real alcoholic” and that you need help in order to fix your problem.
Most alcoholics will dabble with choice number 1 for as long as they can stand it. They will stay in denial until the pain becomes so great that they cannot stand it any more. They will let the pain of addiction continue to build up and increase until it becomes greater than their fear of change. At that point they will change. They will ask for help and they will go to rehab.
But fear keeps people stuck in denial for a long, long time. It takes a whole lot of misery to motivate a stubborn alcoholic.
What you need to do most of all is to be honest in your assessment of things.
For example you may decide that now is not the time to ask for help. Now is not the time to surrender fully and go to rehab. If that is the case then you need to pay very close attention to the future. Remember that any alcoholic can “maintain” in the short run but not in the long run. In the long run your disease will always reveal its true nature.
To detect this you must watch the long term trends. You must consider what is happening in your life and how your addiction is moving in cycles. You may notice a period of time when things appear to get better. And this may even last for months or years. But then the long term trend will reveal to you that addiction always gets worse in the long run. This is why they call it a progressive disease. If left unchecked it will eventually get worse. The consequences will always get worse over the long term.
Once you are alcoholic there is no going back, in my opinion. I have witnessed this hundreds of times with people who struggle to get sober at an inpatient rehab, and also among people in AA and long term treatment. I have never met a person who was able to undo their disease. I have never met a person who told me that they found the ability to moderate after declaring themselves to be alcoholic.
This does not necessarily mean that it never happens. It would be a difficult thing to notice because those who are suddenly “cured” of alcoholism are not going to come back to AA, or to treatment centers, or where ever and brag about being cured. Why would they? They will just go drink and be happy. Thus, AA and other treatment options are generally a self selecting group. Those who struggle tend to “keep coming back.”
When I left AA meetings everyone there assumed that I had relapsed. Many of them probably still assume that, simply because so many people disappear for a while, then come back to the meetings and tell the tale of relapse. So everyone says “see? I told you so.” But I left the meetings, found my own path in recovery, and have not been back since to speak of it. I only write about it here on the web. Again, it is the self selecting group idea.
Therefore, it is possible that there are alcoholics out there who manage to turn into successful drinkers. If they can do it then they don’t go shout about it from the rooftops like we assume they might. Instead, they just go back to casual drinking and are happy with their lives.
All I know is that I never see evidence of this. I have not encountered it myself. But I suppose it might be possible.
My experience and my belief is that it does not happen at all. If it does happen then I have not seen any evidence of it. Or to put it another way: “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.” This rings true for me because I don’t know of any good exceptions.
If you find yourself to be alcoholic (or just a really heavy drinker) then I would challenge you to give abstinence a fair chance in your life. If you cannot seem to muster the will to do that then you may be alcoholic and not just a “problem drinker.”
Do you have a question for Spiritual River? Contact us and let us know your question and we will try to answer it in a future post.