Can a Recovered Alcoholic Ever Drink Responsibly Again?
You would be forgiven for believing that a “recovered” alcoholic might be able to drink normally again some day. After all, anyone who is sober may go months or even years without taking a single drink or drug, so it almost seems like they have regained all control over themselves. Surely they could handle one little drink, right?
It is an easy mistake to make. This is one of the greatest tricks that alcohol tries to pull on the alcoholic. The myth that the person is back in control and that “things will be different this time.” Of course this is always a lie.
One of the things that you should know about addiction is that it is progressive, even while you are sober. Most people do not grasp this at first, but anyone who has been sober for a while and then relapsed can explain it to you. What that means is that the disease keeps getting worse over time even if you have not been drinking. Someone who has been sober for ten years can relapse and find themselves in a worse spot with alcohol than when they left off with it over a decade ago. The disease is progressive in this way and it always gets worse over time, never better.
The lack of a cure for alcohol addiction
If you could drink “normally” again some day then you would be cured. Some people believe that this should be the goal of recovery: to teach people how to drink responsibly, in moderation. There are even a few programs that attempt to teach alcohol moderation specifically. Is it a telling sign though that the founder of one of these moderation programs was eventually arrested for drunk driving? I believe it is.
The problem with moderation is that it doesn’t last. They have an old saying about alcoholism: “The man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man.” Unless you have fought and struggled through alcoholism yourself, you might not understand that phrase on the deepest level. What makes it so deceptive and tricky is that any alcoholic can, in fact, control their drinking for a period of time. Seriously, this is the tricky part. You can take any alcoholic and introduce him to moderation techniques and they will be able to do it successfully for some period of time.
But that is the trick right there: “Some period of time.” At some point, “the drink takes the man.” The alcoholic will lose control eventually. They might be able to control their drinking for a day, or for a week, or for a month. They might hold out for quite a long time. But eventually they will lose control and they will give in to their desire to get completely drunk. And then the consequences will start to kick in again.
Every alcoholic who thought that they could learn to moderate their drinking has eventually decided that they were wrong. Or perhaps this is selection bias, and everyone in AA just represents the people who failed to learn to moderate. Everyone who was successful at moderation went on with their lives and learned to drink responsibly. If that is the case then there is clear separation between who is an alcoholic and who is not. Those who cannot ultimately control their alcohol consumption are alcoholics, those who learn how to do so are “normal people.” I tried for several years to learn how to control my drinking, and in the end I always failed. My denial hinged on the fact that I could fool myself for a certain period of time, but eventually it all fell apart. My drinking always got me into trouble eventually.
There is another saying that describes this quite well:
“I did not get into trouble every time I drank, but every time I got into trouble I had been drinking.”
That statement shows the honesty that it takes in order to break through your own denial. Look back at your drinking career and realize that the consequences that you faced were always because of your addiction. Denial has us pointing the finger of blame at anything and everything else in our lives, but if we get honest then we realize that our drinking was the problem all along.
Decades of sober time mean nothing in the face of relapse
If you stick around a program like AA for long enough you will see people relapse. Most of these people who relapse will not have significant amounts of clean time, but some of them will. And what this will teach you through observation is that it just doesn’t matter. You can have 2 months sober or you can have 20 years sober, and a relapse can have all of the same consequences. In fact the person with more sober time could have a bit rougher time of the relapse because their disease has had longer to progress. Remember that the disease gets worse even while we are sober.
The amazing thing is that your tolerance can shift in the course of a single day when you relapse. Your body remembers where it left off. The first drink will hit you hard but then as you continue to drink through a relapse your body and your physical tolerance will adjust rapidly. By the end of the first or second day of your relapse you will say to yourself “My gosh, I am right back where I left off, nothing has changed a bit. The alcohol is affecting me in exactly the same way that it did right before I quit.”
You may expect that years or decades of sobriety will give you a fresh start on your drinking career. This is not the case. Your body quickly remembers and the way that your tolerance adjusts will not be favorable for you. Within a week or less you will find yourself miserable from drinking again and you will also have the added shame and guilt of the relapse hanging over your head. Not a good combination.
The benefits of social drinking pale in comparison to a life of sobriety
The idea that an alcoholic might learn how to moderate their drinking is really silly.
Because it is not worth the risk. What is the point?
The alcoholic who is still stuck in addiction believes that this is a great idea. They will love the idea that they might learn how to moderate. They will probably spend several years trying to figure out how to do exactly that. Of course they want to learn how to moderate their drinking, they don’t want to give it up. This is fear at work in their lives. Anything is better than outright abstinence to the alcoholic who lives in fear.
But it’s not worth it. As an alcoholic who tried himself to self-moderate for years, and then later became completely sober, I can tell you that it is all a big waste of time.
You are not missing anything by cutting out alcohol entirely.
Life goes on and you still have all of the enjoyment that you had before. You are not missing out on anything by giving up alcohol. Nothing at all.
Let me give you an analogy. I used to smoke cigarettes too. I would huddle outside with the other smokers and it was sort of a tribal thing. We talked about stuff. And I did not want to give up that inner circle of smokers if and when I quit.
But what I realized after I quit smoking was that I replaced that inner tribe with other people. So what, I no longer stood outside in the cold and smoked…..but now I could stay inside and talk with a different tribe. Not better or worse necessarily, just different. And now I was no longer killing myself slowly with cigarettes.
It is much the same with alcohol if you happen to use the “social drinking” excuse. Sure, you will no longer share a glass of wine with certain people. But honestly, who cares? You will move and find different people to talk with, to socialize with, and so on. Drinking socially is just a prop, nothing more. You don’t need it. You can still socialize without holding the prop in your hand. Life goes on.
The benefits of sobriety are enormous. Saying “no” to a life of chaos is a really big deal. Your life gets better and better in sobriety with each passing day. If you continue to drink then the chaos just keeps swirling around your life, dragging you down.
If you attempt to learn how to moderate your drinking, then you are risking this better life that you could be living just for the sake of hanging on to the “prop” of alcohol. It’s not worth it. The benefits of drinking socially are nothing compared to the immense benefits that you can get from real recovery and sobriety.
If you really want to prove this to yourself then you might do an experiment. Try to moderate for six months, then try total abstinence for six months. Give each a fair trial. Just be sure that you are not making excuses for yourself like “well, I really did not try that hard to moderate my drinking, so I think I should do the six months over again.” That is BS. If you are going to do it, then stick to it, and learn something about yourself. If you cannot stick to abstinence for six months then you obviously need professional help. At that point I would say that you have learned what you needed to learn, and it is time to consider asking for help and possibly going to treatment.
How to protect yourself from the first drink
There are many tips out there about how to avoid relapse and stop drinking.
There are two ways that you could approach the idea of relapse prevention: One is with tactics (like on that list) and the other is with strategy.
My advice to you is that you need to develop a strategy for recovery.
What does this mean? It means that you need to develop a way of life that can protect you from that first drink in a way that a simple list of tips and tricks can never do.
The list will say things like “call your sponsor if you feel like you want to drink.”
That is a nice tip, but can it really help you if you are already past the tipping point? If you are already swamped in chaos and misery and you just want it to stop? The relapse happens long before we pick up the drink. We are not always able to “catch ourselves” and take the appropriate response in order to prevent the relapse.
Therefore we need a proactive strategy. We need to be living our lives in a way each day that helps to prevent relapse.
But how can we do that?
The best strategy in my opinion combines the following:
1) Personal growth. You must be pushing yourself to improve your life and your life situation. If things are not getting better then they are getting worse. Alcoholics don’t stay put. They are either moving forward or they are moving backwards. If your life is not improving then you are in trouble. Therefore you must push for personal growth.
2) Holistic health. Your decision to stop drinking is a decision to improve your health. You should make other efforts in your life to improve your health in recovery. Each decision that you make like this is an extension of your original decision to quit drinking. For example, the recovering alcoholic who decides to quit cigarettes as well. They are moving in the right direction, improving their health in many different ways. Later on they may start exercising. Or improve their nutrition. And so on. All of those decisions support and enhance sobriety. They are all part of relapse prevention in the long run.
It is not enough to lightly consider these concepts and pay lip service to them. You have to dive into recovery and take massive action in order to get good results. In fact, it doesn’t really matter if you follow the advice above or you go to a program like AA, so long as you are fully dedicated. It is all about willingness and commitment. If you are not pushing yourself then you will not get the results that you want.
You cannot just wander into recovery, be lazy, and expect to remain sober. It doesn’t work like that.
Recovery is the fight of your life. Treat it that way. The good news is that if you treat recovery with the full respect that it deserves, you will get tremendous benefit out of it.
The danger of cross addiction
You may wonder if a recovering alcoholic can ever get away with using other drugs.
The answer is basically “no,” they can’t.
Now the qualifier here is that we are talking about drugs that are mood or mind altering. Does the drug trigger your addictive mind and awaken the sleeping giant of addiction?
Some drugs do this. Other drugs do not.
Therefore it is your responsibility in recovery to know which substances are safe for you.
For example, taking over the counter pain medication is not going to reactivate your alcoholism. Neither is taking most anti-depressant drugs.
But there are certainly many drugs out there (including several prescription drugs) that can “turn your alcoholism back on.”
You need to be very careful when it comes to this stuff.
I knew a recovering alcoholic who had over a decade of sobriety. He injured his arm one day and had to go to the emergency room. They put him on painkillers and he had no idea that they could be addictive. Long story short, he got addicted to them. And he could tell that he had a problem when the pills ran out and he wanted to somehow get more or go buy a bottle of booze. And so he sort of had to regroup, to ask for help, and to go through the early recovery process all over again. He had to admit that he had a problem.
So just being unaware of the potential danger is not going to help you. It is up to you to be responsible about what you are putting into your body.
Here is another important tip:
You cannot rely entirely on the doctors for this information. By all means, tell your doctor that you are a recovering addict and an alcoholic. Never just say that you are an alcoholic, always qualify it by saying “addict and alcoholic.” Why? Because alcohol is a drug just like any other, and there should be no separation between alcohol and other addictive substances. The reason you qualify it like that is because some doctors are not educated about addiction and they believe that drugs and alcohol are completely separate. They are not though. Alcohol is just another drug, period.
You can tell your doctor that you are a recovering addict and alcoholic, and they might still ignore you and prescribe addictive medications. So what can you do?
Ask for help. Get second opinions. Talk with your sponsor or peers in recovery. I am not telling you to ignore your doctor and seek advice elsewhere, but I am telling you to double check what you put into your body. Don’t just take a doctor’s word for it that a medication is safe for you to take in terms of your addiction. Do a little research. Take responsibility for what substances you ingest. We might say “trust but verify.” Ultimately you are the only one who is responsible for what you put into your body.
I knew a person once in recovery who had intense shoulder pain. He told the doctor that he could not have addictive medications. So they doctor prescribed him medicine that was “not addictive but potentially habit forming.” My reaction to that was “What the heck is the difference?” If it can be habit forming then you would think that this could lead to addiction, no? Apparently they distinguish between the two. And so this doctor prescribed him this medication that was supposedly not addictive, and it did not turn out well for my friend in recovery. The pills led him back to his drug of choice.
So you have to be careful and you have to be responsible. Don’t just take someone’s word for it if you are about to put a drug into your body. Always do your research, investigate, learn more about the substance, ask around, get lots of feedback. This is part of how you must guard yourself against relapse. Because any substance that you put into your body has the potential to lead you back to your drug of choice if it is addictive in nature.
Once you are in recovery, that’s it. You have drawn a line in the sand. No going back to addictive substances. No more social drinking. No more trying to moderate your alcohol intake. It is an absolute position of sobriety. If you stick with it then the rewards in the future are immense. If you screw around and relapse then you have to start all over again (if you are lucky enough to live through a relapse).
So the answer is: No, an alcoholic can never drink responsibly again. But they get the huge benefits of a life well lived in recovery, if they are willing to do the work.
How has sobriety worked out for you? Have to struggled with relapse at all? What have you learned along the way? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!