Can moderate use be part of recovery?

I’ve mentioned before that I read a lot of sobriety memoirs in early recovery. What I didn’t mention is that searching for these memoirs on Amazon was like navigating a minefield. Amazon’s predictive algorithms hadn’t yet learned that I was ready to quit, so they kept suggesting alternatives. I was flooded with books on moderation. The message seemed to be this: “Don’t wanna quit? Well, maybe you don’t have to!”

Customers who viewed this item also viewed … I couldn’t help but skim the titles. However, I quickly clicked away. From personal experience - and recent personal experience, at that - I knew that moderation wasn’t an option. On January 1st, I had set a rule for the number of drinks, the type of alcohol, when and with whom I would drink. By January 24th, I had broken each of those rules.

I didn't just want to stop; I wanted to recover. But what does that mean? And how is "recovery" different from just laying off for a month? For a year?

Photo by Yutacar on Unsplash

Academics, as it happens, are interested in this same question. I was recently at a psychology conference where the definition of “recovery” was seriously up for debate. Is recovery abstinence? For how long? Is it harm reduction? What about responsible use? What about only on weekends?

As the academics saw it, here was the problem (pulled verbatim from a PowerPoint):

“The abstinence focus of most treatment programs is a barrier to treatment seeking and most treatment seekers have drinking reduction goals.”

In short, this means that people who drink too much don’t look for help with drinking less, because they’re afraid they'll be told not to drink at all.

And to their credit, they’re sort of right. A brief click through the website for Hazeldon Betty Ford, the largest nonprofit treatment provider, does indeed suggest that recovery from alcoholism includes (but isn't limited to) stopping drinking and staying stopped.

My gut tells me this is right. My gut says recovery must involve abstaining from all mind-altering substances. (Besides caffeine, for no reason in particular.) I can’t imagine recovery otherwise.

However: If there’s one thing they don’t tell you about the mind-gut connection - and these days, they’ve told us just about everything - it’s this: both can be wrong. Seriously: the gut can be brainwashed right along with, uh, the brain.

My gut says recovery means abstaining from alcohol, but the rest of me is a little more humble. (Imagine that!) Personally, I cannot imagine feeling “recovered” while still drinking. I can’t imagine that alcohol could ever occupy a merely peripheral part of my life. Even if I managed to drink only on weekends, I’d likely spend the first five days of the week thinking about the remaining two. How good it would feel to drink, to really let loose. What, how, and with whom. Just the promise of alcohol pulls me away from the present. And if the present is all we have, that means alcohol simply pulls me away.

Perhaps I could maintain it for years. Drinking only 2 of 7 days per week. But would I feel “recovered?” Would I experience the mental reprieve that comes with sobriety? I doubt it. Recovery was never about the number of drinks or the number of days in a week. For me, it’s a state of mind.

Part of me says the academics had it wrong. Advocating for moderate drinking or harm reduction feels either naive, disingenuous, or cowardly. Alcoholics like people who say they can drink, and treatment providers like - or at least, need - alcoholics. Everyone gets what they like, and no one recovers.

Cut back to the conference. If I hadn't been wearing business attire, I would've rolled my eyes. (Something about real-person clothes prevents me from fully expressing myself.) No sooner had I determined I was right than a second line from the PowerPoint cut through my thinking:

“If you say you’re in recovery, you are.”

Ah, relativism. I took an ethics class in college. I began the class believing in an objective right and wrong, and ended it thinking that ceremonial disembowelment (seppuku) is a-okay. Ethical. The samurais just do it different.

I might've been too easy on the samurais. However, I'm reminded that I could afford to go a bit easier on everyone else. When I try to monitor and control how others make meaning of their lives, I usually get it wrong. I get it wrong, and it doesn't feel "recovered." In fact, it makes me feel like an alcoholic.

For the sake of my own recovery, then - I’ll stay out of yours.