Can Moderation Work?


There are two sneaky bits in the question. The first is the word ‘moderation’ and the second is 'work'.

Usually what people mean when they ask this question is whether or not they can return to a normal drinking behavior, with ‘normal’ pegged on what society accepts. And beneath all that is the idea that someone who abuses alcohol is the same type of person who doesn’t.

Why do we care?

Why would the question even matter to someone who doesn’t have a problem with alcohol? The truth is, it doesn’t. Non-alcoholics, those who could order a soda as easily as a beer, don’t think about alcohol the same way as problem drinkers do. They don’t know the best places to get cheap drinks. They don’t “shop” the liquor aisle and make plans.

You can spot an alcoholic by the way he talks about alcohol. “Normal” folks don’t talk about sobriety or denial. They probably don’t know the difference between a DUI, OWI, OUI and whatever your state uses in court. It’s unlikely they know the penalties or how the process works. If you were to mention a “program,” they’d assume you meant something on TV.

In short, we have a relationship with alcohol that’s different. We care about the question because we want to fundamentally alter the role alcohol holds in our lives.

But I Heard…

I know what you heard, I’ve heard it to. It’s the story of the guy or gal who just cut back. They did it on their own (usually) and haven’t had any problems since.

The tale usually includes some kind of wake-up call. Maybe they got a DUI. Maybe they passed out after puking on the boss at the Christmas party. Who knows. But the story ends up the same way, they turned the valve down and only have a few drinks when it’s socially appropriate.

There’s no way to dispute every last story like this. Did it happen? Sure, why not. But here’s the rub: the reason it’s a story worth telling is that it is rare. The fact that most problem drinkers can’t manage moderation is why the few who seem to are newsworthy. It’s as if you told me about a blind guy who scaled Mount Everest. Am I really going to assume I can do the same? Doesn’t that sound like just the kind of lie we tell ourselves about drinking?

It Would Be Nice Though

Why? Why is drinking even worth pursuing? Learn this and you’ll see the lie in action.

Here’s an example. I’ve been to bowling alleys. I’ve seen people who are having a lot of fun bowling. Groups get together, friendships are formed and everyone is having a great time.

Now, let’s say I’ve got serious arthritis in my hands. It’s a medical condition, nothing to be ashamed of; it’s just a fact of life, the cards I was dealt. Why would I want to hang out or take up bowling when it hurts so much? Would I try to do it in moderation?

The truth is that we buy into the myth when we start to make up “what if’s.” What if I didn’t have the disease? What if I didn’t have this toxic relationship with alcohol?

One might as well ask what if I had a third eye in the back of my head so I wouldn’t need a rear view mirror in my car.


Here’s the part that drives the denial. Not all drinking leads to binges or passed-out drunk. Some episodes are “successful.” Nothing happens, there’s no night in jail, no hitting your wife and, if you are lucky, not even a hangover.

The denial is built out of remembering and rehearsing those “good” episodes as some kind of ideal behavior and something that argues against a real alcohol addiction. It’s also wrong. Would you, for example, pick out the few times you’ve aced an exam and claim to be a top scholar? Hardly. The situation becomes clear, not by the best examples, but by the worst.

All drunken binges start out as “just dipping my toes in the water.” All of them. You can’t get to stoned-out-of-your-mind without passing through “moderation.” So why do we pretend that moderation is some kind of good thing? It’s not. It’s just part of the familiar ride to destruction, one step on the stairway.

The bottom line is that, for a problem drinker, moderation does not work. There’s no point to it even if it did. Only those who abuse alcohol see it as a good thing.

Just one last thing to show how crazy the notion really is. There’s a glass of liquid sitting on the table in front of you. I’m honest and I tell you it’s toxic. It’s a poison. Maybe it’s bleach, or anti-freeze, or nail polish remover. You don’t know. I tell you that, while it’s dangerous, it probably won’t kill you, or even make you sick if you only drink a little bit of it.

Want a sip?


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