By Scott Swanezy
(In the following article, consider that “drinking” or “alcohol” can also mean drug use.)
When it comes to problem drinkers who may not yet have descended into full blown alcoholism, there’s definitely strong support for the idea that harm reduction and moderating alcohol intake may be a better solution than 100% abstinence. Keep in mind that “moderation” here does not mean, “I’ll try not to throw up when I go out this weekend.” It means seeking out a qualified program or professional who specializes in harm reduction-oriented treatment.
However, when it comes to true alcoholism, successfully drinking in moderation becomes much, much less likely. There are definitely those who claim that alcoholics can be taught moderation. I would argue that while it’s possible for an alcoholic to limiting themselves to 1-2 drinks and moderate their drinking, that does not mean an alcoholic can drink in moderation successfully.
To better understand what you have read, let’s look at what happens when an alcoholic limits themselves to 1-2 drinks:
1. Every alcoholic wants to get hammered, even if that feeling is deeply repressed. The taste and smell of alcohol triggers strong emotions attached to the desire to drink.
2. The “moderate” amount of alcohol offers none of the release and emotional masking alcoholics often seek.
3. This means the alcoholic does not have fun while drinking their 1-2 drinks. In fact, it takes a massive amount of self-control and willpower to drink and not end up completely drunk.
4. The feelings above often mean that 1-2 drinks eventually lead to a bender and full relapse.
By definition, an alcoholic is someone who not only abuses alcohol to the detriment of their lives and those around them, it’s someone who cannot get drunk without losing control. If an alcoholic could get drunk and have fun without losing control, they would not be an alcoholic in the first place. If they limit themselves to 1-2 drinks the way alcoholics must in order to remain in control, they are not getting any of the emotional release that causes them to turn to alcohol for their reward.
Consequently, the alcoholic is faced with either nursing 1-2 drinks and resenting that they cannot get hammered, or, the alcoholic gets hammered and relapses. There is no “in-between” scenario where the alcoholic gets a little drunk, has a fun time, and stays away from the bottle for the next few months. If an alcoholic were able to enjoy a few drinks without getting hammered, and without resenting the fact that they are not getting hammered, then that would truly be an amazing thing. But by definition, this person would no longer be an alcoholic - they would be “cured”. As most recovering people know, the preceding scenario does not happen.
We know that in addiction, “one size fits all” does not apply. So how does the unconvinced, in denial addict continue using without harming themselves or others? We can explore “harm reduction” in the next article on addiction.
Scott Swanezy LCSW is an addiction and substance abuse counselor in Westchester County. He can be reached at 914-434-9945 and visit outofthefog.info for more information.