Why Abstinence is Ultimately Easier Than Controlled Drinking

Why Abstinence is Ultimately Easier Than Controlled Drinking


why-abstinence-is-ultimately-easier-than-moderationAnyone who has ever expressed worry over their drinking, or even considered trying to lay off the sauce for a while, has probably heard the standard, “Why don’t you just try having one or two?” Chances are, if someone’s at the point of “taking a break from drinking,” their motivator isn’t a funny drinking anecdote, an antibiotic prescription or because they simply hadn’t considered the option of “just having one or two.” In fact, they’ve most likely tried that on multiple occasions and somehow ended up hammered.

In a recent piece for The Guardian, alcoholic in recovery David Ferguson recounts his own epiphany around the concept of controlled drinking or drug use. He realized in the midst of a drug binge that no state of obliteration was ever enough—no matter how high or drunk he got, he just needed more. And like many others, he tried various other methods to feel better before facing the real issue. He writes, “I tried exercise and therapy and veganism and acupuncture and yoga and meditation, but ultimately the hunger for total numbness and oblivion always came back, even after months of clean time. Finally, I opted for total sobriety.”

Science Backs His Decision

Ferguson cites a Swedish study that confirms his ultimate conclusion that for addicts, drinking and drugging in moderation isn’t really an option. The research conducted by Gothenburg University followed the treatment of 201 adults with “alcohol dependence.” (That might be an understatement, but sure, let’s roll with it.) Emphasizing the importance of participants being on the same page as their doctor—some of whom still maintain that controlled usage is a better strategy than completely abstaining—the results are pretty clear. Per the study’s conclusion, “Around 90 percent of patients who were in agreement with their care provider on total abstinence were still sober at the follow-up, whereas only 50 percent [of those]who were in agreement with their care provider on controlled consumption treatment had succeeded in controlling their drinking at follow-up.” Yikes! Granted, this is just one study but…come on, I can’t say it enough: if people are at the point where they’re at the doctor seeking help for the issue, chances are they’ve already tried solving it themselves without success.

Remember the woman who started the whole movement around controlled drinking because she hated AA so much? Audrey Kishline, who created MM (Moderation Management) and eventually admitted her own self-help guidelines for drinking in moderation didn’t work, ended up killing two people in a drunk driving accident. Ferguson mentions his own mother—who found recovery through the 12 steps, and stayed sober until the day she died—was visited constantly in her final days by many loved ones and friends who she had helped in the program. He then recalls a sadder story: an ex-boyfriend of his who decided he’d rather try controlled drinking and no drugs than stay in AA. He did not survive and was found dead in a crack house. This isn’t some sort of advertisement for AA. Rather, it’s an example of how controlling one substance doesn’t necessarily preclude being able to avoid the abuse of another. For example, I’ve met people in sobriety who aren’t afraid of alcohol, but they do fear the drugs they might do under the influence of alcohol.

So don’t the people (doctors?) promoting controlled usage stop to consider that those who have seen the perilous consequences of their drinking might have already given that a go (likely over and over and over again)?

When Obsessing Over Drinking Ruins the Fun of Drinking

Not only was I very unsuccessful at drinking in moderation but I also hated it. I really don’t see the point of drinking if you can’t get drunk. When my pleasure center started to light up at that first few sips, it was go time. I vividly remember always being concerned about losing my buzz the minute it took over. And I was always super obsessive about the one person at the table who hadn’t touched their full glass of Merlot, while I was meanwhile ordering a third and always keeping the waiter in my sight line. I remember when I used to meet friends at a happy hour and the disappointment I felt with how “boring” they were if they wanted to call it a night at one or two cocktails. I didn’t care what day of the week it was. Maybe I’d limit it to four drinks because it’s a Monday, but I definitely had no interest in just one or two. “Screw Tuesday, these margaritas are cheap as hell!”

When I started to realize that getting drunk every time you drink isn’t normal or productive, I began attempting to be like the people I thought were “dull.” It felt like I was literally white-knuckling the bar, and more often that not, I went to a second location after I left the first. Or I resumed drinking at home.

Let’s say someone struggling with drugs and/or alcohol does manage to moderate for a while. It’s almost more tortuous to obsess over controlling the amount they are or aren’t consuming than it is to just not consume it. For me, it became the most exhausting brain ritual ever. If it’s off the table, the mind is free to move on to something else. (Like what ice cream to get so you can numb your feelings that way! Just kidding. Sort of.)

Suffice to say, I agree with Ferguson and salute him with my own sobriety mantra, “I can’t enjoy it when I control it and I can’t control it when I enjoy it.”



  1. Brilliant! I love that he said I can now see what I have to lose, now that im sober. So many years wasted. Never being comfortable, never getting enough. Its easy to see now just why we kept trying to finding contentment in our failures. Ex. My best times were when I was living in a tent. No bills, no family to get in the way. Just me and my bottle. What?? Thats unfathomable now. By the grace of God. sd – 11.17.15

  2. Oh yeah.. Audrey Kishline. That’s a sad story. It might be better to focus on those who made good use of moderation management, I’m sure there’s many it’s just nobody ever hears about them with such a devastating shadow.

    That’s it I’m done..

  3. I’ve never met anyone who has showed up in AA in a “hopeless condition” and then moved on from AA and drank again to a level that I wanted to try anyway..Problem drinkers sure but real alcoholics? Sweaty balls of fear trying to negotiate their way through a room full of people sober with the lights on bright? No. Who’s to say what they’re doing isn’t what they expect or good enough for them? They’re doing the best they can. Compared to the bottom anything looks like progress. If the cops or exwife or whoever has climbed down out of your ass then hey, all is well now..I’ll take it from here right? I’ll do the AA shuffle for a while until this latest shitshow blows over and bye bye see ya..Back to the Winning Ticket pub where happy people meet and exchange STD’s.

    To me it would be settling for less but I’ve been sober a while and can see clearly what it is I stand to lose by drinking. Plus, I am a big ole mean narrowminded Big Book 12 Step thumper..

    Of course they will want door number 3 harm reduction, who wouldn’t! How could they know what it’s like if they have never been abstinent for any amount of time? It makes sense to me that they would try any and all last ditch efforts to be what they consider normal drinkers. Fun young guys..Personally? I see it around and I think these people who are hell bent to cut a deal are nuts which I might add is what they eventually turn out to be once they can see themselves, if not in AA then eventually in a counselors or therapist office even judges chambers..

    Eventually they run out of road unless they have been fortunate enough to find a good solid enabler. Like family money or welcome mat partner. Some beat up caregiver that will settle for anything but being alone. Even mommy who co-signs every horror show with the memory of you at 10 years old riding your spider bike delivering papers, she was so proud of her sonny boy..But you’re a nasty unemployed 40 year old drunk now on your 3rd divorce and hiding upstairs masterbating in your old room, raiding the liquor cabinet and bumming money again. But hey, 20 years ago it seemed like a great idea to drop this AA clown punching childishness and get a grip on yourself once and for all time. Be a man, save the marriage , challenge that career move, be a dad! NOPE..you’re freaken done dude. Here, have half a coffee and sit up front with me. We’re going to make it one day without one drink. That’s what we do here.

    Anyway good for them. When or if you have had enough and you can’t take it anymore? I’m here with my Big Book 12 Steps. I’ll show you how I followed the directions back then when I was new and now today. How I don’t use mind altering substances today. And yeah, I’ll show you how to be a free man. No more jockeying for position with life. Worshipping people for self esteem.

Leave A Reply

About Author

Mary Patterson Broome is the Editor-in-Chief of RehabReviews.com and After Party Magazine and has also written for Women's Health Magazine Online, AOL and WE TV. She has been performing stand-up comedy at clubs, colleges, casinos and festivals across the country and internationally for over a decade. Originally from southern Alabama, she now calls Los Angeles home.