There’s one main reason why people with addiction issues don’t enter mainstream recovery programs. Because almost all of them are abstinence-based! A lot of people don’t feel ready for that level of change and are not prepared to have abstinence forced upon them as a condition for receiving help. Very few recovery programs offer the option of moderation. It’s easy to see how those who are not ready for total abstinence but in real need of help, work with people like me.
My clients tend to be the high-functioning addicts of this world. They have already invested a lot of money in expensive rehab that, while being of some value, has not really resolved their struggles. They want to enjoy a glass of wine with their meal. They want to have a beer with colleagues, without it being a gateway into destructive binging. They want to enjoy a single drink, without it leading to cocaine, infidelity, hospitalisation, and the end of many things they’ve worked hard for.
In many ways, abstinence is an easy solution. You can’t be a little bit abstinent. You’re either abstinent, or you’re not! If you’re committed to abstinence, you don’t have the head-spin about what will happen at the office party or your friend’s stag weekend. Alcohol, cocaine, hookers, and anything else that adds to the mix are off the menu, and that’s that!
Moderation is less clean-cut, as it is up to each individual to define what healthy moderation looks like for them. Healthy moderation is only possible if no emotional or physical dependence is present. Healthy moderation does not involve willpower or justification. If either is present, then that’s a red flag! Healthy moderation is a state of being. It’s what happens when we are comfortable in our skin, as we are, without the need to add anything. Healthy moderation is natural self-control, but without any stress or struggle accompanying it.
Most of my clients want to reach a point where they can have a healthy moderation of their behaviours. Experience tells me that this is possible, but usually, a period of abstinence is required as part of the journey to reaching this goal. The period of abstinence needed varies from person to person. On average, it is usually around 90 days. Many people want to make the leap from problematic addictive behaviour to healthy moderation, through a gradual reduction process. They are afraid of who and what they will be without their alcohol and other vices. This makes the idea gradual reduction more appealing than a 90 day abstinence period. In reality, a gradual reduction is a much harder path. Here’s why…
Fragmented Energy — Addictive behaviours have momentum. Abstinence can feel like being caught in a train wreck at first, but this initial shock soon passes. If we go for healthy moderation without the abstinence period, we will expend a lot of energy and effort on trying to control ourselves. We will most likely feel anxious and obligated. We may feel trapped, and at some point, we will rebel against such feelings. We may still manage for a while, but we won’t have healthy moderation, and we will be vulnerable to relapsing back into old ways. Trying to jump straight to healthy moderation without the abstinence period is a bit like trying to change the wheels on a bike while continuing to ride it. There’s probably a stuntman somewhere in the world who can do it, but most of us are better off changing the wheels while the bike is stationary.
Lack of Mental Clarity — Addictive behaviours are only the symptom! In abstinence, it is possible to see into addiction’s deeper structure. If we are expending energy and effort on managing our behaviours, there is little left over for the self-reflection that is essential for demystifying addiction. If we give ourselves the gift of an abstinence period, we can deepen awareness of our addictive behaviours until eventually they are demystified. From here, complacency in the face of the habitual destruction of our potential is no longer something we willingly accept of ourselves.
Emotional Capacity — To make healthy moderation a living reality, we have to be emotionally aware of ourselves! Much of addictions deeper structure consists of unacknowledged emotional struggles, some of which have remained unresolved for many years. In abstinence, we cut off our old escape routes so that we can address the things we have been running from. We face our difficult emotions and get proactive in addressing rather than avoiding them. If we are trying to jump to healthy moderation without an abstinence period, getting some emotional awareness is much harder. We may intellectually know what is needed but will lack the capacity to step up to the plate and take decisive action.
At this time of writing, I am in my 23rd year of active recovery from my many addictions. Some of my addictions require total abstinence as a solution. There are certain substances I cannot moderate, and that’s simply the way it is. I have found healthy moderation with some of my addictions, but only after a period of abstinence. Without such periods, I couldn’t have got to the actual roots of my problems and actively addressed them.
Abstinence or Moderation? I cannot say what is best for you, because only you can know that for yourself. The important thing is to get really honest. This doesn’t necessarily mean choosing the way that is most comfortable or preferable. In fact, it usually means the opposite! If you want to change your life, you will encounter inconvenience, discomfort, ignorance, and judgement! It goes with the territory and is part of the initiation into a new way of life. Here are a few suggestions that may help you find a way forward…
Get really honest about what would best serve you in making the most of this one precious life. If you honestly think you can make the jump straight from addiction to healthy moderation, give it a go! You can always change your commitment if things don’t work out! Alternatively, it may be clear and evident that you need to commit to permanent abstinence.
Get a support network in place! If your commitment is to permanent abstinence, then there are plenty of options. If your goal is healthy moderation, then a good first step would be to find a therapist or coach who can support you in reaching your goal. An accountability partner would also be a good idea. If you are on a low budget, there are a few good groups on social media offering free support. I run one of them:
What do you want to create? Get clear about the kind of life you want to create. One of the gifts we give ourselves in committing to a period of abstinence is the chance of a new beginning. This means creating a new system for how we live life. There’s nothing wrong with the system of addictive behaviour… if it creates happiness, then stick with it! If it creates unhappiness, it’s time to upgrade your system to something that brings your life into alignment with what you really want. Take some time to reflect and get clear about what you would like to create across the broader spectrum of your life. Think about what you would like your life to look like as a result of this change.
Why do you want this change? Find motivations within yourself that are authentic and your own. Of course, there may be a part of you that wants to make this change for your family or close friends, but the primary motivator needs to come from within yourself. Get clear that you are doing this for yourself, as a gift to yourself, so that you can become better at being yourself. This may sound selfish, but it isn’t! One of the best ways to serve others is by cleaning up your own life first.
If you decide to go ahead and commit to 90 days of abstinence, here are a few things to remember…
With a 90 day commitment, the goalposts are out of visual range. You can’t white-knuckle it for 90 days! There is no option but to adapt and upgrade your way of living life. If this sounds challenging, remember that you only need to do this one day at a time and you don’t have to do it alone! Remember that great lives are built on a few simple disciplines, and even the smallest shifts in the right direction are valid. Keep an eye on your goal, but make sure you track the real changes that are happening day by day. The subtle shifts on the levels of your thinking, feeling, and being in the world, are where the magic happens.