Sobriety Vs. Moderation: Two Perspectives on Overcoming Alcoholism

One of the first questions some people have about all these terms is, “is sobriety the same as abstinence?” Usually, yes, the terms are interchangeable, and both mean a life that is completely free of drugs and alcohol. For many people who get serious about recovery, recovery means sobriety, period. This is to say that recovery, for them, means complete abstinence from alcohol. For some people, it may also mean avoiding alcohol altogether, such as not attending parties or limiting time with loved ones who drink regularly.

Remember that recovery can be a deeply personal concept, however, so a one-to-one relationship between recovery, sobriety, and abstinence may not always be the case. Abstinence is fairly cut and dried—it means you are not using any drugs or alcohol. Sobriety can be thought of as a more philosophical concept, and while it also usually means that someone is free from all drugs and alcohol, the term is more often used to describe a clear and healthy state of mind.

What Does Moderation Mean in Alcohol?

Can you drink in moderation instead of eliminating alcohol from your life completely? It’s possible, but for those affected by alcohol use disorder, not always easy or feasible. Some people may find that they are able to successfully moderate their alcohol intake to manage their problematic drinking without the need to avoid alcohol entirely. Moderation means knowing when to quit and when to not start in the first place. For people struggling with impulse control, addictive behavior patterns, and strong urges to drink, consuming in moderation can be much easier said than done.

Moderation can also be a more complicated concept than sobriety because it can look a lot different from person to person. Depending on someone’s history with alcohol, the severity of their alcohol use disorder, their health goals, and other personal and social factors, moderation might mean any number of things. Moderating your drinking may mean cutting back to one beer a day, only having a glass of wine on special occasions, or even only going out twice a month instead of every weekend. Any of these could represent moderation, and it all depends on the individual.

Is Moderation Better Than Abstinence/Sobriety?

When you first face the realization that you’re drinking too much, it’s natural to first want to pursue moderation instead of sobriety. It is scary and uncomfortable to think about giving up a substance you have relied on for self-medication, sleep, and as a coping mechanism, despite the harm it has caused in your life. When you first think about limiting alcohol’s negative effects on your life, you might find yourself bargaining, or calculating your ability to reign in your behavior and drink more responsibly. For some people, however, the very fact that you’re stressing about your ability to moderate your drinking may be a sign that sobriety is a better choice. However, everyone’s journey to recovery is deeply personal, just like everyone’s struggles, so this will not be true for every person who encounters issues with alcohol consumption.

Abstinence Remains the Best Approach for Many in Recovery

Many people who have seen the cycle of alcohol use disorder and relapse —especially those who have lived through it multiple times themselves—have come to accept that moderation simply isn’t possible for everyone. “Moderate drinking” is often the beginning of a toxic cycle rather than a solution to one. Someone drinking here and there and believing they are back in control of their life is often the first step in a new cycle of progressively heavier drinking, rather than a viable, long-term solution to problematic alcohol consumption.

For some people, such as those with serious physical dependence on alcohol, drawing back to moderate drinking as part of a long-term path to total abstinence can be viable. This allows someone to avoid the dangerous physical symptoms of acute alcohol withdrawal while still working towards recovery. This managed detox is better done while monitored in a licensed medical detox center, however. A managed withdrawal from alcohol with professional help available will always be safer and more effective than trying to wean yourself off alcohol at home.

How the Recovery Spectrum Can Affect Treatment Options

Addiction Recovery Group

For many scholars and health professionals, heterogeneity is a key to successful community health outcomes when talking about treating alcohol use disorders. Heterogeneity means a wide range of programs are available for people with different levels of need. These could range from free informational pamphlets and group meetings to inpatient clinical programs.

These programs should differ significantly in approach and format, the idea being that the more types of alcohol treatment services are available in a community, the more likely it is that someone struggling with alcohol will be able to find a program that works for them. With a heterogeneous approach to community alcohol treatment, those with a lower level of need—such as at-risk youth just beginning to experiment with alcohol—are not disregarded and instead have appropriate programs available.

Looking at alcohol recovery as a spectrum necessitates the need for a spectrum of treatment options as well. Ensuring that services are available for people struggling at all different levels naturally eliminates certain barriers to access for alcohol services. If an outpatient counseling program is available in their community instead, it’s more likely they’ll pursue the help they need.

The following are reasons delay getting help or treatment:

  • Personal feeling that their problem isn’t “serious” enough to seek help
  • Social stigma surrounding addiction or addiction treatment
  • Belief that their issues can be solved without outside intervention
  • Privacy concerns
  • Lack of robust insurance coverage or other financial concerns
  • Lack of available services in the area or long waiting lists for programs
  • Strict entry requirements for available programs

Sobriety and Alcohol Moderation Have Ego in Common

Ego and Addiction

Issues with social stigmas were the most frequently cited reasons for refusal to seek help with alcohol problems. Even when stigma isn’t stated as the primary reason for failing to get help, feelings of shame and guilt are still often tied up with other given reasons. This reluctance to act early can make treatment more difficult, just as it would with any other disease. Waiting to seek help until alcohol use disorder has reached an advanced stage can make the physical withdrawals and deeply ingrained behavioral patterns more difficult to overcome.

Is your ego keeping you from recovery?

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