The Trouble with “Cutting Back” on Drinking

Benya Clark

When I first realized that I had a drinking problem, my solution was to try to cut back. I knew that I was drinking way too much and I even recognized that I had an addiction. Even so, the idea of going completely sober sounded like an extreme overreaction to the problem.

I figured that instead of cutting alcohol out of my life completely, I could learn to drink in healthy moderation. On its surface, the idea doesn’t sound so absurd. We all know plenty of people who manage to have a drink every once in a while without letting it take over their lives. It was natural to think that the same thing could work for me.

My first attempt at moderation was just a vague resolution to “drink less.” It didn’t take long for me to see that this wouldn’t work. Despite my decision not to drink as much, I kept on drinking just as much as always.

At that point, I decided I needed to create rules to keep me in line. I thought that if I came up with clear limits of when and how much I could drink, I’d be able to solve my drinking problem. I don’t remember the exact rules I came up with, but they were things along these lines:

toasting with drinks

“Only on weekends.”“ Never drink alone.”“Just beer and wine — no hard liquor.”“Only after five o’clock.”“No more than two drinks per night.”

I’m sure these types of rules sound familiar to many of you reading this who are in recovery. I’ve talked to other alcoholics about it, and it seems like attempting “moderation through rules” is a nearly inevitable phase that addicts go through before finally deciding to get sober.

Unfortunately, for those of us who are addicted to alcohol, these types of rules just don’t end up working. Even with the best intentions, we soon see ourselves backsliding. We might adhere to the rules for a few days or even weeks. Then, often without even noticing, we begin to slowly ramp up our alcohol intake. Eventually, we’re right back where we started and left wondering what went wrong.

When I tried to become a “moderate” drinker by adhering to a complex web of rules, I was committing a classic logical fallacy: mixing up cause and effect. I looked to people who had no problem with alcohol and saw that they drank a moderate amount. From that, I concluded that if I could drink as little as they did, I wouldn’t have a problem with alcohol either.

I actually had it backward: these people weren’t non-alcoholics because they drank in moderation; it’s actually that they drank in moderation because they weren’t addicts in the first place. They weren’t drinking so little because they were following a complex set of rules, they just genuinely didn’t want to drink any more than that. I had trouble recognizing this at the time because I was so hooked on alcohol that the idea of not wanting to drink to excess was totally foreign to me.

When I tried to cut back on drinking, I was drinking less each day, but alcohol was still consuming just as large a part of my life. I was thinking about alcohol constantly as I obsessed over the rules I had created for myself.

I tried cutting back several times, and each attempt followed a similar pattern. For the first few days, I’d follow the rules exactly, limiting myself to a couple beers a night. Then, I’d start bargaining with myself, drinking more but telling myself that I’d cut down even more on other days to make up for it. Soon enough, the rules would disappear completely. Then I’d go back to my regular drinking habits for a few months before starting the entire process over.

I never made any real progress with the “cutting back” strategy because it was flawed from the inception. With the way my mind obsesses over alcohol, it just wouldn’t have been possible for me to ever drink in moderation for a sustained period of time. The only realistic long-term options for me were continuing to drink heavily or going totally sober.

I’ve met so many others who have gone through the same pattern of attempting and failing at moderation before they finally got sober. In hindsight, it feels so ridiculous, but I think it may have been a phase I needed to go through. I’m not sure if I ever would have really understood how impossible moderation is for me if I hadn’t attempted it so many times.

Now I’ve been completely sober for almost two years. Although it was incredibly rough at the beginning, it has gotten gradually easier. I still think and write about alcohol, but I definitely don’t obsess over it in the same way I used to. I certainly don’t ever want to drink again, even in “moderation.”

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