Can I moderate my drinking or drug use?
When should I try moderation?
How do I moderate my drug and alcohol use?
Because of the confusion and misinformation about substance use and addiction in our culture, these are tough questions for which quick answers won’t do. Let’s unpack a few things, and then we can get to the answers about moderation.
Moderate usage of drugs & alcohol is traditionally considered off-limits for anyone who’s had a substance use problem in the past. The recovery culture teaches that any usage of a substance will trigger an uncontrollable return to problematic use in “addicts and alcoholics.”
But here are some inconvenient truths that strike at the heart of that traditional prescription for lifelong abstinence:
- At least 50% of former “alcoholics” are now moderate drinkers. So clearly, it is a viable option.
- The “loss of control” and “powerlessness” features of the “disease of alcoholism/addiction” have never been scientifically demonstrated to exist. In fact, experimental evidence has shown that supposed addicts are in full control of their drinking and drug use.
- Those who believe in the “one drink equals a drunk” disease ideology are more likely to “relapse” and more likely to binge drink than those who don’t believe it.
From what I’ve seen in the research, in the lives of my friends and students, and experienced firsthand in my own life – the demand for lifelong abstinence and the common threat that any substance use will inevitably lead people to destructive substance use, is completely baseless. Now don’t get it twisted – I am not saying that abstinence is bad, or that moderation is better than abstinence, or that no one should abstain. I am not recommending abstinence, moderation, or heavy substance use.
I am simply saying that abstinence isn’t a necessary response to the fake disease of addiction. I am saying that there is no basis for the claim that “addicts and alcoholics” need to be abstinent or else they’ll uncontrollably continue to use in problematic ways. Addiction is an illusion. Loss of control is an illusion. ALL of the common recommendations for addicts based on the disease model and loss of control are suspect and should be re-assessed.
Think of it – the only way to justify the demand for abstinence is with the specter of “loss of control.” Since people don’t lose control, then there is no “danger” of a “relapse.” Of course the typical health dangers of drug and alcohol use are always there and present for anyone – but the danger that you will be triggered into a zombie state of non stop drug and alcohol use is not because that never happens to begin with. Short of being strapped down to a chair and force-fed drugs and alcohol, people choose to take every drink or hit of a drug or alcohol that ever enters their bodies. Seriously. There are no buts about it. People freely choose their substance use – at every stage of it. They choose the first drink, second drink, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth drinks, and so on, into infinity. They choose every drink.
Keep in mind as you read this article that I can’t answer all questions and cover every aspect of every issue in every post. I have to limit things somewhere, so I what I’m going to cover today is the common questions of who can moderate, when they can safely do it, and how to do it.
People ask “can I moderate?”, or “how will I know when I can safely moderate?” – and then they ask for methods of moderation, as if the instructions should be complex. The “how” of the situation is simple. If the instructions are more complex than “drink a moderate amount of alcohol”, then the person answering the question is as confused as the person asking the question.
Since there is no special “loss of control”, lack of control, powerlessness, or weakness of any kind behind problematic styles of substance use, then no special method, technique, or source of strength or support is needed to combat such deficiencies. Let me repeat that:
Such deficiencies are fairy tales. People who use large amounts of drugs and alcohol want to use large amounts of drugs and alcohol. People who use drugs and alcohol often, want to use drugs and alcohol often. Let me repeat that point too. Pay attention, understand it, and remember it:
The styles and patterns of substance use that people call “addiction” or “alcoholism” are not the product of weakness/powerlessness. In fact, such behavior is a display of great strength. It takes a lot to keep up such usage. So-called “powerless addicts and alcoholics ” dodge their spouses, parents, and police to drink and drug at their preferred levels. They go to great lengths to find reliable drug dealers. They go to great lengths to hide it from their coworkers. They go to great lengths to come up with money to fund getting as high and drunk as they want as often as they want. Do we need to go through all the theft and other scams that are carried out? That stuff isn’t easy.
Heavy drug and alcohol use takes a lot of work. It takes determination. It takes commitment. It is a show of strength. To attribute heavy substance use to weakness is downright illogical. It would be like saying that a runner won a marathon because her legs were broken; that a river overflowed because of a drought; or that a construction crew built a skyscraper in record time because of their laziness, poor management, and lack of skilled workers. None of these statements make sense – nor does it make sense that a heavy substance user continues to do so in the face of so many obstacles because they can’t control themselves or that they’re weak in some way.
Yet again and again, we hear heavy substance users say they are too weak to use substances moderately. Well, I’m here to tell you that is exactly the wrong way to look at things. Heavy substance use has nothing to do with weakness. It has to do with what you want. I’m going to say this in bold, underlined, italic lettering – and then I’m going to say it again in giant letters, because I want you to remember it: moderate substance users have a moderate appetite for substance use.
Moderate Substance Users Have A Moderate Appetite For Substance Use.
Know the sentence above. Think deeply about it. Make sure you understand it. And don’t forget it. Moderate substance users have a moderate appetite for substance use. Isn’t that easy enough to understand? They don’t have more strength or willpower than you or anyone who uses massive amounts of substances. They don’t have some secret technique for moderation. It’s not that heavy users are “real addicts/alcoholics” and that moderate users are fake addicts/alcoholics. There is just one key to it. It is simple to understand, and plain as day – and that is why no one ever even thinks about it: moderate substance users have a moderate appetite for substance use. In other words, they want to use a moderate amount of substance – and they lack the desire to use a large amount of substances, or to use substance at a high frequency.
A moderate substance user, for example, may drink no more than 2 glasses of wine, because they only want two glasses of wine. They smoke only a few puffs of a joint, because they only want a few puffs of a joint. They don’t get obliterated, because they lack the desire to get obliterated. Or if their form of moderation is just about frequency, maybe they want to get obliterated, but they only want to do that once in a while, so they only do it once in a while. Their secret, which is not a secret at all, is that they do not desire the levels/frequency/style of substance use that would cause them too many problems – thus they do not use drugs and alcohol problematically.
Moderate Substance Users Have A Moderate Appetite For Substance Use.
Let me say the same thing in phrases that may speak more specifically to different users:
- Moderate drinkers only want a moderate amount of alcohol
- People that don’t get drunk, do not want to get drunk
- People who drink to get a buzz, want to get a buzz
- Occasional drinkers do not want to drink on a daily basis – they want to drink on special occasions
- Social drinkers want to drink in social situations
- Occasional pot smokers want to smoke pot once in a while
- Casual crack users want to smoke crack once in a while (yes, they are out there)
- Party drug users want to use drugs at parties
These are all more specific versions of the broader statement that moderate substance users have a moderate appetite for substance use. People do what they want to do.
Do I need to keep going? Do you get the point? The point is……….
KNOW WHAT YOU WANT.
However you personally define moderate substance usage (i.e. by number of drinks or hits, frequency of use, substance used [so-called hard vs so-called softer drugs], et cetera), you can do it if it is what you really want. If you hate your life and prefer to drink to blackout every day to avoid facing it, then that is what you will do when you decide to drink. You won’t magically stop at 2 drinks while you have the intention of getting obliterated and blacking out. Two drinks won’t get you what you want. And your true want for drinking to blackout won’t change just because you like the idea of being a moderate drinker who has no more than 2 or 3 drinks.
Moderate drinking isn’t a result of liking the idea of being a moderate drinker. Moderate drinking isn’t a result of hating the consequences of heavy or frequent drinking. Moderate drinking is the result of the belief that a moderate level of drinking will truly provide you with the effects you desire. People who believe that alcohol is a magical elixir providing the only way for them to be happy, deal with their emotional problems, relieve their stress & anxiety, give them the courage necessary to speak their mind, give them the power to charm others, and allow them to feel comfortable in their own skin – will necessarily generate a great desire (aka a big appetite) for alcohol on a regular basis. Their belief that they need it for the basic functioning of their life will not lead to a moderate appetite for alcohol – it will lead to a massive appetite. On the flip-side, those who believe alcohol provides a minor cheap thrill, that it’s not very meaningful, that it’s not a solution to life’s problems, that there are plenty of better things than drinking that they could do with their time – will have a moderate-to-nonexistent appetite for alcohol. And then, there are countless shades of gray between these two poles. And the same goes for the various drugs. Your appetite for substance use is a product of 1) what you think you’ll get out of it, and 2) how you think it compares to your other available options.
So again, having a moderate appetite for substance use is not the same as wanting to be a moderate user. Let me repeat that, in a pretty colored box:
Do you have a big appetite for substance use? It pays to know this, because if you do, and then you drink or drug you’ll probably try to satisfy your true appetite. Heavy substance users have a big appetite for substance use. Let’s highlight this statement too, because it’s important to know:
When someone keeps using substances, it’s not as if there’s some puppeteer above them controlling their arms to make them pour glasses of alcohol and then drink them. The individual is choosing each one of those drinks. They are doing so because they believe there is some benefit to be gotten out of each one. They want each drink. They have an appetite for it.
If you have a massive appetite for substance use, it is because you think it has benefits (in the way of pleasure, happiness, emotional regulation, lowering of inhibitions, et cetera) that you think outweigh the benefits of other potential ways of spending your time. Keeping these beliefs intact keeps your appetite intact. Your appetite won’t change in a flash because you think, pray, promise, or say that you want to be a moderate user or intend to be one. Your appetite will change when you truly believe that heavy substance use is less preferable than other potential ways of spending your time.
So when you ask me “can I moderate”, I say to you everyone can moderate. Anyone who says “some people can moderate, and some people can’t” is flat out wrong. No one is incapable of moderate use. Some people “attempt” to moderate when they don’t want to use moderately. When they return to heavy usage, people say they can’t moderate, people say that they lost control. That’s nonsense, because loss of control has not been proven – the opposite has in fact been shown – that all substance use is ruled by the same factors that rule all choices. Those who “fail” at moderation are not incapable of moderation; it just isn’t what they want right now; they still want to use heavily.
Moderate users don’t “attempt” or “try” to drink or use drugs moderately. They just do it, because that is exactly what they want. Words like “attempt” or “try” are little escape hatches for people who have massive appetites but are unwilling to be open about it. They want to get obliterated, so they “try” to moderate and surprise–they “failed” or they “couldn’t control” themselves. What a convenient way to cover up the fact that you wanted much more to drink, and you said “screw it.” Then you could blame Audrey Kishline, Stanton Peele, or myself for mentioning that it’s possible. Our dangerous words tempted you! The myth of loss of control allows for so much dodging of responsibility.
You can moderate. That is a fact. It is not a de facto recommendation that you should moderate. You should do what will work best for you in your own life, and I cannot answer what that is for you. Here’s the tough question though – do you want to use moderately? And more specifically, do you have a moderate appetite? Or do you have a heavy appetite, but you like the idea of moderation? This is for you to look inside your heart, and find out for yourself. It’s time to stop wallowing in fear, and it’s time to stop blaming a fake disease for your waffling between abstinence and reckless bouts of heavy substance use. It’s time to figure out what role, if any, substance use should have in your life. It’s time to pay attention to the motivational factors here rather than the fears. Do you, in your best judgment, really believe at your core that heavy substance use is your best way to live a satisfying life?
People who’ve spent a lot of time in the recovery culture or beating themselves up with an addict/alcoholic identity get thrown for a loop with this question (do you really want to use moderately?). The reason why this question is so tough for them to sort out is that they have been focused on fear and deterrents as a means of replacing the “control” they’ve been convinced that they lack. When asked if they want to use moderately they often respond something like this:
No. I don’t think you want to go through that hell. But you missed the point of the question. Your fears of negative consequences have only little to do with your motivation. You are motivated to use heavily because in spite of those heavy costs, you believe substance use is more valuable to you than any other life options. You may not even believe you have other options. You look at substance use as a lifeline, thus you have a heavy appetite for it. You do not want to use moderately. You want to use heavily, but you like the idea of being a moderate user.
So, if your response to the question “do you want to use moderately?” is a list of fears and negative consequences you want to avoid, then I’d say chances are that you still want to use drugs/alcohol heavily. But again, I can’t tell you what’s in your heart. And I also won’t say that you “can’t moderate.” You are in control of every choice you make. So if you want to get obliterated, but you decide you’re going to moderate, and only have 3 drinks, you can absolutely carry that out. But if you don’t change your appetite, then there are two basic possibilities for these “attempts” to moderate:
- You have three drinks, feel unsatisfied because you really want to be obliterated, but you refuse to drink beyond your self-imposed limit of 3 drinks. It is an unsatisfying experience, a tease of sorts. You think you’d have been happier if you just didn’t drink at all. Or…
- You have three drinks, feel unsatisfied because you really want to be obliterated, and then you say “screw it” and decide to have another and another until you satisfy your appetite. You get obliterated.
Both outcomes seem like a loss, don’t they? Either you ‘re left unsatisfied, or you’re left disappointed in yourself.
It’s a topic for another blog, for another day, but you can change your appetite for substance use. It is not a fixed quantity. Since appetite for substance use is a function of our view of the benefits of substance use versus the benefits of other potential activities, then we must have some kind of a perspective change in order to change our appetite. People do this all the time (but again, that is not the topic of this blog – check this article for a clue).
For the topics of this article, the most important thing you can do is honestly assess your appetite. Once you know it, these questions are simple:
Q: Can I moderate?
A: Yes. Anyone can use moderately. They will do so effortlessly when they have a moderate desire for substance use.
Q: When should I try moderation?
A: When you truly have a moderate appetite. (and not when you’re just daydreaming about the idea of being a moderate substance user)
[author’s note: I am not recommending any substance use. The question above is posed and answered on the premise that this hypothetical person knows the health risks of substance use, and will probably use at some point anyway. So the answer is about timing for someone who will use with or without my input.]
Q: I’m going to moderate my drug and alcohol use. How do I do it?
A: It takes no special effort, skill, technique, or support. If you have a moderate appetite, you will only be motivated to use in a moderate fashion.
Q: Should I use substances moderately?
A: You need to answer that for yourself. Will the moderate use of drugs and alcohol be a valuable tool in getting the most satisfaction out of your life? Don’t take the question lightly.
People are so wrapped up in fear that they never outgrow their teenage fascination with drugs and alcohol. Having changed my views on these substances long ago, I know my answer – I see substances as offering relatively meaningless cheap thrills. This leaves me with little appetite for intoxication.
I’ve been developing new content for The Saint Jude Program that addresses how to directly modify your appetite for substance use. I’ve gotten great feedback from the guests at my NYC office. It will eventually be available to a wider audience, but keep the basic principle in mind: motivation to do a thing comes from your perception of the benefits to be gained from that thing. Change your perception of the benefits, and you change your motivation.
If you know you currently have a massive appetite for substance use, don’t fret, you can change it over time. But the simplest answer in the meantime may be to choose abstinence while you work on changing your perception of the benefits of substances to you. This is what I did. I stayed abstinent for over 4 years before I chose to drink moderately. When I did, I knew that I had only a moderate appetite.
The way to have a moderate appetite is to have the beliefs and attitudes of a moderate user. If you believe in the disease of addiction, your appetite probably won’t change because you’re too busy debating whether or not you have the “disease of addiction” – when you should be re-assessing the value substances have in your life. The more you romanticize the effects of drugs and alcohol, the bigger your appetite will grown. I will give more info about this over time, but the key principle will be to change the beliefs/perceptions that fuel your big appetite. When you truly see substances as providing a cheap thrill that pales in comparison to the benefits you’ll get from other ways you want and believe you can spend your time – then your appetite will be small.