Alcoholics drink moderately? Is that ever possible? Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) has an adage. It’s “once a pickle, never again a cucumber.” That expresses A.A.’s belief that an alcoholic will always be alcoholic. And that an alcoholic can never go back to drinking in moderation.
I. Alcoholics Drink in Moderation?
I. Alcoholics Drink Moderately?
A.A. asserts that “Because the illness progresses in stages, some alcoholics show more extreme symptoms than others. Once problem drinkers cross over the line into alcoholism, however they cannot turn back.”1
A.A. states that “We understand now that once a person has crossed the invisible borderline from heavy drinking to compulsive alcoholic drinking, that person will always remain an alcoholic. So far as we know, there can never be any turning back to ‘normal’ social drinking. ‘Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic’ is a simple fact we have to live with.”2
A.A. warns alcoholics that “After they have been sober a while in A.A., some people tend to forget that they are alcoholics, with all that this diagnosis implies. Their sobriety makes them overconfident, and they decide to experiment with alcohol again. The results of such experiments are, for the alcoholic, completely predictable. Their drinking invariably becomes progressively worse.”3
Similar statements about the assumed inability of alcoholics ever to drink in moderation appear throughout A.A. writings.
In fact, that belief is simply an ideological one. And the evidence doesn’t support it. Research for decades has reported that some alcoholics can and do learn to drink in moderation.
But A.A. defines an alcoholic as a person who can never drink in moderation. Thus members reject the strong and mounting evidence to the contrary. The common reaction is to argue that the alcoholics really weren’t alcoholic. If they were, they wouldn’t be able to drink in moderation. They use their arbitrary definition to ignore the evidence.
II. Evidence: Some Alcoholics Drink Moderately
When the first scientific evidence was published in 1972, it was met with strong resistance. That was for two main reasons.
- First, the evidence was a direct threat to A.A.’s theory of alcoholism. The idea that alcoholics drink in moderation was heresy. It was a rejection of faith.
- Second, there was great fear that some abstaining alcoholics would resume drinking hoping to do so moderately. According to A.A. ideology, all such attempts would be doomed to failure. The results would be disastrous.
In short, the fear was easy to understand. All such evidence was wrong. But much more important, it was dangerous to the health and very lives of alcoholics.
Yet the evidence that some alcoholics can learn to drink in moderation has grown stronger. Federal research showed it years ago. The government conducted nation-wide survey of over 43,000 alcoholics in the U.S. It found that almost 18% (17.7o%) diagnosed alcoholics were moderate drinkers by the time of the study. That is, they consumed within recommended federal guidelines.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) conducted the study. It also found that about 12% (11.90%) were then drinkers with no symptoms. But their drinking patterns increased their chances of relapse.
The NIAAA reported that 27.3 percent were in partial remission That is, they exhibit some symptoms of alcohol dependence. Only one quarter (25.00%) continued to be alcohol dependent. For more, visit Alcoholics Can Recover from Alcoholism & Drink in Moderation.
So who’s right? A.A. and its ideologial belief that “once a pickle, never again a cucumber”? Or the researchers and their scientific findings?
We can’t ignore the evidence. Nor should anyone try to dismiss it by definition.
We know that some alcoholics drink moderately whereas others don’t. At this point, we should ask a more important question. “What distinguishes alcoholics who drink in moderation from those who can’t seem to?”
In the meantime, what should alcoholics do? It’s probably very unwise for abstaining alcoholics to try to begin drinking. Why take a chance? Another option might be the medical Sinclair Method under the supervision of a doctor. But the safest choice is to continue abstaining from alcohol.
In the final analysis, it’s a very personal decision. It’s best to make it in consultation with a doctor.
IV. Resources: Alcoholics Drink Moderately?
- Adapted from NIAAA. Survey Finds That Many Recover From Alcoholism. The study defined alcohol use disorders and their remission according to the clinical criteria of the Am Psychiatric Assn.
- This site gives no advice. Please see your doctor about alcoholics drink moderately questions.