Is Drinking in Moderation Possible for Alcoholics?

Most Can't Drink Moderately, but It's Too Late When They Find Out

young women drinking together
Hollie Fernando / Getty Images 

One of the most common questions people who try to quit drinking ask is whether they really have to stop forever. Can't they learn how to drink in moderation? Can they become social drinkers? Is it true that they can never have another drink?

The truth is, there are some people who quit drinking for a period of time, perhaps even joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and later found that they could return to drinking moderately. Chances are, these drinkers may not have really been alcoholics in the first place, but merely alcohol abusers or binge drinkers.

For those who are true alcoholics, trying to return to moderate drinking rarely works. Many have tried and failed.

Attempting Moderate Drinking Is a Dangerous Gamble

Many alcoholics have tried to return to social drinking. Those who did so successfully were probably problem drinkers, to begin with, and not necessarily alcoholics. The Moderation Management program has helped many learn to drink safely, but it's not for everyone.

However, those who have quit drinking because of past problems, and then attempt to go back to controlled or moderate drinking, fail to do so. They simply cannot drink one or two and stop, or at least not for any sustained period of time.

Out-of-Control Drinking

One of the symptoms of alcoholism is that once you start drinking you cannot predict or control how much alcohol you will end up consuming.

The vast majority of alcoholics who talk themselves into thinking they can return to "normal" drinking find that they quickly return to unsafe or binge drinking. The problem is that by the time they find out that they are not capable of moderating their drinking, it is too late. It takes many of them years to find recovery again and some, unfortunately, never make it back.

If you quit drinking because your alcohol consumption became out of your control, chances are you will not be able to control it if you pick up a drink again. If that's the case, it might be too much of a risk to take.

Failing at Moderate Drinking

Bluesky tells her story of attempting moderate drinking. "I've been trying to moderate my drinking since my teens, and I'm now in my 40s. I finally came to the realization that, for me, abstinence is the only way. I have harbored reservations and have given it another try. It never works out for me, but still, I don't learn.

"You see, my memory is selective. I tend to forget how sick I felt each day, the hangovers, the blackouts, the puking, the worrying about how I appeared to other people, the remorse I felt every single morning when I woke up. I was beating myself up, and yet I continued. Who does that? Social drinkers don't do that. But alcoholics do.

"It could be that you're not an alcoholic, but remember that more than one drink per day for a woman or two drinks per day for a man is risking health problems. Can you moderate to one drink per day and perhaps a couple occasionally? Or will there be times when you can't control it and binge?

"Usually, when we have to assert so much control over our drinking, it's because it's taken control of us. Otherwise, why would we need to wrestle control back?"

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Was this page helpful?