Moderate drinking: Can it be successful?
Lots of people have a healthy, rational relationship with alcohol without having to consciously moderate drinking or change anything, in the sense that they can happily go for a couple of drinks and then call it a night – they don’t immediately fall down a rabbit hole of binge drinking after a friendly pint in the sun, they don’t transform into their worst nightmare after a few glasses of white wine or wake up having no idea how they got home or where their phone is, they don’t dish out spiteful doses of fabricated truths to their loved ones or morph into an emotional disaster when they drink.
This doesn’t mean that a doctor would agree that their alcohol intake is good for them but it IS certainly healthier than mindless drinking, and it’s a way of life that those of us who don’t have an off-switch will have aspired to achieve at some point.
Other people who engage in moderate drinking do it as a direct result of some serious self-assessment, hard work and probably from a long time-out from alcohol before making the decision to mindfully drink. Absolutely no-one can go from mindlessly binge-drinking to successfully, rationally being able to moderate drinking overnight. Or even forty nights. So how can you make moderate drinking work?
The effort of self-control
People who have given up drinking for the reasons above such as no off-switch, binge drinking, health, or just general bad behaviour, have had to re-programme their brains to break down patterns and disassociate from the habitual behaviours that we all form – it takes hard work and determination to succeed and not throw the towel in at any given opportunity. For this reason, many non-drinkers are not comfortable with the concept of moderate drinking. If you’ve spent the last three months, two years or even ten years seeing yourself flourish as a result of removing alcohol from your life, it can feel a little dangerous to take moderation too seriously. If you’re part of any kind of support network, then you’ll also have had to painfully watch other members and friends attempting to moderate drinking and failing – another strike against moderation. But it shouldn’t have to work like that, many of the same rules and strategies need to be applied for someone who is moderating their intake, as they do for someone who is abstaining completely from alcohol. In fact, whilst the social stigma is perhaps lessened for someone who does partake in occasional mindful drinking, the effort of self-control is possibly more complicated and harder to execute – particularly for someone who has struggled with their off-switch.
In terms of social attitude (I’m setting moral reasoning aside completely here), I’ve personally drawn some pretty close comparisons between moderate drinking and vegetarianism, in terms of what I’ve experienced from those in various positions across the spectrum. I was vegan for several years before reverting to being vegetarian, and whilst I was vegan I experienced a fair amount of ridicule or questioning from the carnivores or even the cheese eaters: “But why? How do you cope? Oh I couldn’t live like that, it’s so boring…” – sound familiar? I also met a lot of vegans who are openly derogatory to those who lead a vegetarian lifestyle because it’s not enough: “How could you know what you know about animal cruelty and yet still consume dairy?” Which is a fair point and I’m pretty sure I said that about vegetarians myself at some point, but I think I was just envious of the cheese-eating. Again, sound familiar? It’s the in-between, the not-quite, the cop-out.
The thing is, it isn’t a cop-out.
What works for you may not work for someone else
I think it’s absolutely integral that we share information with each other, to enable us to make informed choices, evolve and to be more mindful. But imposing your opinion on someone else and never being able to form the understanding that what works for you may not work for someone else, is truly unhelpful for everyone.
I moderately drink now and I have done for almost a year and a half. If you think I’m going to give you some quick fix though, some magic moderation beans, you’re wrong. It’s hard work and you mustn’t ever take it for granted.
I was a non-drinker for three years after being a dangerous no off-switch binge drinker for the majority of my drinking career – which spanned fourteen years. I could happily go Monday-Thursday without even a sniff of alcohol, but once I was set in motion I didn’t stop. I then did three alcohol-free Christmasses, my 30th birthday, the funeral of a close friend and many, many, weddings and birthdays without drinking. I chipped away at, and eventually broke out of, my little shell over that time, faced up to a lot of emotional baggage, grasped what my actual interests were all over again, understood what I was passionate about and realised what I didn’t actually enjoy once my rose-tinted alcohol spectacles had been crushed into the floor. Once all of this new or previously concealed information and emotion had been absorbed, I felt myself gradually transform into someone I actually really liked, trusted and was truly comfortable with. My viewpoints shifted and I became who I had always wanted to be, the person who I had always been but who had been distorted through the blurry, hazy, alteration that the over-use of alcohol and it’s underlying causes bring to a person. If in any way you feel like you aren’t enough, that you’re different or that you are anything short of incredible, alcohol and drugs are an easy route to confidence, temporary stress relief and the fatal obliteration of any connection to our most inner thoughts and feelings.
Change your mindset towards moderate drinking
In a much simpler, more universal sense, alcohol is simply a way to forget the week for many people, and it can make many people over-excited, causing them to make a series of illogical decisions which then lead to the classic “not how I meant the night to go” scenario. Ever had a birthday or wedding where you’ve felt so stoked that you’ve decided to start drinking at midday, with no real thought as to how much water you’re drinking, or what you’ve eaten, and before you know it you’re waking up the next day with no real memory of the event which you’d be so looking forward to? Yup, same here.
If you’ve connected with anything I’ve said here, then you need to do some re-mapping of your brain before you can expect to successfully moderate your drinking, without accidentally ending up on a two-day bender or finishing those two bottles of wine by yourself. Self-restraint alone only works for so long once alcohol is in the picture. I’m sorry to say it, but taking a couple of months off drinking may not give you the tools you need to change your mindset.
Firstly, figure out what your internal triggers are. Are you an emotional drinker? Is there something lurking in your past that you need to talk about? Do you need to do a little work on your confidence? Are you unhappy? Are you over-excitable? Are you just a bit bored? Character and emotional work is tough but book an appointment with a therapist, talk to a friend, do some research online, take a Club Soda course and step away from drinking whilst you figure it out.
The rules of moderate drinking
Once you’ve put the time in and have decided you’d like to moderate your drinking, these rules should help you stay on track:
- Be honest with yourself. This is much harder than it sounds because we all lie to ourselves on a regular basis and then we lie to ourselves about the fact that we’re lying to ourselves. Even procrastination is a form of this. We slightly adjust the truth to enable ourselves to make decisions that we might not be fully comfortable with or what we understand to be slightly rebellious and not entirely logical. This includes being honest with yourself about whether you can actually moderate what you drink. Some people never can, others need to take a long time out before they can even think about it.
- Identify with what drinks you can and cannot drink. This has been a huge factor in my success and yes, I’ve messed it up sometimes, but that’s something you have to be prepared to experience and ultimately learn from. Some people find that drinks counting alone works for them – I, however, think that the what as well as the how many, is crucial. I cannot drink wine, I could happily have three 5% beers and feel completely comfortable, but give me three glasses of wine and I hit the danger zone. The most obvious reason for this is the strength and length of the drink – a pint of 5% ABV beer is a sessionable drink so we have the time to process the alcohol content, a 125ml glass of 12% ABV wine is short and strong which speeds everything up, including the biological effect on the body.
- Know your limit. Once you’ve figured out your safe drinks, know how many you can drink in order to remain comfortable.
- Don’t revert back to old patterns of behaviour. One of the easiest ways this happens is when you continue to view Friday nights as your drinking time. Mix it up. Go to the pub with your mates on Friday but don’t drink. Go for a couple of beers on Sunday instead. Challenge your old behaviours constantly.
- Start drinking later. This is the part which makes moderation a little more tough because once you’ve started, it can be hard to stop. The above calculations and mindfulness will help with this, but if you’ve got a long day or event ahead, then you’ll need to start later than those around you or stick to low alcohol options.
- EAT and DRINK WATER. Everyone should do this anyway because it’s so much better for your body. If you’re setting out to get drunk, you’ll feel so much better the next day for taking the time to eat and drink water throughout the session. We booze when we’re actually hungry and thirsty, so fulfill that desire properly before you drink and then it should be a nicer experience and your body will process the alcohol content more efficiently.
- Watch out for your mood – if you’ve had a bad day, avoid it. If you’re hormonal, avoid it. If you’re upset, tired or similar then either avoid it or be very cautious.
- Don’t give up if you screw up. As I touched on above, be prepared to get it wrong because, particularly if you’ve had a long time away from drinking, you will be affected in different ways by different drinks and you’ll require a lot less alcohol for it to have an effect. Learn from it.
So, I guess the key message here is – moderating your alcohol intake is a really brilliant way of leading a more mindful way of life and it absolutely can be successful if it’s right for you and you do it the right way. I never thought I would be able to do this successfully – but it’s not easy. Respect the process, don’t cut corners and if you’re unsure if you can do it, don’t try. Take a time out, re-evaluate, ask for advice and make rational, well thought-through decisions about your next steps.
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