Problem Drinking: The Help I Could Have Used

Sometimes I think about what sort of help might have shorten my years of active alcohol addiction, and what sort of help I would have accepted and found useful. I wasn’t trying to stop. I would have liked some help moderating my drinking—from someone who didn’t try to tell me to quit. Because I didn’t want to quit.

I wanted to drink like my parents who enjoyed several martini’s each night but never got drunk, and who never woke up with hangovers. That’s what I wanted when I drank, to drink without having problems. Learning about moderation would have been helpful—even if I found out I couldn’t do it. Because on my own it took years to determine and accept that I couldn’t control my drinking. With help I would have figured it out in months rather than years.

But no one offered me that kind of help, and it’s a shame because I barely survived my last years of drinking. In my last year of drinking one drunken man pounded my head into a concrete wall and bit me as I tried to escape. Another man, a Vietnam veteran trained in special forces thought he should kill me. And I could have killed someone myself, because I often drove drunk. Sometimes in a blackout. I really could have used some help.

It’s still hard for people to get the type of help they need when they need it. The USA gave birth to Bill and Bob and the 12-step abstinence movement. This movement gave rise to the belief that there are only two kinds of drinkers: alcoholics who can’t drink at all, and normal people who can drink safely. Addiction professionals now know that there is a continuum of problem drinking that ranges from experimentation and risky drinking to alcohol dependency to chronic alcohol abuse. We now know that problems with alcohol can be mild, moderate, or severe. But regardless of the nature of an individual’s drinking problems, the only solution typically offered today is abstinence.

Abstinence is not an attractive solution for most problem drinkers, so they don’t get help at all. They are left to find solutions on their own, or to drink until they “hit bottom” or die. We don’t make diabetics wait until they have a diabetic coma to get help, and we don’t make those with heart disease have a heart attack before they can get help—but that is how we treat problem drinkers. We only offer them help when we think they are ready for abstinence. We don’t offer problem drinkers the help they want. Here’s the help I would have liked.

I would have liked to been given William R. Miller’s book “Controlling Your Drinking” for my eleventh birthday. It would have gotten me off to a better start as a drinker, and if I had gotten it on my 17th birthday I would have understood why I was having multiple problems related to heavy drinking. As it was I spent years trying to figure out whether to stop between my 6th and 7th drink, or between my 4th and my 5th drink. I tried to avoid harm. I drank in gay bars to avoid being picked up by men. I didn’t mix alcohol with opiates. I learned to be mean and keep people away from me. But if I’d had a copy of Miller’s book I would have learned how to track my drinking and my blood alcohol level (BAL).

It’s a lot of work to track your drinking. And you have to do it while drinking! I might not have been able to moderate my drinking. I might have found that I couldn’t do it at all. But the point is I would have learned that sooner using Miller’s book.

By the way there good research has been done on Miller’s moderation program. In the previous year one in seven problem drinkers (15%) were able to maintain moderation by staying under 3 standard drinks per day and averaging only 10 drinks per week.  23% were able to reduce their drinking significantly to average 14 drinks per week, some still experiencing occasional alcohol-related problems. Nearly one in four (24%) had been abstinent for the previous year. Most quit either because tracking drinks and BAL was too much bother, or because they found that drinking wasn’t worth it if they couldn’t get drunk. Another 37% had continued heavy and harmful drinking.

I’ll never know if I could have stopped sooner, or learned to moderate my drinking. It’s a moot point for me since I have been continually abstinent from alcohol for 33 years. (And Miller recommends that those who are successfully abstinent stay that way.) I managed to live through 18 years of heavy and dangerous drinking, but many of my friends didn’t. I wish we all could have gotten the help we needed. So for those now struggling to manage their drinking I highly recommend Miller’s book, “Controlling Your Drinking.”

And if you need more help, hire a professional recovery life coach. They won’t tell you what to do, but they will help you sort out what will work for you. We’ve trained some really good coaches at Crossroads Recovery Coaching & Training. Get in touch if you are interested. We’ll tailor your coaching to the help you want now.