Can You Drink in Moderation while in Recovery?
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Most people in early recovery ask themselves a similar question: can I ever return to moderate drinking? What if alcohol wasn’t my drug of choice? In most cases, attempting to return to controlled drinking is dangerous, but is it necessary to stop drinking forever?

Understanding Addiction

To understand why moderate drinking is typically out of reach for most people in recovery, it’s essential to recognize how a substance use disorder can change people’s brains, thoughts, and behaviors.

Every addictive substance causes lasting brain changes. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) researchers examined brain scans of people with various substance use disorders. They found a similar pattern of structural changes that were directly correlated with addiction.1

Most of these brain changes occur in the mesolimbic system — the region commonly referred to as the brain’s “reward network.” People who use addictive drugs, such as alcohol, opioids, and stimulants, become accustomed to high amounts of dopamine that are released in response to substance use. The brain’s structure changes to accommodate.

In most cases, these changes will reverse, given enough time in sobriety. But brain structures have a memory of their own, and most people who are diagnosed with a substance use disorder show addictive patterns of behavior if they ever return to substance use, even if they’ve been sober for years.

The Similarity Between Alcohol Use Disorder and Substance Use Disorders

What if alcohol was never your problem and you never had difficulty with moderate drinking in the past? People with opioid use disorders and those who struggle with cocaine or methamphetamine use often use the reasoning that they never had an alcohol addiction, so moderate drinking may be okay for them.

Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Drinking alcohol while recovering from a substance use disorder puts you in a high-risk situation for relapse. Since all addictive substances release large amounts of dopamine, even moderate drinking can trigger old patterns of addictive behavior.

For some people, this can result in switching addictions. A person who struggled with opioid use in the past may suddenly find that they are drinking too much, too frequently. They may begin to show all the hallmark signs of an alcohol use disorder.

For others, moderate drinking provides a pathway back to the drug they used to take. The dopamine released from alcohol use can trigger a return to their drug of choice. This is complicated further by the fact that alcohol can lower your inhibitions and affect your ability to make rational and healthy choices.

Decision Points

Another reason that total abstinence is the primary model for addiction recovery because it simplifies the decision-making process during abstinence. When someone commits to a 12-Step program or another model of recovery that requires abstinence from all mind- or mood-altering substances, they only face a single decision when presented with an opportunity for drug or alcohol use.

Consider two people in recovery: one chooses total abstinence, while another thinks that moderate drinking is okay. If someone were to ask if they wanted a drink, they both would face a decision in their recovery. The abstinent person can simply respond “no,” and their decision-making process is over.

The person attempting moderate drinking has several other decisions to make:

  • How many drinks can I have and still be in recovery?
  • I drank the last two days — is it okay if I drink again today?
  • At what point does moderate drinking become an addiction to alcohol?

It can be difficult for people who attempt moderate drinking to maintain a standard in recovery. One drink can quickly lead to several drinks, leading to future drug use. People may ask themselves, “What’s the difference between using alcohol and using marijuana?”

As oversimplified as it may seem, many people who have found themselves in this situation find that moderate drinking quickly becomes a slippery slope. They move the goalposts for their recovery further and further until they eventually realize that they are engaging in the same addictive behaviors that caused them to seek recovery in the first place.

Risks of Moderate Drinking

Ultimately, the main reason that moderate drinking doesn’t work for most people is that it carries such a heavy risk. While some rare few may be able to return to controlled drinking without problems, most others find that it leads back to addiction.

As anyone who has lived with a substance use disorder can confirm, risking returning to the host of negative physical and mental health consequences of addiction isn’t worth it. Maintaining your abstinence and finding healthier ways of enjoying life in recovery is much easier.

Start Treatment at an Alcohol Recovery Center

Our drug and alcohol recovery center has all the tools you need to achieve a lasting and thriving recovery. We can help you find other ways to enjoy life without returning to moderate drinking.

Recovering from addiction is never easy, but it is possible. With evidence-based treatment methods, compassionate support, and a team of addiction experts, Wolf Creek Recovery can help you through this challenging process. Reach out to our team to start your path to recovery today.