I don’t want 3 or 4 beers, I want 6 or 8.
It's good to be honest about this. Some of our baseline desires may not match up with MM guidelines, especially at first.
If our drinking pattern has included getting bombed for a weekend at a time, drinking 6-8 during a long evening may be a big step forward -- terrific harm reduction. Or, if our pattern includes 6-8 drinks most days and more on weekends, learning to cut back during the week and have 6-8 once or twice over the weekend is another example of reducing harm. These are great steps to take, particularly in our early work with MM.
Longer-term, it's smart to pay attention to our ambivalence about quantities. What appeals to us about drinking 6-8, and what sorts of consequences bother us?
Over time, our desires sometimes change of their own accord. We grow to enjoy abstinent days and notice that even mild morning-after effects of non-abs days have become irksome. Abstaining for 30 days or longer temporarily decreases our tolerance, making higher, formerly average, amounts too much. Surprisingly simple gifts emerge from having having 1- or 2-drink evenings.
To be effective, goals need to be examined and revised periodically anyway. If our initial goals don't fit MM's guidelines precisely but reduce our drinking, let's go for it!
Reduce harm now, fine-tune later.
My family is pressuring me. What can I tell them?
It's often helpful to keep it simple, sharing things like:
I agree that my behavior needs to change.
Thanks for your love and concern.
I'm taking responsibility for my behavior and for changing it.
I don't expect to fix this instantly, but I'm committed to long-term change.
Would you like to see my chart? I've increased my non-drinking days and decreased my weekly drink counts!
What are your specific concerns? Are there family needs I'm neglecting or could meet more effectively?
Telling myself "I can’t drink today" makes me want it more.
As drinkers, we understand the pros and cons of drinking (it feels good vs. it causes problems). We often understand the pros and cons of abstaining (clear-headed mornings vs. feeling left out at parties). When we push ourselves in the direction of not drinking, our ambivalent brains remind us of the other side of the balance -- the positive, fun aspects of drinking and negatives of abstaining.
So, recognizing that this is normal, we can look for ways to tip the ambivalence scale in a different direction.
We've generally cognizant of the consequences of our drinking, but might have only an abstract sense of the good stuff we could do with an alcohol-free day. Dealing with our ambivalence means we need to to dig into that question -- What might I love about abstaining for today? -- to add weight to that side of the scale.
Remember the playground teeter-totter. Muscle and intellect don't make any difference there, only weight. To shift our ambivalence teeter-totter, we need to put substantive, weighty, personal motivations on the abstinence-affirming side. Answering the question, "What can I do to make this day fun, full, and meaningful?" is critical.
In addition to dealing with ambivalent feelings, we'll need to build more discipline. In other aspects of our lives, we hold ourselves accountable: We get out of bed even though we'd rather sleep; we eat a varied diet even if pizza, sweets and fried foods are more attractive; we recognize sexual urges but don't act on every one. How can we increase our discipline related to drinking?
Each of us answers differently, including: Reminding ourselves that we can have a drink tomorrow instead; delaying or distracting ourselves for an hour at a time; engaging in a fun, relaxing activity; indulging in a less-harmful vice like ice cream or a movie.
If our ambivalence teeter-totter is off-balance and we've let our self-discipline slide related to drinking, fresh thinking, pumped up muscle and lots of practice will be required to ease our life back into balance.
Abstaining feels edgy, awful, sleep-disturbed, anxious. Is this normal?
As we eased up on our drinking, some of us found that we had been using it to relax, to ease our way into sleep, to temporarily quiet our anxieties. It is no surprise, then, that subtracting alcohol from our routine shakes things up in the first days of abstaining.
Early experiences with abstaining may feel artificial or uncomfortable. During our first 30, though, most of us found that the discomforts eased tremendously within the first week. It has helped us to find comforting foods, relaxing activities, tension-easing teas, and whatever typically adds to our sense of peace.
Note that we're not talking about intensive withdrawal symptoms (delerium tremens, hallucinations, vomiting, seizures) here. Withdrawal is a life-threatening medical condition which requires medical care.
My slip-ups and failures prove I need to be harder on myself, punish myself more, right?
When things aren't going as well as we'd like, we're better off asking questions than casting blame.
Am I expecting too much too soon? Biting off more than I can chew just yet?
Have I identified enough of my triggers? Stopped to devise alternate responses to them?
What sort of ambivalence is playing into my circumstances? How can I resolve it or learn to live with it more effectively?
What smaller steps can I take that will continue moving me toward my goal?
Do my slip-ups reflect my inner 2-year-old being defiant, and how can I let the 2-year-old out to play without being destructive?
Am I the sort of person who responds better to tough consequences or gentler coaching? How can I give myself what I need to prevent the problems?
I’m so frustrated because I am in failure mode. I just keep drinking despite my resolve not to.
First, when we look at our charts, have we made some progress, but just not enough to suit us? It's crucial that we take stock honestly and take credit for the progress we've made. If the current path is moving us in the right direction, simple perseverance is likely to keep us on track.
Perhaps it's time to shift our focus. If we're not getting a couple of abstinent days in each week, that's a great place to start instead of trying to force ourselves through 30 days of abs. If the abs days are difficult to achieve, we might be better suited to reducing harm by drinking later, slower, lighter, with food, or interspersed with water or non-alcoholic treats.
It's also smart to remind ourselves that MM is not professional medical, psychological, or spiritual care. Recurrent failures and slip-ups sometimes point us to a need to get the care we need from experts. For example, new uses for Naltrexone and other drugs are helping people to reduce their cravings for alcohol, but we'll need to work with our physician to determine if it is appropriate in our case.
Change can be exceedingly difficult to achieve with insufficient support, and sometimes even a brief tune-up visit with an expert can make a big difference.
If the slip-ups are big ones (drinking & driving, or other means of causing harm to others), is it time to escalate our response to the problem by getting more intensive help or pursuing long-term abstinence?
The back-and-forth, progress-and-setbacks aspect of behavior change is normal. Taking stock of our progress and setbacks helps us to choose between persevering on our current path, making adjustments, and changing course.
I’m worried about "freshman euphoria". This seems too easy!
It's a fun "problem" to have, eh?
After a bit of initial edginess, some of us find that doing 30 days of abstinence is easier than our prior attempts to moderate had been. We find clarity and peace in being alcohol-free. We rediscover talents and hobbies that had fallen to the wayside.
The energy burst doesn't last forever, but it gives us a flavor of what we stand to gain by changing our drinking habits.
We need to use this time productively. What are we learning about ourselves? What steps have been necessary to make this work, and how can we employ them again later while moderating?
I feel deprived when I'm not drinking.
As we change our habits, we often begin to think of a non-drinking day as something positive that we do instead of something we deprive ourselves of. One of us, finding the word "sober" to be overly serious and somber, came up with "DAFT" -- Delightfully Alcohol-Free Today -- instead.
Over time, we take note of feeling lighter, freer, more at peace with our alcohol-free days. We learn to indulge our silly, goofy, uninhibited sides while not drinking. In the process, we can also gain a fresh appreciation for enjoying our favorite beverages (alcoholic or not) with friends and good food.
Can I just do a 30 and be done with it?
Creating long-term, stable behavior change tends to be an ongoing process instead of a one-time event.
Doing 30 days of abstinence teaches us plenty, but it is not a magic bullet. At its best, the 30 opens our eyes, adds new tools to our toolchest, helps us build our commitment to moderating, and enhances the muscle behind our willpower.
But, moderating remains a different, initially more perplexing, task than abstaining. We need to use the 30 without letting it lull us into complacency about the challenges we face afterward.
How long does it take to really moderate?
Some of us find that significant changes are within reach during our first 3-6 months. The significant change includes, at minimum, substantially increased awareness and reduced harm, and sometimes relatively stable moderation within MM guidelines.
For others, the first 3-6 months have brought us more awareness than progress. For some that is enough time to determine that abstaining is more workable than moderating, and move on to AA or another abstinence-based approach.
Among long-term MM participants, it's not unusual that consistently stable moderation was reached in the 1- to 2-year time frame. Steady improvements and occasional breakthroughs happened during that time, with slip-ups and volatility being much less common since then.
It's not unusal for moderating to proceed like weight loss -- significant steps forward for a while and occasional plateaus, with periodic tune-ups needed after stabilizing at the goal.
I?ve hit a plateau -- a bit of progress made, but not enough, and I’m feeling stuck -- what now?
Remember that a plateau, while frustrating to us in light of our goal, can represent solid harm prevention. We've traded nonproductive or harmful behavior for harm reduction and better consistency. Normal life includes phases when the best we can do is be stable and prevent a decline.
Sometimes our plateaus occur when we're butting up against strongholds within our ambivalence. We're poised and ready to change a behavior, and yet not quite ready to trade familiar aspects of the old behavior for the unknown of the new. This is prime time for reflection, a perfect opportunity to explore where we're at and where we'd like to go.
We can ask ourselves, "What if I'm not ready to push forward right now?" just like many of us asked when we started with MM
We might uncover good reasons for the plateau as well as ideas for breaking free from it.
In the midst of our pause, being gentle with ourselves can be more helpful than pushing. Gradually we're likely to find simple steps worth taking again to break free, continuing on the path to our goals.
Moderation: A result? An event?
Much like keeping a healthy lifestyle (and much to our chagrin!), moderation is no simple result.
Healthy diabetic folks learn to integrate checking their blood sugar, planning their diet, medication and insulin. Ideally, it becomes a natural, organic part of their routine. Over time, even though they might wish for a permanent cure, the steps they take to maintain their health are a matter of consciousness and habit instead of bearing a difficult burden.
That's a pretty good model for successful moderation. It doesn't require the same intensity of medical supervision, but both require conscious, ongoing attention and stubborn determination to stick with behaviors that work.
Similarly, just like diabetics find that events beyond their control sometimes impact their health and trigger the need for a tune-up, we may find ourselves slipping into nonproductive drinking patterns and need to tune ourselves up. Doing a 30 is common in January for MM newcomers as well as old-timers because it can refocus our attention on being healthy and balanced.
Not drinking (or drinking less) feels artificial, contrived. What now?
Each of us has to figure out what to do with feeling artificially constrained.
Any behavior change is going to feel foreign from time to time, so there are times that we'll benefit from muscling our way through while sticking precisely to our target.
It's also common for us to make mid-stream adjustments in our plans from time to time. Being responsible adults, we own the prerogative to set our own course and adjust it as we see fit.
Will I always have to be obsessed about drinking moderately?
The cost of achievement is often a need to be hyper-focused on it in the initial action phase. Star athletes, performers and corporate folk often achieve uncommon results because they spend a portion of their lives focusing on one preeminent goal.
The diligence necessary to achieve and then sustain healthy moderation is often like that -- by spending time being obsessed with it, we make a significant life change, and over time we shift to low-key means of sustaining it as an ordinary part of our lives.
A lot of folks who are successful in MM choose to graduate (phase out of active participation). They build the muscle behind their willpower and become agile in flexing it when needed. Staying on track requires consciousness but not obsessiveness because healthy habits have become ingrained.
Hence, MM's definitions include that a moderate drinker "...does not spend a lot of time thinking about drinking or planning to drink." The post-graduate version of this skill is that a moderate drinker doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about not drinking, either.
What about backsliding? Relapsing?
Imperfections are part and parcel of the human condition. There are very few areas in which we expect to achieve something perfectly without ever slipping or needing to adjust our course.
So, it's smart to recognize that we will occasionally make nonproductive choices despite our new-found wisdom.
One of our members has described these as "blips". A RADAR blip is an echo of something which existed in a given place and time. The blip may signal an impending problem when two planes are on a collision course, but some blips are just quirks, evidence of something which no longer exists.
That can also be the case when we slip up with our drinking. We indulge in old behaviors or illogical thinking even though it contradicts our goals and values. The next morning we pull ourselves up and worry, "Oh, no, does this prove I'm slipping back into my old ways?" The honest answer, frequently, is, "It was just a blip. I'm going to learn from it and get back on track now."
It is important that we learn from our blips yet not be dominated by them. If we catastrophize our setbacks, it is too easy to demean ourselves, assume that all is lost, and set a self-fulfilling prophesy in motion.
Catastrophizing is generally silly and nonproductive. One of the key tasks we all need to master in life is getting up after a tumble, dusting ourselves off, and moving forward again. Judging and blaming ourselves tends not to be helpful; encouraging and empowering ourselves, while drawing on the lessons we've already learned, can keep us moving in the direction we prefer to go.