Moderate Drinking Book cover with stylized image of sun and snowflake

Compassion and Resilience

Moderate Drinking book cover with stylized sun and snowflake

Just one story from Moderate Drinking Success Stories and Lessons Learned: Tales From the MM Community and Beyond.

Before I found Moderation Management all I knew about getting help for my problem drinking was abstinence only programs, and that scared the bjeezus out of me. If I tried one of those and failed (i.e. had one drink), then there was no hope for me. “I might lose everything including my family, my health and even my life, but I’m too scared to try something in case I fail.” Pretty flawed logic, I know. That middle of the night, heart pounding, head aching, nausea rising, hands shaking, anxiety spiraling out of control thinking is not always rational.

In the middle of one of those nights though, I somehow stumbled upon Moderation Management, and my life has been forever changed. That night I bumbled my way through the website and finally found the listserv. There I read posts from people who were facing exactly the same awful, hideous, shameful problem I faced, and they were cracking jokes, making up songs, holding virtual hands, freewheeling through days of abstaining and weeks of moderation like it was some gigantic carnival game. They were also weeping on each other’s shoulder, offering words of encouragement, and whispering little pearls of grace. When someone drank when they didn’t plan to, or drank too much, they were wrapped in virtual warm hugs, held tight for support, and reminded that today is brand new. These kind people were practicing what I now recognize as compassion. Pema Chodron teaches us that, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

Compassion. That’s the first thing I learned at MM. And you want to know how I learned about compassion? It’s actually a three-step process that constantly repeats. Step one was when I wrote my first post introducing myself and sharing my dark secret, I was greeted with open arms and warm hearts. There was common understanding, shared experience, and grace. I didn’t need to be perfect. I didn’t need to conquer my problem in one day or one week or even in one year. I didn’t have to do it the way someone else prescribed. I got to take steps in my time and in any direction I chose, and no one judged me. If I strayed off my intended path, I was welcomed back with those same open hearts. I was redeemed through compassion. The next thing you know (okay, actually a few weeks later) I was the one welcoming a newbie, telling her that she was in the right place, that she was going to be doing some hard work, and that she would be fine. She wasn’t a screw up; she made a misstep. She was a good and valuable human being with all the messiness that entails. That was step two. The third step took a few months. You know those horrible, monstrous things you say to yourself in the middle of the night after too much alcohol? That’s called Negative Self Talk (NST). That was pretty much an every night occurrence for me. But after I’d been at MM for a few months, I realized that I wasn’t engaging in that disgusting NST any more! What?!? Seems I had learned to offer compassion for myself by feeling it first for others. I mean, I had the same ghastly problem they had, and they were amazing, wise, kind, funny, smart human beings, so…I must be too! Wow! How cool is that?

The second thing I learned at MM was about resilience. There is a quote that is often attributed to Winston Churchill (who said something similar) but was first actually written, ironically, in a 1938 Anheuser-Busch ad, “…They found contentment in the thrill of action, knowing that success was never final and failure never fatal. It was courage that counted.Boy howdy, does that pertain to my journey at MM.

I remember the first time I literally white knuckled my way through a single night of abstaining. It was brutal, and at the time all I could thing of was how messed up I was that I couldn’t get through one night without alcohol. But the next day…ta da! Look at me! I did it! I set a goal and I succeeded! What a feeling! Then I did it again! Woot! Then I…didn’t do it again. I was going to abstain that night, but instead I drank. And I drank too much. I had failed. But when I shared my “failure” on the listserv the reaction was, of course, compassion. Yeah, I didn’t do what I had planned to do. But today I could make a new plan, bolstered by some tips and tricks from some old timers, plus what I had learned from the previous day, and voila! I had another opportunity to succeed. I could focus on that “failure” and let it pull me down, or I could focus on my previous success and move forward. Resilience.

Through my years here at MM I have cut my drinking from about 35 per week to about 9-12 per week. The 12 is a little higher than I want it to be, and I’m working on that. Abstaining days are, in general, a lot easier than when I first started. Moderate drinking days are usually that: moderate. Sometimes I fall short of my goal, whether it is for one day or one week, and sometimes I exceed my goal. Some days are harder, some days are easier. But on the whole, when I look at where I started and where I am today, it’s nothing short of a miracle. Am I successful? In my book, that’s a big loud Yes!

By, Horse Lover, MM Member

a hand holding a bar bell weight

Moderation Muscles

My quest for new and better coping mechanisms to replace my drinking has led me to taking up regular exercise. It’s known to be mood-altering, so much so, that it’s one of the few proven treatments for anxiety and depression. I can’t help but see some similarity in my workouts and my moderation.

Modern exercise is based on the principles of progressive resistance. We each have our own blend of genetic gifts and challenges, our experience (or hilarious lack thereof), and other factors that affect our strength and skill in sports. To improve, we need to give ourselves challenges that we can adapt to and overcome. There’s a few handy tidbits of proven knowledge we can apply to drinking:

  1. We have to tailor our initial plan to be realistic of our current capabilities.
    A beginner weightlifter will not benefit from the 40 hour/week training program of an experienced lifter. In fact, they will probably just hurt themselves.

Being realistic about our starting place and making a program that takes it into account is a key to success. In drinking, I threw myself into abstaining several times before I realized that I needed to build my readiness to take on the challenge. I had to taper how much I was drinking, if only to prove to myself that yes, I did have some kind of control over my drinking. I succeeded at my first 30 days sober, but went right back to my old habits. I needed to make more internal preparations to be successful – specifically, I had to deal with my anxiety and come up with ways to handle it instead of drinking. The result was that I white-knuckled my way through the second one, and my new habits stuck. A couple of years of therapy later, I now complete my 30 days sober every January (as part of Dryuary) without much effort, it’s just a check-in for how I’m doing with my drinking habits and a chance to re-set my tolerance and keep myself honest. Same 30 days. Different preparation and different results each time.

  1. We adapt the fastest to the smallest incremental challenge.
    Taking on overwhelming challenges can lead to spectacular failure. In the gym, we respond best by adaptation to new stimuli, and it’s easiest to respond to smaller changes than large ones. For example, if you can lift a 100 pound weight and you want to lift 120 pounds, you might add 1 pound each week so force your muscles to adapt.  You’ll add that pound 20 times to get there, and at times that may seem painfully slow. If you’re patient and consistent though, you will be able to lift weights you couldn’t handle mere months before. But here’s the kicker – if you make no progress though – add half a pound. Smaller changes are less stressful, and sometimes are within our adaptation limits where larger changes lead us to failure.

Now, that’s not an invitation to never push yourself, but to be realistic about partial successes and keep trying for small improvements. If you feel like you can’t make progress at, say, limiting your drinking in how many nights a week you drink, consider some interim goals that are more modest. Or try switching to focus on how much you drink instead of how often. Alternately, if you have an overly complicated plan that you can’t keep, a single simple rule can be the easiest change to make – yes, even if that rule is ‘no drinking for 30 days.’ What’s easiest is going to depend on where you’re starting from, and it will vary for everyone.

  1. Progressive resistance is how you keep making progress.
    When you reach your goal, celebrate your successes and keep slowly progressing forward. Things that you maybe thought impossible at one point can come into focus later on, and you suddenly see them as new goals. Don’t limit yourself! Exercise is very well-studied and you have consistent advice to follow, which is sometimes missing when it comes to moderation. For myself, the same principles apply, namely – when I’ve done something consistently, over a long time, and it’s starting to feel easy I can confidently move the goalposts a bit and test new limits. Knowing this has helped me accept certain limits along the way, like never having certain kinds of alcohol that were linked to almost all my over-drinking, and has also opened me up to the prospect of abstaining permanently to improve my health. Both of those possibilities seemed out of reach when I began, but I can examine them now with greater confidence. I also know the pace of these slow, incremental changes, and know that if I take on too much, I can roll back a bit and resume my existing habits without fear of a major collapse in my moderation.


By, Jonathan M. Langley (First published on the MM Public Hu; April 4, 2017)

30 Days Sober: a companion guide to taking a break from alcohol

Re-think Your Drinking: 5 Practical Tips To Cut Back On Alcohol

New York Times lists MM as a source of online help during the pandemic

A recent New York Times article lists Moderation Management as a source of online help during the pandemic.

Please click here to read the article.