smart sinners

One reason I decided to try Moderation Management instead of one of the other programs out there was that I hoped it would give me more tools to deal with “lapses” like last Saturday. At the very least, I hoped it would provide a way to contextualize mistakes so that I could continue making progress toward my goal of drastically changing my drinking habits.

For many abstinence-based programs, a day of drinking (or even a single drink) is a relapse. “Relapse” connotes a very serious issue, and a substantial loss of ground; in many programs, if you relapse, you are told you must start over from day one. It is as if there is a sobriety meter which will spin all the way back to zero if you have just a single drink.

That approach makes no sense to me. More than that, I know that those kinds of perfection-based programs work very badly for me. For me, knowing that I could have to start again from day one would be enough to make sure I’d never make it through a day three. For better or worse, I’m a person who needs a little more flexibility, more room to breathe and err, in any serious endeavor.

Moreover, the image of the sobriety meter spinning back to zero makes my head hurt. If I vow today to stop drinking forever, I have not magically wiped out the thousands of days that I have spent drinking to excess. Those days still exist, and I carry the very real cost of them in my body and life. Likewise, if I have a drink today, I do not wipe out the dozens of days of healthy habits that I have recently accumulated.

In Moderation Management, people make mistakes. We drink when we didn’t mean to, or exceed the amount we’d planned on. These are lapses, mistakes, slip-ups, or blips. They aren’t what we’d planned or hoped for, but at the same time, we’re all only human. Human beings are prone to error, especially when it comes to error-inducing-substances like alcohol.

I recently read an article about weight loss, which listed successful strategies with (not coincidentally) many similarities to the MM model. In the article, weight loss specialists describe perfectionism as a problem that overcomes many people. Apparently, the tendency to try to get your diet & exercise habits completely perfect, and to give up as soon as you slip, is common (and here I thought it was just me…). Describing this problem, Dr. Lawrence Cheskin, director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center, said this: “You don’t need to be a saint; you need to be a smart sinner.”

That’s the approach I’m after. One where I can make mistakes, or purposefully stray, just enough to keep good habits sustainable. One that celebrates my ability to be smart, creative, and sometimes just a bit naughty, while still giving me tools to make significant changes over time. One that allows me to be human.

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