tools & strategies: moderation (very first steps)

Moderation is complicated for me to write about, because there is so much to it, and so much I am still figuring out. For this post, I’m just going to focus on a few early skills I found useful.

  • Abstinence (yes, still)
  • Not romanticizing moderation
  • Breaking new skills down into bite-sized pieces
  • Practicing stopping
  • Record-keeping

I said before that abstinence is my safety raft, and I still feel that way. Abstinence is a place to rest, a place to gather my courage, a tool to help me think without alcohol influencing my brain. But alcohol is not the only thing that plays tricks on my brain. Feeling stuck, feeling trapped, feeling like I have to be perfect…all these things trip me up. In other words, I want to be careful that I don’t feel trapped on that raft, just in case I over-react by leaping headfirst into whitewater.

Moderation helps me balance things out, helping me feel flexible enough to be comfortable. But moderation is not my reward for abstinence. Drinking is never going to be as central to my personal reward system as it used to be, and making my peace with that is obviously an ongoing process, as several posts on this blog demonstrate. Early in my moderation efforts, I didn’t think about this too much, because it was so overwhelming….I just tried to think of moderation as a real skill to learn, not a fantasy about drinking like I used to.

Learning new skills is incremental. I could stick with the swimming analogy here. When we start learning to swim, we practice achievable things like floating, getting comfortable sticking our faces underwater, and kicking. Later on, those things become instinctive and we focus on more advanced skills, because those skills have now become achievable. The things we work on should increase in complexity at a pace that matches our learning speed. Too slow, and we get bored (and give up). Too fast, and we get overwhelmed (and give up). But — and this is important — as long as we’re learning, we’re always working just as hard. Dog-paddling across the shallow end takes just as much effort as maximizing the efficiency of our breaststroke will later, they’re just two different points on the learning curve (and an efficient breast-stroke will take you further, through rougher water, but let’s leave this analogy behind for a bit).

That is great in theory. In practice, it would probably help if you at least knew how to swim before trying to teach yourself the basic skills. I had no idea how to moderate, and when I realized that, I panicked. That’s part of why my “30” lasted 45 days: I was trying to figure out what to do next, and I didn’t know where to start. I wanted to break moderation down into tiny steps, but I did not know what those steps were.

The scariest thing to me about trying moderation was that I might start drinking and never stop. After all, I had done that before. Several recovery groups claim that problem drinkers must either abstain completely or fall off the wagon completely, and those messages permeate popular awareness, lodge in my brain, and form the stuff of nightmares and self-doubt. So I decided I probably needed to start by learning how to stop. I used the same tools I had already practiced for abstinence (planning, accountability, visualization, and so forth), and tried to set up situations where I could simply practice stopping.

Practicing stopping is no different from practicing having one drink (or two, or even thirty-five), except that it shifts the emphasis away from enjoying the drinks and onto sticking the landing. This shift in focus might have been a good thing for me, because the fact is, I didn’t enjoy most of my first attempts to practice stopping. It was just as hard as abstinence had felt in earlier stages. It made me frustrated and irritable, triggered urges, and sometimes seemed totally pointless. But I wasn’t trying to celebrate the drinking experience, I was celebrating the stopping. This seemed to make a difference. In fact, it seemed to work pretty well for me.

Describing all this now seems so easy. In reality, I fought my way to each moment of illumination. For most of my first month of attempting moderation, I mostly felt impatience, confusion, and like I was just faking it. I did not feel like I had anything figured out, and every experiment with moderation made me feel like I was in immediate danger of getting sucked down by an undertow. What made it all come together was that I kept records. I counted every drink on Abstar, and filled in every little zero for the days when I abstained. I counted up my successes too, to keep up the habit of providing myself with as much timely reinforcement as possible.

I say that practicing the skill of stopping seemed to work. But it never felt like it was working. I just counted up my drinks, and started to realize that, empirically, this was a skill I was accomplishing more often than not. And if it wasn’t, I could recognize that and “re-set the challenge,” picking an easier situation to try to practice the same skill until I got better at it. It was rough, imperfect, and fundamentally unsatisfying.

It was a pretty decent start.

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