Moderation felt really bad when I first tried it. This was a shock to me, because abstinence had felt amazing. My alcohol-free “30,” which lasted 45 days, filled me with euphoria. The further I got from daily drinking, the stronger and more alive I felt. Except that as my streak stretched on, the question of “what next?” started to bang in my head, and the euphoria gradually trickled away through the cracks.
People who choose permanent abstinence have at least one answer for what comes next: more abstinence. Coming to terms with that is its own challenge, but not the one I was facing. Abstinence doesn’t worry me, but “permanent” really threw me, and I knew I wanted to work on this in a way that helped me navigate my own issues with perfectionism.
So I chose to try moderation, and it did not feel easy. Of course it didn’t. If moderation were easy, I would have already been doing it. These were new skills for me, and learning anything new is hard. I don’t mean that I never enjoyed a drink during early moderation. I enjoyed several of them quite a bit, but I had to balance that feeling on a knife-edge. I felt like I was teetering on the brink of failure, but I also had no patience with my own caution. Something like calm contentment, or simple pleasure, felt like a mirage; at best, I’d catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye, as my emotions windmilled wildly through my mind.
When I tried to have a single drink, I felt like a blinding spotlight was trained on me, like everyone could see what a fraud I was. It felt artificial. I nursed resentment against people who can do this easily, so-called “natural moderators” who find it perfectly normal to have a single drink and then move on to other interests. Some of my drinks left me feeling frustrated and deprived. Moderation did not feel anything like my previous drinking habits. Or rather, it was just close enough to tease, so that a night with three drinks could feel significantly less satisfying than a night with none at all. Except that some abs nights felt terrible too — feeling like a fraud was not limited to nights when I tried a drink.
I couldn’t control my feelings, but I decided that I could control my actions. For me, moderation did not begin with feeling a certain way. Moderation began with acting a certain way, and trusting that my feelings would eventually calm down and catch up. In other words, I faked it.
My feelings did eventually catch up. Or they’ve caught up for the moment, anyway…I will probably plunge back into confusion at some point. But somewhere in late June, I shifted gears. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it happened after I decided not to drink at home anymore. I think that took a lot of internal negotiation off the table, helped by a few other tweaks I’ve been making. But I also think that a successful behavior modification program should get easier as you go. If it doesn’t, adjustments are probably warranted.
For the past month or so, moderation has felt easy. There were a couple of days when I chafed against it a bit. There have been cravings, most of them slight. But the amount of energy I’ve had to spend to make sure I stick to my plan has been truly negligible. My energy is going toward other things, and I feel calm, contented, and happy about that state of affairs. Mostly, I don’t feel like a fraud anymore. I feel like me.