Moderation Management: One Recovery Option

moderation management

Moderation Management: a stripped-down AA?

One of the reasons recovery from drinking throws such a fright into people is that when many people think of abstinence, they think of just that: giving up cold turkey.  It’s not a fun hobby, that’s for sure.  But there are other ways of doing things.  Today we’ll discuss moderation management, a form of recovering from alcohol without going cold turkey.

Moderation Management—with the details to follow–just the idea of drinking in moderation while trying to quit.  You drink less and less and either stop altogether, or keep drinking as a social drinker, no longer having a problem, yet not being dry with all the baggage that implies.

Candidates for Moderation Management are people with moderate problems.  These are folks who function on a high level, have minimum emotional issues, minimum conflicts with friends and lovers, and the confidence to not go through a program such as AA.

To learn more, let’s gander at an article called “Life Stories of Moderation Management Mutual Help Group Members,” published in 2000.  The authors, Elena Klaw and Keith Humphreys clarify, “MM differs from AA in conceptualizing alcohol abuse as a learned behavior and drawing concepts and techniques from the scientific literature on cognitive-behavioral interventions.”  It feels that people are too quickly or commonly labeled alcoholics.  It’s all about the behavior of drinking itself more than the larger emotional issues.

I kind of think of MM as a stripped-down version of AA. It’s not a free-for-all and it’s not the absence of a program.  It does offer support and education, it’s just more about moderation than abstinence.  There are offices devoted to MM, with face-to-face work, and online listservs.

What’s interesting about the article is that it includes a lot of life stories.  Yes, there have been developments in MM since 2000, with many new opinions out there about it, but none of that discredits stories from participants.

I’m not here to say bad things about AA, since, indeed, I did go through the program.  But I’m here to educate my amigos.  I don’t want for you to necessarily go through AA just because I did.  I want you to do what works for you, and what works is what works.  So if some of these discussions of MM sound like a dissing of AA, that is unintentional.  It’s just about giving you information for comparison.

One story included in the article has to do with the perception some people have that AA is a little harsh.  One person relates:

“AA will make you feel guilty about reading alternative solutions.  [When I first saw the MM handbook], yeah, I’m buying the AA line all the way.  This is just denial, there is no way a person can change his drinking behavior.  You either is or you isn’t, and you is…Well, that’s what they tell you in AA…I thought “this is scary” because now it’s a real conflict with everything I’ve been doing for the previous 2 and a quarter years, which is getting brainwashed by AA.”

Here’s a 44-year-old male’s AA experience:

“I was uncomfortable with the being around a lot of really sick people.  And I think that happened in just about any program…It tended to depress me on one hand and on another hand, um, it made me feel more flawed… And I had been doing a lot of reading also about cognitive therapy. I thought, boy, here I am, every day saying to myself ‘My name is ____ and I’m an alcoholic.’  And that’s about the most detrimental kind of affirmation I think you can make for yourself every day.”


This person is describing a tenet of cognitive behavioral theory, that it’s important to alter one’s behavior, and then become that behavior.  His fear was that telling himself all the time how much of an alcoholic he was would only keep him one.  This is a criticism some people have of AA, a web of negativity.  Some people think that it is designed to foster dependence on AA.

At some point, AA got this reputation as being for conformists.  At the very least, a lot of people who are educated, sharp critical thinkers, etc., shy away from what they consider to be clichés and other types of soft thought fostered by AA.

As we’ve established, MM is a bit less structured.  It also subscribes to a psychological construct, while AA has very real religious overtones.

Klaw and Humphreys say that, by contrast, people who work with MM “described themselves as individuals who value personal insight and authority over one’s life.”

One member describes the kind of person who makes a good MM participant:

“I feel it needs to be somebody who’s mature enough to take responsibility for their own behavior.  And it has to be somebody who doesn’t need absolutes.  And somebody who is more thoughtful and is willing to sort of kind of combat the system…”

These are all things to strongly consider.

So, say you’re interested in going forth with it.  Do you want to put yourself through an improvised moderation treatment or do you want to do something organized?  If you want to have the help of like-minded people there are ways to go.  You’ll probably start off  interacting with people online, including listservs.

In many areas of the country, you’ll have meetings that you can attend.

The first thing you’ll do when you begin is to become acquainted with the nine steps toward recovery:

  1. Attend meetings or learn online.
  2. Abstain from alcoholic beverages for 30 days.
  3. Examine the affects of drink in your life.
  4. List priorities in your life.
  5. Inventory the circumstances under which you drink.
  6. Learn MM guidelines and ways of moderation
  7. Set moderate drinking limits and start weekly “small steps”
  8. Review your progress.
  9. Make lifestyle changes

So, basically, as you start going through, you’ll begin discussing your progress with your buddies and cohorts.

You’ll discuss the MM limits:

  1. Obey drinking and driving laws.
  2. Don’t drink in dangerous situations.
  3. Don’t drink every day.
  4. Don’t have more than 4 drinks per day (3 for women)

How this adds up to an absence of absolutes is hard to say, but at any rate, you’d get going with these guidelines and discuss these things.  According to one story I heard, they sometimes have Ice Cream Thursdays.

Naturally, while there are proponents of MM work, there are also naysayers.  One blogger, Kevin Giles, states:

The human brain, like a computer, sends signals back and forth via bioelectric stimuli. When we do drugs and engage in our addiction, it’s like sending a rouge signal through the brains “circuit board” overriding the signals that tell you something’s wrong. Another reason mind-altering substances and addictions are dangerous is because they can set off a chain reaction, where one drink/drug or risky behavior leads to another. Once starting, it’s hard to stop. For most addicts, stopping is impossible so the solution, plain and simple, is to never start. That is why Moderation Management is not for all.

I myself went the route of cold turkey, going to AA for about a year.  Elsewhere, you can see my comments on taking charge of one’s own recovery.  After three years or so, I took a drink every great once in a while.  I haven’t had one in a year, and I’ve never had more than one at once.  I never felt much temptation when I had a single glass of wine or champagne.  I was nervous, but I mostly thought of it as something I was doing that was foreign and odd.

As always, the choice is yours.  Educate yourself, and if you try something and it doesn’t work, swiftly move on to something else, and do so with a plan for success.
Photo Credit Jo Santos on Flickr