Post-sobriety drinking success stories
April 17, 2008 10:28 PM   Subscribe

Are there any stories of recovering/recovered alcoholics (with more than a few years sobriety) returning to drinking without serious consequences? I'm looking for post-sobriety 'success' stories.

I've heard many, many stories of relapse and failure, spent years in AA rooms, worked the steps, etc. But I also know that the alcoholics that stick with the 12 Steps program are a bunch with an enormous selection bias, that the accounts of returning relapsers are accounts supplied by those who returned to find their addiction has been waiting for them, 'doing push-ups.' I'm also aware there's a small, but growing, AA-skeptics movement, mostly concerned with the AA insistence on a higher power, but at least partly worried about the unsubstantiated 'disease' model of alcoholism.

I haven't heard any serious challenges to these claims, and that's a little too one-sided for me. I know people who think the moon landing was faked, but even they'll agree: 'once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.' What I'm interested in are anecdotes, biographies, livejournals, groups, clinical studies, neurological evidence, and any other form of expertise that truthfully attest to three things:

1. Full-blown, addictive relationships to alcohol
2. Long-term sobriety with meaningful 'spiritual' growth or psychological maturation
3. A return to moderate drinking without 'slips' or binges
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Anecdote is not an answer, so apologies to the answer-nazis, but as a voice of support: You're right about confirmation bias.

It's a lot like religious cultism. I grew up with many people who in hindsight I would now describe as alcoholics, who quit cold for many years (without AA) and now drink in a way that strikes me as pretty risk-free (light) social drinking.... but an AA person might just say that they were not "real" alcoholics in the first place.

Also, you may be looking for your own confirmation here. Is it safe to return to drinking? I doubt it.
posted by rokusan at 10:38 PM on April 17, 2008

I'll try #2. I have 15 years continuous sobriety. March 15, 1993. I suppose that qualifies as long-term. Not all becomes roses and bluebirds immediately however. I've battled two serious bouts with depression since.

The first was immediately after getting sober. I had lost my best friend (alcohol). I didn't know what to do with myself (drinking consumed all my free time). My means of coping with life's everyday ups and downs was gone. I had to learn new tools. My counseling came from other AA members. I became invested in AA, becoming an officer of local chapters, participating in district and regional conferences. I also found that Wellbutrin helped smooth the rough spots. Eventually, after a couple years, I was able to get off the Wellbutrin and aid my own recovery by working with other alcoholics.

Fast-forward about six years to 2001 when I was laid off from my 28 year career, lost my marriage and as a result, also lost my home. What I didn't lose was my sobriety. I managed not to drink because my urge not to was stronger, showing that psychological maturation you were talking about. I remembered the carnage of the past. But, I did fall into another pit of depression. I was having to make even more changes in my life than I did when I sobered up.

In this latter case it was pure fear. Fear of the future, of the unknown, what all the significant changes in my relationships, career status and work place, and residence would mean. Back on Wellbutrin, which again helped me climb out of the hole. But the biggest help to my recovery from depression and continued sobriety was the emergence of a new "guardian angel" in my life. Someone from the Internet just introduced herself to me out of the blue.

She was wise beyond her years, compassionate and patient, and apparently intent on seeing me out of the darkness and back on track. Many, many late night telephone conversations across country helped convince me that I'd already made my amends, that it was OK to forgive myself. She advised me to look through the windshield and not the rear-view mirror. Gradually my regrets just fell by the wayside like so much debris and I once again was able to accept love, and to love myself.

When I was a youngster growing up and throughout my drinking life, I have always been agnostic toward organized religions. Through all my active years in AA, and even today I remain agnostic, but I have a spirituality that fills me. I pray every morning for help not to drink and am thankful every night when I go to sleep sober. I'm not praying to God or Yahweh or Zeus. I'm praying to what's inside me to make me just a little bit better today, to do what's good and right, and to help others.

I have a new career that I've been doing for nearly five years now. I've moved all over the southeast for that job. And my guardian angel is still my best friend and we talk for awhile every single day. I've been anti-depressant free for five years and love sobriety more than ever. My life is better than it has ever been. I am truly happy.

I will remain that way as long as I don't tempt fate and drink. I know I'm alcoholic. I have no interest whatsoever in #3.
posted by netbros at 11:14 PM on April 17, 2008 [9 favorites]

Here's a relevant clinical study. I haven't looked at it carefully enough to figure out what kind of time period it examined, but it found ~18% of previously diagnosed alcoholics to be current "low-risk" drinkers, while the same fraction was abstaining. About 50% of the group examined was still struggling to recover, and the remainder were classified as "asymptomatic risk drinkers".

For what it's worth.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:42 PM on April 17, 2008

I had a client who fits your profile. Major life problems from alcohol, binge drinking, DUIs. Spent a year in a residential "clean and sober" house. Fast forward ten or so years. He's stable, married, and drinks a glass or wine before dinner, or whatever. No problem drinking.

The above facts were a huuuge obstacle to our representing our guy. Given the dominant model, the fact that he occasionally drinks a glass of wine would certain appear to most judges and jurors as OMG he's still an addict.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 12:04 AM on April 18, 2008

Maybe it's possible. It sure isn't likely. I've been sober for 13 years and I'll never drink again, because I know I'll fall right back in the rut I was in before I quit.

It looks like you're seeking permission to start drinking again. You won't get it from me. If you are sober, stay that way. Starting to drink again is damfoolishness.
posted by Class Goat at 12:07 AM on April 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've been wracking my head to place the article I read on this a few years ago. Maybe it was in Scientific American? Anyway, the premise was that for many alcoholics, drinking was either heavily context-dependent (they drink in a particular place or with particular people) and/or they can exercise restraint in the right circumstances. The example given was of a alcoholic who visited her parents for a fortnight every year and repeatedly dried out for those two weeks, having the occasional social drink, and then returned to bingeing after leaving. This would appear to fly in the face of the disease model and AA's basic premise.

Conversely, there's a reasonable amount of evidence for a genetic basis to alcoholism and naturally "addictive" personalities. In reality, I suspect both genetic/organic and social mechanisms are active. Insisting that it's all one or all the other for everyone is a foolish simplification.
posted by outlier at 12:53 AM on April 18, 2008

As for #3, someone in my family dried out 15 years ago and recently began having social glasses of wine with dinner. It seems to be working fine for him (and he has a wife who is around enough to know if it were otherwise). The family members who saw him through his addiction and recovery process feel perfectly ok about his decision to drink socially.

The life stresors and unresolved intrapsychic conflict that this individual was experiencing when his drinking became a problem have been resolved through counseling and growth into a more mature and secure person. I believe that by eliminating those risk factors he now has a lower risk profile for problem drinking.
posted by man on the run at 4:49 AM on April 18, 2008

comment from someone who would prefer to remain anonymous.
I first entered treatment for addiction at 16 (yep, not a typo...If you think it's hard to consider the "once an addict/alcoholic, always an addict/alcoholic" thing now, imagine doing it at 16). I was clean and sober for about two years, then I started drinking again socially but abstaining from drugs (I also stopped going to meetings when I started drinking again). I was clean (but not sober) for an additional two years. Then I started drinking more, both in frequency and quantity. Then I started using drugs again when I was drunk. Then I started using when I wasn't drunk. Then I ODed, went to the emergency room, and once I got out started going to meetings again.

My situation is a little bit different cause booze was never really my thing and during my years of "normal" (for a high school/college student) drinking I never felt like my drinking in and of itself was a problem--but I'm a "drug addict", not an "alcoholic". I never drank by myself or in the morning or hid it from anyone or anything like that. But I (like 99% of addicts I've met) drink and drug to self-medicate, so when my depression and anxiety started getting worse and the psych meds and therapy weren't helping and everything was just turning to absolute shit in my life, my first instict was to drink, to get high. Drinking or drugging during times of crisis, as I'm sure you know, is like throwing fuel on a fire, so things just continued to get worse, and I just used more to try and escape from everything. Obviously I can't say for sure, but--and as much as I hate Nancy Reagan-esque "gateway drug" scapegoating bullshit--if I wasn't already drinking during this time, I probably wouldn't have started with the drugs again so quickly.

For someone who's an alcoholic and has abused alcohol in the past, I'd imagine that establishing a pattern of even moderate drinking will only make it that much easier to turn to abusing alcohol when life gets tough (certainly once I started using drugs again, it spiraled very, very quickly from "social use" to "abuse," though I guess you could argue that alcohol and hard drugs don't really have the same level of acceptability for moderate use in polite company). Are there people who can go from alcoholic or addict to normal drinker/user and never deal with addiction for the rest of their lives? Probably somewhere out there, but I'm not one of them. For two years I thought I was out of the woods, but I realize now that this impulse to binge or to get high will probably never completely go away, and I can never have the same kind of relationship with psychoactive substances that other people can have.

So once an addict, always an addict? In my case, probably yeah. Oher people my age can probably do hard drugs once in a blue moon and not worry about it too much--I am not one of those people. But do I think of my addiction as a "disease" in and of itself? Not really--I see it as a response to depression and anxiety, like the tip of an iceberg. You have to deal with the addiction piece before you can deal with what's underneath. I wouldn't call myself an AA (or NA, in my case) skeptic (I don't have a problem with higher power stuff), but I don't buy into everything. It does keep me clean/sober, though, so I keep going back.
posted by jessamyn at 6:02 AM on April 18, 2008

My father was an alcoholic in addition to doing every drug under the sun for years. He turned himself into rehab when I was pretty young. I can't remember exactly when. I have difficulty remembering a lot of specifics about my life before I was a teenager, but that's a different story.

I don't think he ever got completely "clean" outside of the time he spent in rehab. Maybe for a while, but I know for the last 7+ years of his life he regularly smoked marijuana, and was able to have a beer with pizza or mexican food and never more than 2. He was able to allow my brother to keep beer and alcohol in the house without getting into it. He did lie to me about the pot smoking when I was younger(around 7th grade or so), and I believed him. While we never had another discussion about it, when I got older he would openly smoke in front of me.

He died in 2004, at the age of 51, of heart failure(congestive, specifically). I don't know if the abuse he put his body through when he was younger was the actual cause, but I know it didn't help anything. My family doesn't have a history of heart problems.
posted by owtytrof at 6:49 AM on April 18, 2008

In the past twenty years the court system, the mental health system and the general health system have all embraced recovery groups like AA and NA as the recommended maintenance route for people with drugs and alcohol problems. That period of change is often lamented by recovery old timers as the point when groups became "watered down," or burdened by an increasingly large number of people who may have had an episode of drug or alcohol abuse in their lives but weren't necessarily lifer drunks and dopers who without some recourse to long-term support would likely drink or drug themselves to death. Personally (this is simply an opinion), I think there are plenty of people in recovery who if they opted to do so could return to successful drinking, probably because they never really developed a full blown physical dependence on the substance in the first place. Their use was interrupted somewhere on the route to chronic and at that point they were either recommended or remanded to recovery, which helped them to stabilize their lives and resolve whatever conflict lead to their episode of substance abuse. However, for someone like me who went to detox shouldering a $400 a day drug habit that had developed slowly but steadily over a number of years, worsening despite whether the emotional, financial or other personal factors were going good or bad, it's probably not likely that recreational use is in the cards and its honestly not something I feel is worth the risk of returning to the grinding agony and excruciating pain of chronic addiction.

So, it boils down to each individual making that decision about who they are, what their needs are, what their drinking and/or drug use was about. If you're confident that you were recommended to recovery as an addendum to other social/emotional problems that were really the primary motivator for a periodic episode of abuse, than by all means, try having a glass of wine. Of course, everyone in recovery whose been around long enough knows plenty of people who drank again successfully or didn't drink but decided to smoke weed regularly and haven't faced any real negative impact on their life quality. Were those people actually drug addicts or alcoholics in the first place? That's a different argument that really isn't germane to the question at hand, but is perhaps worth considering along with it.

The anecdotes go the other way, as well, of course. I have a friend who still corresponds with an old recovery buddy who on his first night out on a relapse after fifteen years sober blacked out and ran a woman down in his car. He's been locked up for ten years now, he'll get out in I think about four more. It's safe to say he regrets the decision to try having the occasional glass of wine.

Personally, I love the life I have since I got clean but don't begrudge anyone the chance to determine their own destiny. If after time you honestly think you're ready for the occasional glass of wine, please have one, but also be careful of slipping into denial if things are panning out the way you imagined they would.
posted by The Straightener at 6:59 AM on April 18, 2008 [5 favorites]

This comment I made in another thread may give you some insight into 1. Full-blown, addictive relationships to alcohol.
posted by netbros at 7:03 AM on April 18, 2008

I know of one "success story," a friend of mine. I'm a little hesitant to put it in here, because I know that for every case like hers, there are probably a lot more serious relapses.

A friend of mine had been a heavy drinker in her early 20s, before I met her. At some point she decided her drinking was a problem and quit entirely. She didn't do AA. I met her when she was around 30 and sober. On two occasions in her early 30s, she went out and got pretty plowed, but otherwise abstained.

And then, a few years later, she started drinking socially. I was initially concerned, but it quickly became clear that she was not drinking very frequently or heavily. I asked her about it, and she told me that she'd previously had a lot of issues in her life (esp. self-esteem) that she felt fed into problem drinking, but she'd been working on that (which was true) and felt like she'd gotten to a point where she could drink responsibly. And as far as I can tell, that's still the case some years later.
posted by adamrice at 7:29 AM on April 18, 2008

Are you currently drinking? Or have you been abstaining? Either way, it sounds to me like you're trying to convince yourself that you can have your cake and eat it too. I'd suggest you think carefully about why you want to hold on to alcohol (if you're still drinking) or why you are now thinking about picking up back up, if you haven't been drinking. What does being able to drink mean to you? And what does not drinking mean to you? That's the question you maybe need to ask yourself rather than "Can I drink and get away with it?"
posted by missjenny at 7:30 AM on April 18, 2008

comment from someone preferring to remain anonymous
A close relative of mine has been sober for about 4 years now, mostly through his own devices. He has matured a great deal over the past few years, understanding more how his addiction works, recognizing when "the voice" is talking to him, and understanding that he can never, ever drink like a normal person. He is physiologically different from people who can drink normally, and knows that he has to live with this fact for the rest of his life.

If you are really an alcoholic, physically and psychologically dependent on it, then no, you really can't drink like a normal person. You really should not drink at all.
posted by jessamyn at 8:12 AM on April 18, 2008

Agree that it's certainly possible. But it may not be probable. The difference, in my experience, is that it depends entirely on the person and their relationship with alcohol. Is the person a full-on addict? It'll never work. I define this as the person who loses control the moment a drink passes their lips. This sort of person has some difference in their brains that reacts badly to alcohol.

Or is the person someone who abuses alcohol? Due to immaturity, life situation and habit, they drink to excess on a regular basis, to their own detriment. This kind of person *can* successfully drink, if they have changed themselves or their lives to be able to retain control of themselves and their drinking. (With enough regular drinking, these people can convert themselves to the first type, however.)

AA would have us believe that there is only one kind of alcoholic- the first kind. It is absolutely good that that person realize and accept that abstinence is the only solution, because it is, for them.

I've known both kinds, and to be the second type and also return to "social drinking" requires a lot of self-knowledge and maturity. As missjenny said, if that person is thinking "can I drink and get away with it," they probably won't be successful.
posted by gjc at 8:19 AM on April 18, 2008

I agree that it's certainly possible for some people to have an addictive relationship to alcohol, and then eventually, after a period of sobriety or otherwise, transition to a healthier, non-addictive relationship. But is this really relevant to you?

It's very fashionable to criticize 12-step programs as dogmatic, groupthinking cults, and their mandate of "once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic" as evidence of their simplistic mindset. But the fact that it may not apply to every single case of everyone who's ever met the criteria for alcohol dependence, doesn't mean it's not a worthwhile belief. I know that sounds bizarre - why would anyone promote accepting a universal philosophy while simultaneously acknowledging that it isn't universal? Why would I seem to be recommending believing a fiction?

Because just because it's demonstrably false doesn't mean it's a fiction, and in fact its universality and simplicity indicates a nuanced and sophisticated view of the nature of addiction.

Let me explain what I mean by that. Addiction is characterized by denial. It is borne of denial and maintained by denial - the belief that you are special, you are in control, you can handle your liquor (or whatever) even as the evidence to the contrary continues to mount, until it reaches the point of self-delusion. And even when you've accepted that you're addicted, and that alcohol is destroying your life, that in itself still isn't enough to make you stop. Continuing to engage in self-destructive behavior while maintaining that you want to be a healthy and happy human being requires a monumental mindfuck of a cognitive distortion. Addiction makes you lie to yourself. To escape from the labyrinth you must accept that you cannot trust yourself around alcohol - meaning not that your behavior will be unpredictable (in fact it's been extremely predictable), but that you literally cannot trust yourself, because it makes you tell yourself lies and believe them.

So if you take the gamble that you're one of the chosen few who can eventually learn to moderate their drinking, you're already engaging in the same sort of lies and risky behavior that led to your addiction in the first place. Moreover, the dice are loaded against you from the very beginning. Even if you do begin to spiral, you can't even trust that you'll see it, due to alcohol's proven tendency to distort your perceptions. By the time you realize what's happening, you'll be caught in the hamster wheel again. You already know what alcohol has done to you. Is it really worthwhile to take the risk again?

In some situations, living by absolutes isn't a bad thing, even if those absolutes are in reality not absolute. Addicts tend to grasp onto every loophole, every exception, as evidence that they're not in the predicament they're in. They deny the fast-approaching brick wall right up until they've smashed into it. Therein lies the danger of acknowledging the possibility of a return to moderate drinking - the leap from "some people can do it" to "I can do it." That's the addictive mindset. In all likelihood, based on mountains of past evidence, you can't do it. Yet you're contemplating taking the risk anyway. Frankly, the fact that you're spending so much time on this is already a red flag. You owe it to yourself to assess why, and accept that you possibly shouldn't even believe your answer.
posted by granted at 11:30 AM on April 18, 2008 [5 favorites]

As far as the "unsubstantiated 'disease' model of addiction," there's plenty of substantiating evidence if you care to do some research. The disease model is accepted as fact, even a given, by the majority of scientists in the field.

Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain - they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long lasting, and can lead to the harmful behaviors seen in people who abuse drugs.

Scientific advances over the past 20 years have shown that drug addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease that results from the prolonged effects of drugs on the brain.

The current, medically accepted definition of addiction is that it is a chronic, relapsing illness in which sufferers are driven by a compulsive, uncontrollable urge for drugs, even in the face of sometimes devastating consequences.

Honestly, though, if you're convinced of its falsity, you'll find reasons to disregard anything I say. I hope you don't, but I can't stop you.
posted by granted at 11:42 AM on April 18, 2008

I guess getting more into the commenting on your question going on here than answering what you actually are asking for - the 1st step asks us to be CONVINCED we are alcoholic and our lives are unmanageable. The term "alcoholic" is described in the AA literature as that disease model. Personally I can look at my own experiences with alcohol and draw experiential conclusions. Are they medical facts or absolute truths (if there is such a thing?), I don't know. But my EXPERIENCE with addiction and alcohol and my EXPERIENCE with the AA program, leave me convinced.

So in with the lack of any hard evidence one way or the other, if your not convinced, there's only one way to find out - have your own experience.

I have seen 2 or 3 people get some sobriety and then start drinking without ill effects, but their lives had turned around a bit - what happens if it all goes south? What happens in 2 years? 10? Who knows. More often though I have seen folks with good sobriety pick up again and loose it. all. completely. But of course their stories are not mine to share.
posted by jeffe at 11:48 AM on April 18, 2008

Isn't there a saying that you never recover from alcoholism, that you are required to say you're an alcoholic at AA meetings no matter how long you've been sober? My understanding was that an alcoholic can't start drinking again, otherwise there's a huge risk they'll fall back into their addiction. If you can drink in moderation you were never an alcoholic by that logic, then- you were just a binge drinker for a while. Alcoholics feel a physical need for alcohol.
posted by pedmands at 12:11 PM on April 18, 2008

You're not required to say you're an alcoholic at an AA meeting. There are some AA meetings that are open to all comers and some that are closed to members. If you are not a member (you don't have a drinking problem or a desire to stop drinking), you could technically be asked to leave a closed meeting but I can't say I've ever seen that happen. Regardless, it's traditional for members to qualify with their first names and identification as an alcoholic but seeing how there are no rules or rulers in AA you could open with, "My name's Bozo and I'm a mother fucking CLOWN" if you really wanted to. Believe me, stranger things have happened at meetings.
posted by The Straightener at 2:01 PM on April 18, 2008

My father was sober 35 years before his brother convinced him that if he drank wine that he could reasonably start drinking again. But only wine, because it wasn't as easy to drink as beer or hard alcohol, was more expensive, etc. Fast forward a year and a half and my parents are going through two bottles of wine a night with dinner. This goes on for a while, and my father's mood changes noticeably. He's bipolar and already on medication for it, and he adds drinking to this. Suffice it to say, life was hell during those years.

He realized it was a problem and stopped drinking again. That was 4 or so years ago now, and he hasn't touched alcohol since (though he bitches whenever we drink around him).

Please don't start drinking again. It probably won't end well.
posted by nonmerci at 3:21 PM on April 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

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