Can (and Should) Alcoholics Learn to Drink Moderately?

An attorney friend recently told me moderate drinking is not an option for him. He describes himself as an alcoholic and feels AA saved him years ago.


He said he worried if he opened the fridge, saw a bottle of wine and had some, he would drink the entire bottle immediately—as in literally open the bottle, put it to his lips and down the whole bottle standing at the fridge.


There’s a belief that if you’re an alcoholic, abstinence is the only remedy.


First, let me clarify, if total abstinence feels right for any individual, I’m whole-heartedly supportive.


Is it possible for an alcoholic to become a light or moderate drinker? The answer depends on how you define alcoholic.


According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, alcoholism used to be defined as:


A primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. Often progressive and fatal. Characterized by continuous or periodic: impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with the drug alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking, most notably denial.


The medical community now prefers “alcohol use disorder” over the term alcoholism.


Makes sense. A lot of people imagine alcoholics get falling down drunk, have repeated DUIs, lose their jobs and families, and may need medication or rehab to detox. Others picture dysfunctional, chain smoking, coffee drinking, gruff looking mostly middle-aged men at night in church basement meetings admitting they’re powerlessness over alcohol.


“Alcoholic” implies inability to function. In reality, lots of problem drinkers are highly functional.


Here’s current drinking levels according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: 

Low-risk: 3 or fewer drinks per day and 7 or fewer drinks per week total for women; 4 or fewer drinks per day and 14 or fewer drinks per week total for men.

Moderate: up to 1 drink per day for women; up to 2 drinks per day for men.

Binge: more than 4 drinks for women and 5 for men within a couple of hours of each drink.

Heavy: binge drinking 5 or more days in the last month.


Functionality is not part of the equation.

Where does your drinking fall on this list?


For me, my drinking fluctuated. Some weeks, according to the chart, I was a heavy drinker and other times low-risk.


When I decided to work with a coach about my drinking, according to the NIAAA, I drank more than a moderate drinker but less than a heavy drinker.


I didn’t know these definitions. I sought help because I was fed up with the negative consequences of drinking and felt unable to drink less overall, though I had tried many times.


I wanted a new way to manage my drinking so not drinking felt easy. I found my solution working with a coach.


Now, I usually have 1 drink once or twice each week. It feels easy.


I no longer feel alcohol calling me. I no longer use it to drown out whatever is going on in my life that I want to avoid. I sleep and feel better. I got my self-esteem back.


Learning to cut back while still drinking is possible and helpful for many problem drinkers.


My clients tend to fall into two groups: about half cut down to 1-2 drinks each week, the other half stop drinking altogether.


Almost all clients come to me saying they want to cut back but still be able to drink when they want to. I believe this is because they’re getting something positive from drinking (relaxation, numbing out, loosening up socially, avoidance of problems, coping with a life that really doesn’t work for them) and can’t imagine not continuing to get the benefit of drinking.


They want to nix the negative consequences, but hang on to the relief drinking provides, just in moderation.


The first part in stopping overdrinking is learning the skills to physically not drink.

The second part is solving the why and learning new skills for a better life.


Once clients know how to stop and develop skills to cope with why they were drinking, there’s no longer the need to drink. Many choose to stop altogether when they reach this point.


The reason for wanting to hang on to drinking disappears. It’s simply no longer necessary.


Others find they are satisfied drinking a little occasionally and don’t want more.


I’ve had clients I would have described as alcoholics using the old definition who seemed dangerously powerless (routinely driving impaired, DUIs with blood alcohol content over .25, regularly not remembering hours of time, getting into physical altercations, regretting conversations and negatively impacting their work). After coaching with me, they became light drinkers.


Some find the energy required to drink lightly or moderately is not worth the benefit of drinking, so after they’ve gotten their drinking under control, they choose to stop completely.


The bottom line is if you’re mostly functional and want help reducing your desire for alcohol, coaching is a great option, and you can decide along the way whether you want to stop or just reduce.


If you need medication to detox from withdrawal of alcohol, seek a physician’s help. Once you’ve detoxed, with or without medication or rehab, and you want to stop overdrinking and gain skills so drinking is no longer your go-to coping mechanism, then work with a coach.


What about those currently taking medication to prevent withdrawal symptoms?


If you’re under a physician’s care, I see no reason not to work with a coach to reduce psychological cravings for alcohol and learn new skills once you’ve made the commitment and are ready to invest time and energy into creating a better life.


Why not get the support you need?


In the end, there is no harm in cutting back drinking, whether you are a problem drinker or simply have a problem with your drinking. Progress is progress, in leaps or baby steps.

—Julie Ernst, CCJD

P.S. Visit to take my free course: Stop Overdrinking in 3 Steps.

Julie Ernst