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Sobriety in Moderation

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At forty-two years old, I lost my mind and soul. With three young children, a wonderful husband, and work I loved, I lacked for nothing. But I was a slave to my daily drink and I knew it. A morning meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous gathered daily in a church across the street. As I took our oldest to school each morning, the friendly people gathering outside after the meeting seemed to call to me, and I longed to speak to them, but I was not sure I could say, “I’m an alcoholic,” the one act I thought would be required. But one day I could not live with myself any longer, so I walked in and sat down.

Feeling like a fraud and fearing I’d be thrown out any minute, I trembled throughout the hour. When I heard, “The only requirement for membership is a desire to quit drinking,” I knew they’d take me. Hanging on every word, I felt help was at hand, and when the chair called on newcomers, I raised my shaky hand, spoke my name, dodged the dreaded “alcoholic,” and cried. “I feel I am living under an illusion,” I said, “but I don’t know what it is.” It seemed to me that forty sad, kind, and understanding strangers nodded.

I went to meetings all over Greenwich Village, a lucky place lavishly served by restaurants, bars, and twelve step meetings, and my rewards came rapidly. To my surprise, within days of quitting the 5 o’clock gin, my wrinkles disappeared, my skin turned baby-soft, and I slept soundly for the first time in months. Even better, what I knew would happen, happened too: my depression lifted. I stopped shouting and crying every day. Sometimes I look at a series of stick-figure drawings – all-too frankly titled “Mad Naked Mommy” – our son made in the daily drinking days. One glance is usually enough to make me laugh and to keep me on the wholesome path.

Like many who stumble into an A.A. meeting, I had no idea I would be asked to live a more spiritual life, but I eagerly complied. Raised by a lapsed Catholic and a lapsed Unitarian (both atheists in my eyes), I’ve always sought God on my own. In my melancholy teens, I identified with a deep loneliness expressed by Robert Frost: “Word I was in the house alone/Somehow must have gotten abroad/Word I was in my life alone/Word I had no one left but God.” But the drama of the phrase interested me most, and I did not actively seek to deepen my spiritual life.

Today, in my mid-forties, I stay close to God in a more active, if polyglot way. I am studying Judaism with our rabbi, who leads Lab Shul, an artist-driven, itinerate temple. By my bed are three prayer books. One is a tiny, weathered copy of “Don’ts For Wives” by Blanche Ebutt, published in 1913. (“Don’t expect all the ‘give’ to be on his side and all the ‘take’ on yours.”) Another is the Thomas Jefferson bible, often described as the teachings of Jesus, without the miracles. (“He who has ears, let him hear.”) In the life of Jesus he saw not loaves and fishes, but ethics. The third is another small, worn book of prayers and meditations called “Twenty-Four Hours a Day” based on the twelve suggested steps for staying physically sober. (“I pray that I may live the way God wants me to live.”) In my social circles, meditation and yoga are in, but prayer is not, so I don’t talk about these books often.

Then I took a drink. Shamed and appalled by this slip, I returned to meetings and earnestly “counted days” since my last drink, as tradition requires of newcomers and the wretched souls starting over. I might reach thirty or forty or fifty sober days, then I’d take a drink, and try again. Soon the guilt of the chronic relapser hung about me like a stench. Then something peculiar happened. I no longer regretted the occasional drink. First I felt guilty about that too, but then I saw that I had gained a certain freedom. When 5 o’clock came, I was no more a slave. When morning came, I no longer suffered. I didn’t cry and shout at my kids.

This was certainly progress, yet now I was in a different bind. Though I needed the spiritual push-ups and craved the fellowship, I no longer qualified to join the life-saving, free club called Alcoholics Anonymous because I no longer had the desire to quit drinking. You’re supposed to count the days since your last drink, not the days until your next one.

Now that I drink occasionally and consciously – in the same way I might choose to eat an ice cream sundae – I don’t call myself an alcoholic. Yet I still desire, and rely on, the steps. Daily I pray for courage, serenity, and wisdom. I carry two physical tokens of sobriety: one to mark one day, which gives me spine when I intend not to drink, and another to mark one year, to remind me that I did that, too. (I didn’t pick up a drink for 18 months.) My aim is to maintain my physical, mental, and spiritual health without continuous, lifetime sobriety.

Can this be done? Some clinicians, such as Adi Jaffe, a former addict and a lecturer at U.C.L.A., are asking the same. Does every person with a drug or drinking problem need total sobriety? Do twenty-year-olds who binge on weekends – who blackout, fail classes, crash cars, and generally trash their young lives – need to go to rehab to get sober and stay sober for the next half-century?

Perhaps not all problem drinkers need to abstain for life. According to Keith Humphrys, a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University who studies addiction, “Epidemiologic research shows that in the general population many alcohol-dependent persons later become moderate drinkers.” The question is what kind of intervention works for which person. A range of options for the problem drinker (whether professionally- or self-diagnosed) is probably a good thing. Humphrys concludes that groups such as Moderation Management, a lay-based fellowship that supports the goal of moderate drinking, “seems on balance a benefit to public health.” (“Alcohol & Drug Abuse: A Research-Based Analysis of the Moderation Management Controversy,” Psychiatric Services, May 2003) By placing the emphasis on mindfulness around drinking habits, rather than demanding abstention, the moderation movement has much to offer, and I easily found a local group of women practicing its method.

But I digress. It’s not my aim to propose clinical reforms for addicts, a subject beyond my expertise. Nor do I wish to take the sobriety out of A.A. The self-diagnosed alcoholics I have met believe that taking a drink would court disaster and I believe them. My mission is rather to share the soul-saving twelve steps with people who still choose to drink. Is this heresy? Perhaps. But heresy in A.A. is not unprecedented. A.A. has already spawned scores of splinter groups of agnostics and atheists, sometimes called Secular A.A., who stay sober without God, and many outspoken atheists attend God-centered meetings without blushing. These folks have explicitly rejected the spiritual dimension A.A. demands. Yet it works.

Furthermore, the twelve steps have been applied to activities in which the concept of abstinence (borrowed from the sober alcoholic) is expanded to include a kind of moderation. Overeaters recognize that we must all eat, yet they find a way to define “sobriety” around food consumption; sex addicts name the activities that compromise their relationships and lives, and commit to avoid them. The strength of the twelve steps is not found in the small print, but in the demand for awareness, personal responsibility, and spiritual growth.

Meanwhile I find myself without a fellowship. A.A. meetings require my commitment to quitting entirely, albeit one day at a time. The mindful, moderate group lacked a shared spiritual understanding. Although I’m far from alienated from these clusters of striving souls, I am still seeking. Walking around the neighborhood, I dream of a new kind of meeting: an all-purpose twelve-step circle. My God-centered, twelve-step spinoff will embrace the principles of the steps to serve conscious living in all arenas. The only requirement for membership will be a desire to mature spiritually by way of sharing, listening, service, meditation, and prayer. The seaworthy twelve steps, slightly modified, will frame our work and offer suggestions. The twelfth step, which urges alcoholics to “practice these principles in all our affairs,” will be our guiding light. (I could name the group “Principles in Practice.” We’ll call ourselves PIPs, and go pipping.)

To borrow a phrase from the constitutional debate, permitting drinking would surely violate the original intent of the founders of A.A. But a splinter group of God-loving moderates just might save an unhappy drinker like me from sinking to a more desperate place, and it might let the righteous word of spiritual growth travel beyond the troubled souls lingering at the bar. In evangelical lingo, people who stay sober in A.A. are “saved.” What about the rest of us?

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