One Woman Tries the "Moderation Management" Approach to Drinking
When my husband and I first met, we enjoyed sampling fine wines and learning how to spot a good bottle. We collected wine the way some people collect art. And I liked how a glass of Sauvignon Blanc could soften the edges of a difficult day, could temper the tone in which I spoke to my husband when my nerves were frayed. It eased me into a better, calmer version of myself, and I didn't want to give that up.
Turns out, I wasn't the only one resistant to AA's all-or-nothing model. When I Googled "alternatives to heavy drinking," I found the website for a group called Moderation Management (MM), which offers a program—including group meetings, online support and behavioral guidelines—to help people regulate their habit. I bought the MM guide, Responsible Drinking, and after months of procrastinating, I finally completed the in-book questionnaire. My answers to the 15 questions—such as "Do you drink in the morning, afternoon, and evening?" and "Is getting drunk more important than your next meal?"—put me at an eight out of 45, suggesting that I had a low physical dependence and making me a likely candidate for the program.
The first meeting wasn't what I expected. I'd pictured a depressing gathering of desperate people. Instead, I was met by a lively group—professional, pulled-together folks of every age, a handful of them young mothers—who took turns sharing how well (or poorly) they had managed their drinking the previous week and offering tips and encouragement. When the soft-spoken—angelic, really—middle-aged moderator gave me a turn to speak, I admitted, for the first time, how hard it was to be home by myself five nights a week with my children, and how easy it was to drink. The warmth and understanding I felt from the group in that moment was almost physical. These are my people, I thought. As soon as I got home, I asked my babysitter to come every Tuesday night.
Of course, that was just the first step. To really commit to the program, you have to complete "the Thirty"—30 days or more alcohol-free to break the habit. The first two weeks were incredibly hard because I was left to deal with the kids' petty squabbles without my crutch. But instead of swan diving into a gallon of Gallo—and believe me, I thought about it—I dove deep into the book for answers. Rather than dictating some bullet-pointed marching orders, MM guides you in becoming conscious of why you are using alcohol—with exercises that help you pinpoint your triggers, for instance—and what you can do to change. I became acutely aware that I often turned to alcohol when I was lonely or anxious; so when emotions escalate, I'm now more likely to pop in a yoga DVD to de-stress or call my babysitter and go to a gallery opening with a friend.
MM recommends that you abstain from alcohol at least three or four days a week—I mark them on a calendar with an X. Each denotes a tiny victory. On the days I do drink, I shoot for having no more than three glasses of wine spaced out over three hours with lots of water in between—and not more than nine total in a week. It's not easy; there's so much wiggle room. A few months ago, I went to a concert with friends, and although I had my three-drink plan all worked out, I got caught up in the fun. They had ordered more Champagne while I was in the bathroom, and I thought, What the hell, why not? I woke up the next morning in a haze of guilt, questioning whether I'd ever succeed at drinking moderately. But giving up wasn't an option—I had my husband and kids to think about. I made peace with my slip-up and used it as an opportunity to explore why I hadn't cut myself off.
It's because of these temptations that I turned down a recent trip to a river festival. I knew I wasn't strong enough to withstand the all-day drinking. I'm not there yet, and in my most honest moments, I know I may never be. I've seen people moderate their drinking with unbelievable control, but I've also seen people drop out of MM and make a beeline for AA, deciding that abstinence, in all its clarity, is better. I may eventually join them, but for now, I'm making progress. On most occasions, I'm drinking less, and when I do, I can savor all the good things about a glass of wine, instead of using it to blunt deeper emotions.
One of the lines in the MM book that really resonates with me is the mantra "Keeping busy with purposeful work and with pleasurable activities is important for me, if I am to continue to be a moderate drinker." For so long I had substituted abusing alcohol for living a rich life. Now I'm applying for jobs in education counseling because that work feeds my soul. I've even started moderating my own MM meetings on Thursday evenings. Some nights when I return home, I pour myself a glass of wine. Other nights I don't. What matters most is that I'm still in control enough to make that choice.
Gretchen Voss is a writer based in the Boston area.