March 30, 2023
Q: “How can I drink like a normal person?”
A: If someone comes to me with this question, which happens quite a bit, I try to help them figure out what works best for them. There’s no “normal” switch we can flick on or off.
First, we start by talking about their reasons for wanting to make a change. Most people aren’t ready to quit drinking altogether, so we’ll start by trying harm reduction approaches. From there, the approach and plan may change depending on what works and what doesn’t. Ultimately, it’s up to each person to decide what their relationship with alcohol looks like over time.
I recently worked with a member who wanted to reduce, but not stop, drinking. A large part of her job involves corporate events, networking and representing her business in public – which all usually revolve around alcohol. She didn’t feel like it made sense for her to be 100 percent sober. Even outside of work, her friends center their get togethers around drinking. Alcohol was everywhere.
When we first met, we spent a lot of time going back and forth between sobriety and other options. Not everything worked – there were times she got really down because she didn’t feel successful. We started to focus on her self-awareness and really broke it down by each scenario. She had a conference coming up, so we made a plan day-by-day. What meetings was she going to be part of? Was she going to drink during the networking gatherings? How many drinks did she want to have? What was she planning to drink? She took her plan with her and journaled about her experiences. There were a couple times when she drank more than she wanted, but rather than get angry or frustrated, she explored the reasons why.
This detailed planning won’t work for everyone, but it’s just one example of what a harm reduction strategy may look like. She still drinks, but much less than she used to, and she still feels connected to her work in the community. In my book, that’s a win!
Whatever plan someone follows, I remind them to not beat themselves up if they don’t meet their goal. It’s a learning experience. Let’s say you have to assemble a piece of furniture. The first time you do it, you’re probably going to read the instructions several times, review each step and even end up redoing a few things. The second time you have to assemble that piece, maybe you still look at the instructions, but only a handful of times. You’ll probably make fewer mistakes, too. Each time you do something, it gets easier. You’re re-teaching your brain, which takes time.
This shift is especially important when drinking goes hand-in-hand with something else you like to do. “I always drink beer when I grill” is a good example. Uncoupling those two things can be tricky, but it’s just like anything else – your brain can be retrained out of that habit.
Cravings are another problem area that come up with people looking to cut back. The good news about cravings is they generally only last 15 to 20 minutes. So if you’re able to do something else for that amount of time, like go for a walk, take a shower, call a friend – you’ll probably bypass the most intense part. That self-control takes a while to build, but it’s very helpful.
There are many books, apps and other resources dedicated to alcohol moderation. Here are a few my members have found helpful:
- Practicing Alcohol Moderation: A Comprehensive Workbook
- Alcohol Moderation Assessment
These harm reduction tactics open the door for healthier decision-making and allow individuals to approach drinking with intention and forethought. Often, people feel so good after drinking less that they decide to quit completely. That’s my own story. In the end, sobriety was easier for me than the stress of moderating. Counting my drinks, worrying about how much I’d already had, wondering how much other people we’re drinking – it just wasn’t worth it for me. But that’s just my experience.
Many people who come to see me are unsure if they want to quit drinking or just moderate. They want to be able to have a couple drinks with dinner or out with friends without going overboard. If that resonates with you, or you’re worried about someone in your life, please reach out to us for help. We can come up with a strategy together, without judgement or shame.