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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Bevan - Voluntary Mentor

The Ideal of Abstinence

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

Alcohol treatment practitioners have different views on abstinence. Some take the approach that it’s possible to have a goal of “controlled drinking”. Others take the view that recovery from addiction is only possible through abstinence. I can only speak from personal experience and I possibly wouldn’t be here today if it were not for a commitment to abstinence.

The overriding objective is for the sufferer to get well. Abstinence may form part of an overall strategy in treatment but we have to recognise that we can’t all get there. It’s important to keep users alive and functioning. It’s important to help somebody stay in a family unit, if there is one, and to keep a job, if there is one. Meanwhile, recovery treatment lays the groundwork for sobriety.

In this regard, we can say that abstinence is a goal or an ideal but we may have to embrace a wider perspective. There will be relapses, perhaps, and the road to recovery is tough.

Somebody said to me – “I want to be in a position where I’m in control of my drinking, and drink is not in control of me”. Well, yes, I guess that’s where we would all like to be. Being able to have a glass of wine with dinner or sit down after exercise with a cold can of beer as reward is quite appealing, although I can genuinely say that it’s lost appeal to me over time.

As an alcoholic in recovery, there are occasions when I’d like to be able to do those things but I’ve learned the hard way that I can’t. Each session would usually just end up with vodka until I couldn’t drink any more. An uncle of mine said to me recently – “are you still not drinking? What, not even just a glass of wine with Sunday lunch?” Now, of course, this line of questioning strikes me as extremely odd and I shrug it off.

Only abstinence works for me and for the recovering alcoholics I’ve met over the years. As I’ve said before, why would I want to put recovery to the test? I’ve attempted it many times over many years and failed. Perhaps the experience of some others is different.

If we say that abstinence is an ideal, then does it make us hypocrites if we can’t live up to it? Should we always practise what we preach? When you truly believe in something, you don’t have to throw it away just because you keep slipping back. It doesn’t make you a bad person because you can’t always stick to it.

I was thinking about this topic in a different context. I’d like to think that I know as much about therapy as anybody else. Does that mean I no longer suffer? Of course not! I let my emotions run away with me from time to time. I lose my temper. I behave irrationally and make wrong choices without thinking things through carefully. Guess what? I’m only human after all. But I know the techniques that will help me to cope and they are used from time to time.

I said to somebody in the office – “I’ve learned all of the theory and I’m trying to help sufferers from addiction to cope with life. Am I failing to practise what I preach? Do my own struggles point a finger at me and accuse me of being a hypocrite?”

I sometimes worry quite a bit about this one in my role as a mentor. That is because people are looking to me, hopefully, as an example and for advice.

The reality, in my view, is that we all need an Ideal to guide us through life. We should think about an Ideal as a Promise, which reaches back and affects how we live our lives in the here and now. But we remain human. We are creatures living under the real world constraints of space and time. We are subject to the “devices and desires of our own hearts”, so to speak, and we all struggle to live up to ideals.

It’s doubtful that any of us practise truly what we preach. We’d like to think that we always do the right things, that we are kind to our neighbours and that we set an example to others. But we still commit selfish acts, pass judgment on others and walk on the other side when we encounter sufferers on the streets. None of us are perfect. In Stoic philosophy, which I’ve referred to many times in these blogs, only a so-called Sage reaches this state of perfection.

We still need goals in life. We need a sense of purpose and standards to live by, even if we find them very hard to keep. We need hope to sustain us through the setbacks. Abstinence is just like this. Some can attain it and others can’t. It might turn out that some don’t even need it. It’s a hope to live by. We’re all aiming at the same thing in recovery treatment, which is to help the sufferer get well.

We try to practise what we preach but we don’t always succeed. We should try to do the best we can. Don’t beat yourself up for the lapses. Don’t dwell on the mistakes. Try to learn from slip ups.

What can we say, positively speaking? Focus on the successes. Give yourself a pat on the back. Look back on how far you've come. You remain on the journey. The destination lies ahead.


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