Is Recovery Possible Without Abstinence?

By Kera Yonker 07/15/19

If I told an AA meeting I was having wine once in a while, the group would tell me that I am headed for certain demise.

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silhouette of woman drinking wine, drinking in recovery, non-abstinent
Once I understood the "why" of my drinking, I was no longer compelled to drink to excess. ID 45110914 © Waroot Tangtumsatid | Dreamstime.com

Benders, Blackouts, and Finding Recovery

In 2013, I bottomed out in no uncertain terms. After years of heavy drinking that spawned blackouts and dangerous behavior, I had a three-day bender that left a 24-hour hole in my memory and landed me on the doorstep of a local AA meeting.

I attended those meetings for a couple of weeks, and they saved my life. In those rooms I found people who validated what I had suspected for a long time: I was an alcoholic.

When I stopped going to meetings, it wasn’t because I rejected the program. It was because my lifestyle had changed: shortly after I stopped drinking, I uprooted my life and began traveling. Whenever I arrived in a new city, I always looked up a meeting, just in case I needed one. But I never felt the need to go, because I was never tempted to drink. 

I was sober for nine months when I finally settled in one spot and I felt ready to tackle the program. I returned to the rooms and found a sponsor.

I’d had high hopes that AA was the missing piece of my sobriety. Those nine sober months had been lonely as I struggled with the unpleasant feelings that had previously been ignored with the help of wine. My friendships had become riddled with conflict as I became sensitive to even minor misunderstandings. When I was drinking, those bumps had been smoothed over with alcohol. Without it, I couldn’t move past an argument. I thought maybe it was a sober thing, and other sober people would have advice for this new territory.

But my return to AA lacked the same connection I’d initially felt all those months earlier. My new sponsor asked me, with undisguised disbelief, “Nine months, really? All on your own?” She went on to tell me how she had once been sober for three years without AA. She eventually began drinking again because she hadn’t been accountable; she hadn’t told people in her life that she was an alcoholic. 

Without AA, You Will Fail

I corrected her assumption that we were the same. “I tell people I’m an alcoholic, and that I am sober.” When she responded with visible relief, I realized that she’d been skeptical about my claim because she assumed I was still in denial. In that moment I felt the inflexibility of the program, and the words of speakers I’d heard echoed in my head: “Without AA, you will fail.” There was no room to do it any other way.

After that coffee with my sponsor, the hope I’d had for AA dissolved. I realized I wasn’t looking to AA to help me stay sober, I was looking to AA to help me be happy.

Instead of returning to AA, I found a therapist. At the end of our first session during which I had tearfully explained my sobriety and my sadness, she diagnosed me with severe depression. After hearing my history, she suggested that I had always been depressed and likely self-medicating with alcohol. 

I asked her about AA, and if she felt it was necessary for me to continue attending.

“Are you tempted to drink?” she asked.

“No,” I answered truthfully. Even with the challenges of my new sober life, I’d never considered it. I wanted a solution, and I already knew drinking wasn’t it.

“It sounds like your lack of connection to the meetings is only furthering the isolation you feel,” she told me. “If you feel like you want to drink, go. But otherwise, it sounds like you’re okay.”

My sadness wasn’t a byproduct of new sobriety, my sadness was depression. When she told me I didn’t have to go to meetings because I wasn’t struggling not to drink, I was validated.

Sober, but Not Abstinent

I began having sips almost two years later. I don’t remember the first one, but I do remember having no desire to get drunk. They continue to be infrequent and small, leaving me with no desire to drink to the point of drunkenness. I have even had a sip too many on occasion: my cheeks flush and my tongue grows loose. I used to drink for that feeling. Now, it stops me in my tracks, repelling my desire for more.

The commonly understood language of recovery does not allow for this kind of behavior. People on the outside only understand recovery in the terms presented in movies and on television: Alcoholic bottoms out. Alcoholic attends AA meeting. Alcoholic gets shitfaced after having one sip of a drink at a party and AA friends drag her out of a bar. Alcoholic is sober one year, speaks at AA meeting, and then eats cake. 

And it isn’t just people on the outside. If I told an AA meeting I was having wine once in a while, the group would tell me that I am headed for certain demise.

To be clear: I am not advising anyone who wants to stop drinking or who is currently sober to try sipping alcohol. Having any amount of alcohol while “in recovery” is a controversial topic and beyond the scope of this article. We all need to do what works for us to stay sober and healthy.

But in my experience, there’s a difference between sipping and slipping. Before I received my depression diagnosis, there was one purpose to drinking: get drunk. Now that I manage my mental health properly and no longer self-medicate with alcohol by drinking to excess, I don’t have the desire to abuse it.

Sipping vs. Slipping

One week into my sobriety, I did come close to slipping. I’d had dinner with a friend after work and on the walk home I started to white-knuckle it. The walk was a landmine of my drinking haunts: the old man bar at the halfway point, the liquor store a couple blocks from my apartment, the fancier bar after that, and then, one building away from mine, another bar.

Keep walking keep walking keep walking, I coached myself. You’ll go home and answer those emails and have mac and cheese for dinner. Then you’ll go to sleep and get up early tomorrow for your jog to the AA meeting.

I made it inside my apartment with no detours. But then I checked my email and I read a piece of good news that I had been waiting months to hear. That’s when my resolve wavered. I wanted to celebrate, and my first thought was: Prosecco!

I paused. I thought about it. What would happen if I did buy that Prosecco? I knew that I would drink it in its entirety by myself. Bottle done, I would head to the bar around the corner and have some more, and finish the night with my usual three-whiskey nightcap.

I knew that meant I would not wake up early the next day to jog to my morning AA meeting. I knew if I didn’t go to my meeting I was probably going to take the day off being sober, and then the next one and the next.

What stopped me from drinking that day wasn’t the thought of a horrible hangover, or even the prospect of soul-blackening shame, but the knowledge that my good news would not be any better if I drank to celebrate it. By the same token, the need to celebrate my little victory as a means to offset my usual sadness wasn’t really necessary, because I knew that sadness wasn’t going anywhere—with or without booze. If drinking wasn’t going to make things better—and I knew it wouldn’t—why bother?

It was years before I recognized I was chasing a feeling of false relief that would never last long enough. Abusing alcohol was, in fact, only making me more sad and depressed. Once I understood the why of my drinking, I was no longer compelled to drink to excess. I had neutered its power over me.

Will I Be Kicked Out of the Recovery Club?

Up until I wrote this, I was hiding my sips from all but my closest friends, because there is no vernacular in recovery to explain it. It’s simply easier to say I’m sober, and play along with others’ commonly-held picture of what recovery looks like. That’s easier than opening myself up to the judgment of those who are in recovery—and even those who are not—who will tell me I will fail, as I was told so many years ago by people who had sipped and ultimately slipped. They’d say that by doing this, I cannot consider myself sober. 

I’d be kicked out of the club.

As they are, though, my sips are an indulgence, equivalent to the dessert I have a forkful of but don’t need to finish, or an expensive pair of heels I’ll try on, but talk myself out of buying. The sips aren’t samples of what I miss, and they aren’t tests of will. Along with the taste of the wine itself, there are overtones of pleasure and victory and a hint of bitterness mixed in with my relationship to alcohol. The bitterness isn’t because I want more: it is the memory of that never-ending chase and where it led me. The bitterness is the reason I only want a sip—a sip I will continue to take, at my discretion, because I want to, and still remain sober.

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Kera Yonker currently lives in North Carolina with her two dogs. Her writing has appeared in the The New York Times, SinceRightNow.com, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others. Find Kera on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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