Is Abstinence The Only Answer?

By Judy McGuire 10/19/11

AA says that you have to quit everything, but some people are able to give up their drug of choice while using others in moderation. The Fix explores the difference between full and partial sobriety.

Quit One, Quit All Photo via

You might think that if heroin was your drug of choice and you’re now clean, a joint every now and again wouldn’t kill you. Or, if you’re a recovering basehead, you might not consider the occasional Scotch a one-way ticket to crackville. While surely anyone even remotely familiar with AA knows that such picking and choosing isn’t possible in the program, people who say that they’ve quit their drug of choice but continue to drink or gave up alcohol but still smoke pot—as well as every variation on this model imaginable—pop up at every turn. So does every addict always have to quit everything? 

Michael Harmann, MSW, a founder of two sober living facilities in LA who counsels at-risk youth in Connecticut, doesn’t see the point of tempting fate. “Generally speaking, why risk it?” he says. “If somebody’s lost functioning due to drug use to the point where they had to go to treatment and get sober, I don’t know why they would want to risk it.” He nevertheless adds, “But there are always exceptions to the rule.”

New Mexico-based painter Nico is one of them. It was no secret to anyone who knew her back when she was drinking that she was a bad drunk. “I was diagnosed as a ‘terminal alcoholic,’” she says. “I quit drinking because it was killing me.”

Though she hasn’t had a drink in nearly 20 years, Nico hardly qualifies as sober, since she quit boozing by taking up pot-smoking instead. Rarely touching marijuana prior to weaning herself off booze, Nico says that in order to help her quit drinking, she “smoked pot once a day, usually in the evening. Along with relaxing me, it also helped with the physical withdrawal from alcohol.”

Then there’s James, a 40-year-old Manhattan businessman who started drinking—with his family’s permission—when he was five or six years old. “They thought it was funny to give the little kid wine or sherry,” he says, shaking his head. “Cigarettes came next.” 

“I had my first drunk by 10, and by the time I was 12 years old, I’d already tried pot, cocaine, and a couple different pills,” he recalls. Following an afterschool-special-worthy trajectory, James was soon skipping classes every day to get wasted instead. Following the script, he was addicted to heroin by what should have been his senior year in high school. 

“I went straight to the races from the beginning,” he said. And unlike a lot of addicts who go through a period of denial, James knew he had a problem from the get-go. “I went to my first meeting my first year of high school,” he says somberly. “Nobody made me go. I didn’t take it seriously, but I knew I needed help.” 

But while James may have known he needed help, he also really, really liked getting high. Like Nico, he also attempted to get “sober-ish” by using other substances, like pot or his old friend alcohol. After all, he reasoned, they weren’t heroin. “Sometimes it worked for a month, and then I’d have an ‘incident’—some sort of loss of control,” he reports. “Sometimes it happened the first time I drank, smoked pot or took some pills, other times it would take months. But it always happened.” 

Andrea Lawent, an LA-based personal-trainer who owns Made in LA, has been sober for nine years, after cycling through the predictable route of denial and relapse. “I was in and out [of sobriety] for years and I always tried to say, ‘I’m not like any of these people—I’m cool,’” she says.  

Eventually, it became clear to her that she did have a problem and so she got and stayed clean until she was prescribed oxycodone for a medical problem. Thinking she could handle pain pills because hey, at least they weren’t heroin, she quickly spiraled downwards, finally overdosing in front of her young daughter. She laughs wryly, describing that last intervention. “There were 15 people in my house and they weren’t telling me how much they loved me. There was no choice—they just made me get in the car.”

Lawent firmly believes the adage once an addict, always an addict. “Once you hit that kind of addiction, you’re chemically altered,” she insists. “It’s not where you end up, it’s where you start—an addict will start thinking they’re going to have some sake with their sushi because heroin was their problem, not alcohol.” And, according to that same script, pretty soon that addict is out of control again. 

When it comes to the exceptions Harmann mentioned, he’s quick to point out that most of them aren’t adults who’ve been using drugs for decades. “A big factor is age,” Harmann says. “If you had someone who started real young, got real gnarly real fast, and then got sober, then perhaps they’d have a chance at using alcohol normally. But it’s still a risk.” 

There’s also the AA hangover that happens when you walk out of the rooms and back into your dealer or bartender’s arms. Lawent calls it “having a head full of AA and a bellyful of smack.” James describes the internal fight as “the logical part of your brain telling you that you shouldn’t be doing this but another part saying, ‘I should be able to control this.’” Both have found out the hard way that abstinence is the only way for them. 

Nico never went the AA route. “AA was not my cup of tea,” she says emphatically. “They creeped me out.” Today, Nico rarely smokes pot, saying she’s too busy with her horses (she has several) and creating artwork. “I even keep wine in the house for guests and have never felt inclined to drink it,” she says.

But it’s also safe to say that Nico is the exception to the rule. For every one person who manages her way, there are hundreds of others who just cycle back into using. As James put it, “Whether you believe it’s a disease or a character flaw, the patterns are the same. You know the old cliché that one is too many and a thousand isn’t enough? That’s the truth.” 

Besides, there’s no telling how much better a person who quit one but not the other could feel if they gave up everything. As Harmann points out, “There are two general ways to live your life—one can adjust their dreams to meet their behavior, or one can adjust their behavior to meet their dreams.”

Judy McGuire writes “Dategirl” for the Seattle Weekly and can be found at

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Judy McGuire is a Brooklyn, NY-based freelance writer and a columnist at the Seattle Weekly who has written about Adderall and moderate drinking studies, among many other topics, for The Fix. She is also the author of, The Official Book of Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll Lists. Judy blogs at, Bad Advice. You can also find her on Linked in or follow her on Twitter.