Down for the Count: The Discipline of Moderation

By André Wasp 08/25/14

Many newcomers to Moderation Management come to find there's a whole lot more counting than they thought. But it's worth it.


When new folks show up at a Moderation Management (MM) meeting, they will occasionally express surprise at our conversation: “I didn’t realize there would be so much… counting.” 

Yes, we’re quite fond of our counting in MM. Along with abstinence days, our weekly drink count is a vitally important metric of our struggles and successes in reconciling our previously problematic relationships with alcohol. Participants are encouraged to begin counting even before they tackle moderation in earnest— establishing the baseline of our daily and weekly intake can be a humbling wakeup call and a compelling motivator. This is especially true for the chronic habitual drinker, but even the monthly binger can benefit from the practical mindfulness of the count. Many problem drinkers have been living in denial, having previously only paid attention to how many bottles remained in the cooler. Knowing what you’re up against is an essential element of the program, and the smartest place to begin.

Keeping an accurate count also helps us to tailor our Plans—the contracts we keep with ourselves detailing when, what, where, how, and with whom we’ll allow ourselves to drink. The Plan is the single most important component of successful moderation; well-meaning but vague intentions rarely suffice. There are, of course, the MM guidelines for low-risk consumption that we strive to maintain. But each of us will bring our own personal histories, patterns, preferences, and concerns to the table. There is no one-size-fits-all guide to establishing healthier habits—successful moderation hinges on forging an individual Plan that goes with, not against, the grain of our lives. 

Yet all this counting can be somewhat off-putting to newcomers: “Isn’t drinking supposed to be relaxing? Supposed to be… well, fun? Where’s the fun in all this counting?”

In short: you get used to it. Like the calorie counting in Weight Watchers, monitoring our consumption becomes an integral, natural part of our daily lives. Moreover, it can be a gratifying exercise in personal stewardship. Whether it’s hatch marks on a calendar, poker chips in a jar, or one of the many new drink tracker smartphone apps available, the count is more than a mere record of the drinks we enjoy. It becomes an important motivational tool, firmly prompting us toward our healthy goals - the ‘count’ in Accountability. And the Big Fat Zero we employ to track an abstaining day is like a 24 karat gold star—recording what we’re not drinking is probably the most satisfying of all.

As we review our weekly tallies, an instructive metaphor emerges. For men, the recommended upper consumption limits are four standard drinks per occasion, fourteen per week; for women, three and nine respectively. Well, what if each week was a round of golf? Like moderation, it’s one of the few pursuits to celebrate a low score.

As new golfers, we’re often a mess on the links. Despite our best intentions, we cannot seem to control where the ball is going. Sloppiness and lack of preparation lead to added strokes on the score card. And for reasons we cannot fully explain, we get drawn back to the same bunkers, sand traps, and rough patches again and again, racking up embarrassingly high scores. The challenge seems insurmountable. Why not just throw in the towel? 

We recognize that golf is a silly game and a time waster, but for whatever reason, we still enjoy it. And as we diligently work on our game, we notice improvements. Our swing becomes more confident, more mature, less wild and erratic. Our footing becomes more solid, and we gradually learn to avoid the hazards that plagued us in the past. Noting key weaknesses, we begin making small but necessary corrections. Where we used to slaughter a Par 4 hole with five or six misguided whacks, we soon find that we’re coming in consistently under. 

Gravitating towards golfers better than ourselves, we see less and less of the clubhouse rowdies. We’re shaving strokes off each successive round. And eventually, our hard work pays off with golf‘s holy grail: the Hole in One - a single swing that gets us exactly where we’d hoped to be, with no extra effort or wasted energy. Clarity, focus, and control have replaced the tension, confusion and chaos of our earlier game. 

Like golf, moderated drinking is not for everyone. Some will find the counting intolerable, and the constant attention it requires can become emotionally draining to the best of us. Many prefer pure abstinence for its grace and simplicity. But for those who’ve struggled with bad habits, wrestling them back under control is about so much more than “getting to drink.” It’s an exercise in self-control, an affirmation of our sovereignty over ourselves, and it can exert a profoundly positive influence on seemingly unrelated areas of our lives. And just like golf, we eventually discover that our reduced numbers actually bring us more pleasure and satisfaction than our previous consumption patterns ever did. For those willing to accept the task, the count becomes a record of achievement, marking the path away from the mechanical habits of the past and towards a mindful, responsible, and healthier future. 

André Wasp is a writer living in Oakland, CA

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