On Moderation and Other Fantasies

By Anna Jolliff 09/10/19

Even though I’ve quit drinking, I don’t pretend to understand moderation. I will never be someone who stops when they’re full. Not really.

Woman holding two milkshakes in restaurant and smiling
I still look with total bewilderment at people who embrace moderation. Photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash

I remember when I first became suspicious of moderation. 

I was reading Prevention magazine long before it made any sense to me: I had no wrinkles, I had no libido, I was not in menopause. I was 11.

Prevention informed me that, in moderation, chocolate was actually good for me! I was advised that dark chocolate (at least 70% cacao, whatever that was) is the best. Just a square or two, the article warned.

Wait… why on earth would I eat a “square or two” of chocolate? What is the point?  It struck me as nonsense. A square or two equates to a maximum of 60 seconds of pleasure. Why waste the guilt?

At 11, I already knew that if I was going to feel guilty about food, it had better be in exchange for at least 20 minutes of pleasure. Maybe even a whole evening of it.

Moderation did not come naturally to me. I can still remember the first time I made myself sick with eating. My small-town church held a dessert auction to raise money, and my table bought the turtle cake. I ate so much I thought I would puke. When I got home, I stuck a finger down my throat. I vaguely understood that forced puking was something bad, but I also felt really bad.

I wasn’t bulimic; I just needed relief. I just wanted the nasty feeling to go away. Do other people eat like this, too? How much cake did my sister eat? Even at that early age, I was desperate to see the same behavior mirrored in others. Especially in my naturally thin, naturally moderate older sister.

Three years later, flipping through Prevention, I again wondered if I was alone in this. Perhaps the world is chock-full of women who feel satisfied after two squares of chocolate. Maybe they’re really just in it for the antioxidants.

Eight years later, “antioxidants” once again provided the green light. A daily glass of wine is actually good for you; just make sure it isn’t two or three! (Wink.) By this time, I was learning to use alcohol as a social lubricant, and that playful admonishment - anything in moderation - was just as mystifying as it had been at age 11; just as unattainable as it was at 8. 

Because: A single rum and coke, mixed in cheap plasticware on my dorm room floor, would ease my nerves just enough to get me out the door. It certainly wouldn’t see me through a night of small talk with strangers, trying to be cool and relaxed, trying to be just the type of girl who floats between parties with a gaggle of friends. The type of girl who forgets about her exposed midriff, and whispers to her friends that she shaved down there “just in case.”

By age 22, the jig was up. When it came to alcohol, I gave up the quest for moderation pretty early. Now, at three and a half years sober, I stare in wonder as my friends nurse a single drink over the course of an hour or two. I marvel when they order a coke instead of a beer - not because they can’t or shouldn’t drink, but because they just don’t want to. My friends often opt to join me in sober activities rather than hitting the bars. But isn’t that boring? Aren’t I boring? Wouldn’t you rather be drinking?

After all: If I wasn’t an alcoholic, I’d drink every day.

Even though I’ve quit drinking, I don’t pretend to understand moderation. I will never be someone who stops when they’re full. Not really. I might stop in public, dutifully cutting my burger in half on a first date — but I will not be falling asleep on an empty stomach. I want that sense of fullness, sedation. And sometimes it feels like food can get me there.

This chronic need for fullness isn’t just expressed through food or alcohol, but also through work, relationships, appearance. It’s never quite enough. 

Although I have worked a strong program of recovery, I still look with total bewilderment at people who embrace moderation. People who drink beer for the taste; dine at interesting restaurants just for the experience; go for months without sex because they haven’t found the “right person” to share it with (and can’t be bothered to settle for less). People whose daily exercise involves mindfully listening to their bodies. People whose nighttime routine involves mindfully acknowledging their thoughts.

At the dessert auction, in the wake of the turtle cake, I needed to know that others struggled too. No, I wasn’t a sadist; I didn’t wish pain on others. I was just afraid of being alone. Even at eight years old, I needed to know that others sometimes eat, drink, sleep, scroll, and swipe themselves into oblivion. I needed to know I wasn’t alone.

I wasn’t. And if you can relate to me, you aren’t either. We just feel empty sometimes.

Take a second to conjure up a shiny moment. It’s important that in this moment you were not chemically altered. A moment when you thought, Wow. Maybe sober life isn’t so bad. Maybe sometimes, it’s even great. A moment in which you felt closer than ever to serenity, bliss, and pure, shameless embodiment.

Have you got it yet? This is important.

Last week, I stood at the top of Table Rock in Boise, Idaho, next to a Scottish stranger I’d met three days before. He and I had a brief, perfect, crystalline connection. We understood each other deeply. For a moment, my belly was fully of gratitude. For a moment, the sun was on my back, there was laughter in my eyes, and I did not feel empty.

That’s my moment. And I didn’t have to scour my memory for it. That was just last week.

Within 24 hours of flying home, the moment had evaporated. The connection was lost. I will never see the Scot again, and maybe I will never again look out over the City of Trees from Table Rock. The bliss was fleeting, but no more so than the emptiness that sometimes stands between me and sleep. For better or worse, nothing lasts.

In moments when you feel the most empty, you may find it necessary to submerge yourself. So do that, if you must — but forgive yourself for it. Forgive yourself and never lose hope. Never forget your deep, sober, and startling capacity to feel full.

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Anna Jolliff, MS, is a writer and researcher specializing in mental health. Anna’s blog, On Awakening, is a celebration of life without alcohol; her writing looks specifically at how sobriety intersects with body image, physical health, dating and relationships, and personal growth. Find Anna on Facebook or subscribe to her mailing list to be notified every time she posts!