Author: James Anderson

Controlled Drinking vs Abstinence Addiction Recovery

controlled drinking vs abstinence

A common objection to CD is that most people fail to return to “normal” drinking, and highlighting those able to drink in a controlled way might attract people into relapse, with severe medical and social consequences. On the other hand, previous research has reported that a major reason for not seeking treatment among alcohol-dependent people is the perceived requirement of abstinence (Keyes et al., 2010; Wallhed Finn et al., 2014, 2018). In turn, stigma and shame have been reported as a reason for not seeking treatment (Probst et al., 2015). Although research indicates that CD may be a possible option for sustained recovery, at least for certain groups and at least later in the recovery process, it seems as if the dominating approach of treatment systems is still abstinence.

All the interviewees had attended treatment programmes following the 12-step philosophy and described abstinence as crucial for their recovery process in the initial interview, five years ago. In previous research, several indicators of whether CD is possible are mentioned (Klingemann and Rosenberg, 2009; Klingemann, 2016; Davis et al., 2017; Luquiens et al., 2011; Berglund et al., 2019). Clients reporting CD in the present study only met one of these criteria – an initial period of abstinence (Booth, 2006; Coldwell and Heather, 2006).

Controlled drinkers

The Swedish treatment system has been dominated by total abstinence as the goal, although treatment with CD as a goal exists (e.g., Agerberg, 2014; Berglund et al., 2019). In addition, Helzer et al. identified a sizable group (12%) of former alcoholics who drank a threshold of 7 drinks 4 times in a single month over the previous 3 years but who reported no adverse consequences or symptoms of alcohol dependence and for whom no such problems were uncovered from collateral records. In three Swedish projects, on recovery from SUD, 56 clients treated in 12-step programmes were interviewed approximately six months after treatment (Skogens and von Greiff, 2014, 2016; von Greiff and Skogens, 2014, 2017; Skogens et al., 2017). Clients were recruited via treatment units (outpatient and inpatient) in seven Swedish city areas. Inclusion criteria were drawn up to recruit interviewees able to reflect on their process of change.

controlled drinking vs abstinence

Results from the 1989 Canadian National Alcohol and Drug Survey confirmed that those who resolve a drinking problem without treatment are more likely to become controlled drinkers. Only 18 percent of 500 recovered alcohol abusers in the survey achieved remission through treatment. The position of ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS (AA) and the dominant view among therapists who treat alcoholism in the United States is that the goal of treatment for those who have been dependent on alcohol is total, complete, and permanent abstinence from alcohol (and, often, other intoxicating substances).

Clearly, most research agrees that most alcoholism patients drink at some point following treatment. In the results, we mention that there were a few IPs that were younger, with a background of diffuse and complex problems characterized by a multi-problem situation. Thus, this is interesting to analyse further although the younger IPs in this article, with experience of 12-step treatment, are too few to allow for a separate analysis.

Interview themes

The following six questions explore the value, prevalence, and clinical impact of controlled drinking vs. abstinence outcomes in alcoholism treatment; they are intended to argue the case for controlled drinking as a reasonable and realistic goal. After five years, the majority remained abstinent and described SUD in line with the views in the 12-step programme. For some, attending was just a routine, whereas others stressed that meetings were crucial to them for remaining abstinent and maintaining their recovery process.

  1. Clearly, most research agrees that most alcoholism patients drink at some point following treatment.
  2. However, they will be included in a further analysis on young adults based on the same premises as in present article but with experience from other treatments than the 12-step treatment.
  3. I don’t think I have a problem, but I might be someone that could get it [problems] more than anyone else […] (IP30).
  4. In addition, while controlled drinking becomes less likely the more severe the degree of alcoholism, other factors—such as age, values, and beliefs about oneself, one’s drinking, and the possibility of controlled drinking—also play a role, sometimes the dominant role, in determining successful outcome type.
  5. When the premise of AA was transformed into the 12-step treatment programme, it was performed in a professional setting.
  6. However, the extent of their problems according to ICD-10 (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, 10th edition) or DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders, 5th edition) was not measured.

As the IP had a successful outcome, six months after treatment, their possibilities for CD might be better than for persons with SUD in general. On the other hand, as the group expressed positive views on this specific treatment, they might question the sobriety goal in a lesser extent than other groups. Interviews with 40 clients were conducted shortly after them finishing treatment and five years later. All the interviewees had attended treatment programmes based on the 12-step philosophy, and they all described abstinence as crucial to their recovery process in an initial interview. In Britain and other European and Commonwealth countries, controlled-drinking therapy is widely available (Rosenberg et al., 1992).

This pinpoints the conflicting issues experienced by some clients during the recovery process. If the 12-step philosophy and AA were one option among others, the clients could make an informed choice and seek options based on their own situation and needs. This would probably reduce the risk of negative effects while still offering the positive support experienced by the majority of the clients in the study. Rychtarik et al. found that treatment aimed at abstinence or controlled drinking was not related to patients’ ultimate remission type. Booth, Dale, and Ansari (1984), on the other hand, found that patients did achieve their selected goal of abstinence or controlled drinking more often.

Miller et al. (in press) found that more dependent drinkers were less likely to achieve CD outcomes but that desired treatment goal and whether one labeled oneself an alcoholic or not independently predicted outcome type. The results suggest that the 12-step philosophy, with abstinence as the only possible choice, might mean that people in the AA community who are ambivalent and/or critical regarding parts of the philosophy must “hide” their perceptions on their own process. Experiences of the 12-step programmes and AA meetings were useful for a majority of the clients. Thus, it was not the sobriety goal in itself that created problems, but the strict belief presenting this goal as “the only way”. The results suggest the importance of offering interventions with various treatment goals and that clients choosing CD as part of their sustained recovery would benefit from support in this process, both from peers and from professionals.

Some clients expressed a need for other or complementary support from professionals, whereas others highlighted the importance of leaving the 12-step community to be able to work on other parts of their lives. The descriptions on how the tools from treatment were initially used to deal with SUD and were later used to deal with other problems in the lives of IPs can be put in relation to the differentiation between abstinence and sobriety suggested by Helm (2019). While abstinence refers to behaviour, sobriety goes deeper and concerns the roots of the problem (addiction) and thereby refers to mental and emotional aspects. Differentiating these concepts opens up for recovery without necessarily having strong ties with the recovery community and having a life that is not (only) focused on recovery but on life itself. Also, defining sobriety as a further/deeper step in the recovery process offers a potential for 12-step participants to focus on new goals and getting involved in new groups, not primarily bound by recovery goals.

Controlled Drinking vs. Abstinence

Despite the reported relationship between severity and CD outcomes, many diagnosed alcoholics do control their drinking. The Rand study quantified the relationship between severity of alcohol dependence and controlled-drinking outcomes, although, overall, the Rand population was a severely alcoholic one in which “virtually all subjects reported symptoms of alcohol dependence” (Polich, Armor, and Braiker, 1981). Edwards et al. (1983) reported that controlled drinking is more unstable than abstinence for alcoholics over time, but recent studies have found that controlled drinking increases over longer follow-up periods. Finney and Moos (1991) reported a 17 percent “social or moderate drinking” rate at 6 years and a 24 percent rate at 10 years. In studies by McCabe (1986) and Nordström and Berglund (1987), CD outcomes exceeded abstinence during follow-up of patients 15 and more years after treatment. Alcoholic remission many years after treatment may depend less on treatment than on posttreatment experiences, and in some long-term studies, CD outcomes become more prominent the longer subjects are out of the treatment milieu, because patients unlearn the abstinence prescription that prevails there (Peele, 1987).

The present study indicates that the strict views in AA also might prevent clients in AA to seek help and support elsewhere, since they percieve that this conflicts with the AA philosophy (Klingemann and Klingemann, 2017). Initially, AA was not intended to offer a professional programme model for treatment (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2011). When the premise of AA was transformed into the 12-step treatment programme, it was performed in a professional setting. Many clients in the study described that the 12-step programme was the only treatment that they were offered.