Some researchers say it’s possible.
When I was 29, I gave up drinking. When I was 37, I quietly started again after mulling over the idea of revisiting wine. One night, without any pre-planning, I ordered a glass of Malbec while I was out to dinner with a friend. My throat warmed with an old, familiar pleasure: “Oh! You again!”
Shockingly, the world didn’t end.
And it didn’t end later, either, when I began drinking a glass or two of wine a few nights a week.
In the past, I’d developed a long and complex history with alcohol. I began drinking socially in high school, but my habit took off in college. I didn’t drink to relax—I drank to escape. Having struggled with depression since adolescence, I used alcohol as a tool to help shut off the nasty negative self-talk that bombarded me 24/7. My then-therapist helped me recognize that self-talk as anxiety and self-loathing. There were plenty of “nevers” peppered throughout my daily internal monologue: “You’ll never find a boyfriend,” “You’ll never fit in,” “You’ll never be as pretty/smart/cool as she is.”
Having a few shots of Goldschlager (ugh, why did we make such disgusting choices in college?!) offered delectable blips of freedom from the insecurities that had haunted me for so long. Alcohol made me feel intriguing and powerful. I could go to parties without wanting to crumple into a corner and disappear.
But the alcohol wasn’t expelling my darkness, it was only masking it. All my fears were still there beneath the surface, and throughout my twenties they manifested in murkier, more embarrassing behaviors. I’d throw screaming tantrums at boyfriends, hook up with questionable strangers in a sad validation quest, call in sick to work with yet another humiliating hangover, and pick nasty fights with friends. One day, it became too much, so I stopped drinking altogether. When I got sober, my life quieted down. But then, eventually, I felt ready to try that glass of wine at dinner.
Obviously not everyone afflicted with problem drinking can recover on their own, or learn to manage their drinking with time. But experts believe that some can.
Findings from the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, which polled 43,000 Americans between 2001 to 2002, suggest that many people recover from alcohol dependence, and “a considerable number of people appear to recover without professional intervention,” writes Raul Caetano, M.D., in an analysis of the massive study.
“That group can be called ‘clinically improved,’ ” Stanton Peele, Ph.D., a psychologist and author who has been studying the phenomenon of “natural recovery” (overcoming an addiction on one’s own, without treatment) for 35 years, tells SELF. Peele says natural recovery is actually far more prevalent than you might believe. This phenomenon can be at least partially attributed to simply growing up, or “maturing out” of the behavior; as people grow older, their lives become fuller and their responsibilities broaden. For some, a stricter schedule and shifting priorities make drinking and hangovers less practical.
Still, “most of what we know about alcoholism and addiction is from the people who show up and identify themselves that way in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and in treatment programs. The vast majority of people who [‘outgrow’ it] are hidden from view,” Dr. Peele says.
One problem with subscribing to a single treatment method is that there is no single definition for what constitutes a drinking problem.
You can’t ask your doctor for a simple, conclusive blood test to diagnose alcoholism or addiction. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholismas “problem drinking that becomes severe.” An official diagnosis of AUD, per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), can be mild, moderate, or severe, depending on the number of symptoms experienced in the past year. Those symptoms include things like: drinking more than you anticipate, wanting to cut back but not being able to, wanting to drink so badly that you can’t think of anything else, and continuing to drink despite it causing problems with your family, friends, physical health, or mental health.
Most medical establishments subscribe to the brain disease model of addiction, including the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which describes alcoholism as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease.” In essence, this means addiction is biological and not your fault; your brain simply functions differently from other people’s. This theory can prove comforting because it indicates that addiction is not a choice or a moral failure. But it also implies that addiction is fixed and unchangeable—a life sentence you’re stuck with forever.
Under this model, addiction’s predominant treatment protocol is permanent abstinence, often via 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, a program with a success rate that is notoriously hard to gauge because, as one study describes it, the research is “controversial and is subject to widely divergent interpretations.”
But what this model misses is a person’s unique relationship to alcohol and why exactly they use it. “People drink for many reasons,” Indra Cidambi, M.D., founder and medical director of the Center for Network Therapy, tells SELF. And there are various types of problem drinkers, Cidambi explains, ranging from binge drinkers who overdo it on weekends, to those who use alcohol as a tool to self-medicate other conditions like depression, anxiety, or PTSD. There are also high-functioning problem drinkers who “are the hardest to convince that they need help, because they feel they do not have a problem.” These people are able to meet their work, home, and social obligations, but they may “still need help with their heavy alcohol use,” Cidambi says.
Dr. Cidambi believes that some people can indeed “mature out” of a drinking problem, but various factors must align first.
Just as there are varying types and degrees of alcohol abuse, there are various approaches to treating a drinking problem. For some—particularly those who have physical withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking—recovery may require professional assistance. “You could be in danger of experiencing seizures or a stroke. You need detoxification in conjunction with therapy,” Dr. Cidambi says. And for many of these people, abstaining from alcohol entirely may be necessary to stay sober.
For gray-area problem drinkers (people like me, throughout my twenties) there may be other options. According to Cidambi, some folks might do well with therapy to help them change their relationship with alcohol, while others might benefit from “therapy and medication that addresses the root causes” of their drive to drink. For instance, if you drank to self-medicate due to symptoms of anxiety or depression, finding treatment that works could reduce your desire to drink. Still, other people may learn to change their habits and moderate their drinking on their own, without intervention.
“It helps if their bodies have not become chemically dependent on the substance—if they don’t experience severe withdrawal symptoms or cravings when they choose not to use,” Dr. Cidambi tells SELF. “If someone can control their use of alcohol and drink in moderation, it usually indicates that they were not addicted to the substance in the first place, despite heavy use.”
Anna, 33, of New Jersey, was able to move past her drinking problem with trial, error, and CBT-based therapy. Throughout her twenties, she says she had “murky” blackout experiences, as well as one drunken sexual encounter that particularly alarmed her, when she was 24. “I woke up having sex with a stranger in the back of a van parked in Midtown [Manhattan],” she tells SELF. “I felt like I had been raped, but it was so…unclear and had been predicated by drinking so much [beforehand].”
Three years after that experience, “I made the decision to go to 12-step meetings,” she says. “I would occasionally hit AA meetings until I was about 30, when I realized I could moderate [my drinking] without going to meetings or giving up drinking entirely.”
These days, Anna will enjoy a craft beer or a couple glasses of wine about two nights per week, but she doesn’t get drunk. She credits deep self-examination through therapy—as well as the realities of parenting a toddler—with her success in navigating a healthier relationship to alcohol. “I started seeing a therapist who helped me come up with the language to discuss everything that was going on in my life,” she says. “I began to see the benefits of not drinking and what I could accomplish when I cut back. I also think I ‘outgrew’ it—hangovers were worse, consequences were more intense, and [heavy] drinking just didn’t work [anymore].” Still, she admits that her relationship with alcohol might always be “complicated.”
If you want to determine whether your own drinking borders on problematic, Peele suggests a mindful—but not judgmental—approach.
He advises being mindful of how much you’re drinking while also staying gentle with yourself if you slip up and drink more than planned. If you’re making a conscious effort to cut back or abstain from alcohol, enlisting an accountability partner can be helpful, he says. “Get someone involved who cares about you, [like] your partner or your mother, and ask for feedback about how you’re doing.” And don’t feel pressured to label yourself or your behavior if that’s not helpful to your recovery.
When it comes to my own experiments with drinking, sobriety, and everything in between, I’ve pretty much done it all. Today, at 40, I’ll have a glass or two of wine three or four nights per week, but my experience with alcohol is far mellower than it was in my 20s. I still battle depressive thinking, but I’m older, so I deal with it differently. I’ve accepted that my brain isn’t always my BFF, and I no longer buy into the mean lies it sometimes spews.
While I might inadvertently overdo a night of drinking a few times per year, at this point, the idea of hooking up with strangers in bar bathrooms sounds too exhausting to be remotely fun; I’d rather be home watching Netflix. Maybe that’s because I’m older and wiser, or maybe I’ve simply outgrown the more menacing aspects of the demons that chased me to drink in my younger years.
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