Can alcoholics learn to drink in moderation? A couple of studies in the 1960s and '70s suggested they can, but, according to Loran D. Archer, deputy director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, that view was based on inexact definitions of what an alcoholic is and misinterpretation of the results.
"Some 18 percent of people in alcohol treatment programs are not true alcoholics," said Archer. For these people -- who may be abusing alcohol temporarily, to lessen the pain of bereavement, for example -- eventual moderate drinking may be possible. However, for people whose alcohol abuse is more deep-seated, including those with a genetic predisposition, moderate drinking is impossible.
"The problem is," said Archer, "you cannot always differentiate."
The risk of becoming addicted once again is so great that in virtually all cases, alcoholism treatment specialists insist upon total abstinence, along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Said Archer: "With abstainers, you see two different kinds of people. Some people within AA speak of it as 'not a program to keep you sober but a program to learn how to live.' " Others, particularly those without a support group, are said to be "white-knuckling" it, "trying not to drink by virtue of sheer will."
Those in AA tend to become so comfortable with their non-drinking that after a year or two it is no longer an issue. Whereas the others, said Archer, "are working on it all the time."