The thought of never being able to drink again can be overwhelming—scary, even. For some people, the answer to do I have to stop drinking forever is yes—they quit and never drink again. For others the answer may be no—if they can learn to drink in moderation or use harm reduction.
The truth is that this answer isn’t the same for everyone. There are different ways of approaching this decision and determining what the best decision looks like for you.
Checking in about your drinking
Sometimes trying to limit your drinking doesn’t work. That’s OK. This doesn’t mean that you are failing—this means that you have to reflect on your experiences and figure out how to move forward.
Be honest about what’s working and what’s not
I always knew I was in trouble when my world was getting smaller, not bigger.
People have their own reasons for why they do drink or why they don’t drink. Think about what your reasons are. Are there triggers? Are you stressed? Are you drinking socially, or are you self-medicating? Reflecting on why you drink is one way to be honest with yourself about your drinking. Here are some other strategies you may want to consider when checking your drinking habits:
- Think about if school, work, or relationships problems are made worse by drinking
- Reflect on/ keep track of your emotions when you drink
- Set personal, reachable goals and see if you achieve them
If you find yourself not reaching your goals or that things in your life are made worse by your drinking, then it may be a sign that trying to limit your drinking isn’t working. And it’s time to try something different like abstinence. Accepting this will help you heal. This tool can help you reflect on your experiences. Or you can take an addiction test and monitor your results over time.
Ask for support
Sometimes it’s hard to reflect on your own behavior, and at these times it’s good to reach out for support. If you’re not drinking alone, ask other people how they see you and your drinking. It’s OK to ask the people who love and care about you about their perspectives.
If you’re worried that you’re overthinking, check in someone you know will be honest with you. You can also check in with a peer support specialist. Asking others can be the reflection that you need.
Figure out what works is best for you
What is abstinence?
Abstinence– you stop drinking completely–is the dominant approach to ending an alcohol addiction and has been for a long time. You are likely going to find the most support with abstinence. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is the largest and most well-known network. But there are others like :
- SMART Recovery
- Refuge Recovery
- Women for Sobriety
- Secular Organizations for Sobriety (S.O.S.)
- LifeRing Secular Recovery
What is moderation?
Moderation is limiting and monitoring the amount of alcohol you drink in a period of time. The Centers for Disease Control defines moderate drinking for adults as the following:
- Moderate drinking is up to one drink per day for women or up to two drinks per day for men.
- A “drink” means 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor. Some cocktails can contain 2 or 3 shots. A single Long Island Iced Tea can count as 4-5 drinks.
- Anything more than 4 drinks in a single day for women, or 5 drinks in a day for men, is considered “high-risk” drinking. If you drink that much in the space of 2 hours, that’s considered binge drinking. 
If you try moderation and it doesn’t work, you might need to quit drinking altogether.
What is harm reduction?
Harm reduction means drinking but doing it safely and reducing the risk of harmful behaviors. Think of it like this: if you don’t want to stop drinking forever, what’s your safety plan?
Consider the consequences—legal, social, interactions with medications, etc. Reflect on who you are drinking with—are these people who you can trust and feel safe with or will care for you if something happens? If you’re going out to drink, do you have a safe, reliable way to get home?
You can think of harm reduction like this: when we drive or get into a car, we wear a seat belt to protect ourselves. Creating a safety plan for your drinking is like doing the same thing.
Filling the void
If you’re going to stop drinking forever, then you are going to need to fill the void or replace drinking with a different coping strategy. This worksheet can help think about how you want to fill it. Here are a few other strategies you may want to try:
- Find a community: There’s value in knowing that people you are connecting with are going through the same thing. There are sites where you can do online meetings every day of the week.
- Try non-alcoholic drinks: Feeling like you don’t fit in socially because you don’t drink can be a bummer and disappointing. It’s hard not to drink in social situations, especially if you have anxiety and you’re drinking to deal with it. Non-alcoholic drinks can be a good alternative. It’s harm reduction, you can still be social, and it’s filling the place of a habit.
- Try something new: You may want to try getting involved in the community, video games, reading a book, music, art, or something that interests you that can focus instead of drinking.
- Footprints to Recovery | Drug Rehab & Alcohol Addiction Treatment Centers. (2023).
5 Alternatives to 12-Step Programs. Footprints to Recovery. https://footprintstorecovery.com/blog/alternatives-to-12-step-programs/
- Centers for Disease Control. (2022 April 19). Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol. Alcohol and Public Health. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/moderate-drinking.htm
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2022, August 16). Harm Reduction at SAMHSA. Harm Reduction. https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/harm-reduction
- Kelly, J.F., Ph.D., & Yeterian, J.D. (2011). The Role of Mutual-Help Groups in Extending the Framework of Treatment. Alcohol Research and Health, 33(4): 350–355.
- Witkiewitz, K., Litten, R.Z., & Leggio, L. (2019). Advances in the science and treatment of alcohol use disorder. Science Advances, Vol. 5(9) https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.aax4043