Why Total Abstinence in Recovery Is Key to Long-Term Sobriety

Some people like to live on the edge. Always seeking that adrenalin rush that comes with taking risks seems natural to certain individuals. But when you’re in recovery, thinking that you can handle just one drink is more than dancing with temptation. It’s a recipe for relapse – and a chance you shouldn’t take. Total abstinence in recovery is the only way to protect your sobriety. Total abstinence means no substance use. Getting down to the specifics, you might ask what harm could a single drink do? The answers may surprise you – but, then again, maybe not. Let’s look at what you’re jeopardizing by taking that single drink.

One Drink Is Never Enough

To an alcoholic or individual with an alcohol abuse problem who’s in recovery, one drink is never going to be it. The body’s brain circuits have been so rewired to crave that alcohol nirvana, the numbing out of all pain, the release from all stress, that the first sip is enough to put the recovery train into derailment. If you think that you can stop yourself with anything other than total abstinence, think again. When was the last time you ever limited yourself to a single drink? After the first sip, all the memories of how good it feels to drink come flooding back – along with the endorphins that come from the alcohol rush. You tell yourself that it’s okay to indulge, just for today. Tomorrow you’ll do something about it. But once the train starts jumping off the tracks, there’s no getting it back on without some major effort. You may have all the best intentions, but your brain’s circuitry is telling you otherwise.

Back to the Same Old Bad Behavior

If you are like many recovering alcoholics, a return to drinking – even if you consider it just a temporary thing – is often the prelude to the same old bad behavior that has gotten you in trouble time and time again before. It’s tough to put the brakes on once you’ve had that first drink. You delude yourself into thinking that you’ve got everything under control–that you can handle yourself without becoming a fool, getting into fights, or worse. But look back at your past behavior. What were the consequences of your drinking in the past? They probably included a few major and minor problems. This may have included multiple DUIs, getting arrested for drunk and disorderly behavior, having the police called to your home for a domestic disturbance, getting into accidents or even seriously injuring yourself or others, whether in a car or another type of mishap – purposeful or unintentional. Alcohol clouds your judgment, delays response time, makes you overconfident and quick to anger. The effects are cumulative and increasingly self-destructive. And you don’t even realize while you are drinking just how bad things really are. You can’t gauge your own behavior, let alone act responsibly. Are you really willing to put your sobriety on the line just for the sake of a single drink? Is it really worth it?

Friends Derailing Your Abstinence?

What’s driving the thought of having one drink right now? Is it that you’ve been invited to a get-together with your old drinking buddies – friends you’ve known for years and have many a fond memory of good times? While it’s true that not everyone who drinks will become an alcoholic or have serious problems with alcohol abuse, the earlier a person starts drinking (i.e., age 14 and under), and the more consistently and hard he drinks (everyday, binge drinking of five or more drinks in a single session), the more likely that a serious problem with alcohol will develop. So, maybe some of your old pals don’t have such a problem. But you do. They don’t need total abstinence; you do. They may be able to have an afternoon or evening of a few drinks without going too far. You can’t. Not now, not ever.

Take a Good Hard Look at Your Friends

Of course, if those drinking buddies are also problem drinkers or alcoholics who haven’t come to the point where they recognize it and go in for treatment, just being in the same room with them will be too much for you. Not being ready themselves to give up drinking, or denying that they have a problem, they won’t think twice about goading you into taking that first drink. After all, you’re birds of a feather. Their natural tendency is for you all to stick together. Don’t let rosy and blurred memories of the good times past get in the way of your sobriety. A few hours of drinking can undo months of sobriety. When you do sober up again, you’ll have a mountain of regret over what you’ve lost. And you’ll need to start the work up again in your recovery. It’s certainly not impossible to regain your sobriety. But why put yourself in that position when you don’t have to? A better solution is for you to find some new friends, people with whom you have something in common other than drinking. Make sure they’re sober friends, since being around people with healthy lifestyles is much more helpful to your own effective recovery. Maintaining total abstinence in recovery isn’t as difficult when alcohol isn’t the center of your friends’ activities.

Drinking May Cost You Your Job – or Worse

There are certain careers where entertaining clients is part of the job description. Other jobs require the utmost attention and clearheadedness because they’re dangerous and difficult. Whether you’re a steelworker on an assembly line, a truck driver, a surgeon or a roofer, if you’re hung over or drunk on the job, it’s more than just your life that’s on the line. Others are put in jeopardy by your actions. If you make the decision to take that first drink, your actions may cost you your job – or worse. Once your employer knows that you’ve abused alcohol, even encouraged you to go in for treatment, it’s only human nature that your actions will be scrutinized on your return to the job. Your employer and colleagues want to see total abstinence as proof your  sobriety. Don’t think for a minute that a quick beer in the parking lot or cocktail with your clients will go unnoticed. Even if you truly can quit at just one drink – for now – it will be on your breath. Others who know you will be on the lookout for the most minute change in your behavior. They’ll react to how you talk, noticing whether you slur your words, get louder and more boisterous, start telling off-color jokes and stories. It will get back to your boss. Count on it. Since you need your job to be self-sufficient and take care of your responsibilities to your family, this isn’t something you want to put to the test. Forget about that one drink. It’s just not worth it.

What Will It Cost You at Home?

No one cruises through detox and alcohol rehab without some major ramifications. First, it’s tough to get sober after being in trouble with alcohol for many months or years. And it’s not always just alcohol you have to get out of your system. Many people come into treatment with multiple drugs of abuse. Maybe they supplemented their alcohol addiction with cocaine, painkillers, marijuana or heroin. Many have a co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorder (such as ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression). Getting clean and sober is a rough time. And that’s just the first part of overcoming addiction. After that, there’s the whole period of treatment to go through: 30, 60 or 90 days, or longer, depending on a variety of factors. Think about what taking that one drink could cost you at home. Your spouse or partner, children and other close family members have already gone through a lot the first time (or the last time) you went into rehab for problems with alcohol. Maybe you never went for formal treatment but tried to do it on your own. Whatever the case, your family doesn’t want to see you fall back into the pattern of drinking again. They know what’s bound to happen when you do – and it’s not pretty. Maybe your spouse or partner has given you an ultimatum, or you’ve promised that you’d do such and such if you ever started drinking again. What do you call just one drink, if it’s not drinking again? Do you want to risk throwing away your relationship with your spouse, your family, just for the sake of this single drink? How can you afford taking such an incredible chance? Total abstinence is a gift you give to your loved ones and yourself.

The Psychological and Emotional Toll

Beyond the very real possibility of relapse, the threat of losing your job, jeopardizing your relationship with your family, the psychological and emotional toll of taking that first drink and of going down that same old road again may be more than you can handle. When you wake up after your day or night of drinking – since one is never enough – you’ll beat yourself up for your failure to stop at just one. You’ll also begin to berate yourself over your lack of judgment, selfishness, stupidity and irresponsibility. The litany of what you did wrong will start playing over and over again in your head, causing you further emotional distress. If you’ve really let the family down, there’s all that emotional turmoil you have to deal with. And you will feel responsible, whether or not you’ll admit it. Chances are, there’ll be an argument, which you’ll use to storm out of the house and, you guessed it, go right back to drinking. And that behavior will result in you feeling even worse. Depression, anxiety, shame, guilt, remorse – all those emotions you thought you dealt with and worked through during treatment will resurface with a vengeance. The only way to dull the pain, you’ll start to tell yourself, is to have another drink. This is totally unnecessary and completely preventable. All it takes is for you to have the good sense to realize that you can’t dance with temptation. There’s no mystery about it at all. You simply can’t afford just one drink. You can choose to stay abstinent in recovery.

Medical Complications May Require Total Abstinence

There is one other consideration to factor into your urge to take that single drink. If you’ve been diagnosed with a serious medical complication due to your past drinking, further aggravating it by drinking again may compromise your health further. This is particularly true if you have cirrhosis of the liver, a heart condition, diabetes or other serious and degenerative disease. Your doctor may have been quite blunt about it: If you drink again, you could die. It’s usually not as dire as that for most recovering alcoholics, but it is sufficiently grave that you shouldn’t ever drink again if there’s the slightest likelihood that it will worsen a previously existing condition. Mixing alcohol and prescription medications you take for a medical condition is another foolhardy action. While you may not have had an adverse reaction to such combination before, you may have one now. The human body doesn’t always respond in the same way. And that’s something you don’t ever want to take for granted. The proverbial lethal cocktail may be just that – if you think you can get away with just one drink.

Are You Ready to Start Over?

Putting it all together, why subject yourself to the potential risks – just to satisfy your urge for a single drink? Sure, you’re going to have cravings and urges. Everyone in recovery does. Not everyone in recovery gives into those overwhelming desires, however. You shouldn’t either. Call your 12-step sponsor to help you get through this rough patch. That’s what your sponsor is there for and has committed to doing – help you in your goal of sobriety. They know sobriety requires total abstinence and will help you. Take advantage of the support and encouragement of your fellow 12-step group members as well. Go to meetings three times a day, if that’s what it takes to maintain your abstinence in recovery. They’ve all been in the same boat before. They know what it feels like, how you think you’re going crazy and all you want to do is pick up a drink and blot out reality – for just a while. They also know that the crash back to reality isn’t worth it. And they can help you through this time by just being there, by listening to you, and perhaps offering tips on overcoming these urges that worked for them. Take it all in and adapt the suggestions to fit your situation. One other benefit of being with others who understand you is that, by the time you’ve been with them for an hour’s meeting, you may have successfully overcome the urge to take that first drink. It’s true what they say about strength in numbers. With all this caring and support around you, it’s more likely that you will be able to overcome the urge to dive back into alcohol. Bottom line: It’s never worth dancing with temptation to take that first drink. You simply can’t afford it.

Scroll to Top