Can a recovering alcoholic ever drink again–even just occasionally? Not according to Alcoholics Anonymous. The AA philosophy is that the only way to overcome alcoholism is through complete and total sobriety, the rationale being that someone who had a dysfunctional relationship with drinking could never have a normal relationship with this habit afterward.
This can seem a pretty black-and-white view of alcohol addiction recovery, but scientifically, it does have some merit. Addiction can permanently rewire our brains and bodies, an occurrence that’s known as epigenetics, that can forever change how our brain reacts to alcohol and other drugs, our stress threshold, and more.
So is the idea that ‘once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic’ true or not? We answer this once and for all.
The Epigenetics of Alcoholism
Alcohol may be legal, but it’s a very powerful drug. It’s so powerful that it can permanently rewire our brains and alter how our genes express themselves, even after addiction treatment. These changes can make us more susceptible to addictive behaviors such as lowered stress threshold (more easily upset), a greater inclination to use drugs and alcohol to cope, and heightened susceptibility to becoming addicted to alcohol or other substances.
So in a way, alcoholism can linger in the brain and body forever. Even a person who’s been sober for decades may still have an increased sensitivity (and therefore, risk) to alcohol, stress, and substance abuse.
If there’s a will, there’s a way
If you consider how alcoholism (or addiction itself) feeds itself in a cycle of ever-continuing biological and social feedback, you’d recognize how remarkable it is that anyone ever manages to get sober, even if it’s just for a short period of time. Addiction is a scarily efficient disease that thoroughly takes over our bodies, yet just treating the physical symptoms of addiction doesn’t do much for long-term recovery. It’s like putting a bandaid on a sinking ship.
That’s why even though alcoholism is a medical condition, you can’t undermine the power of willpower. In fact, one of the best indicators of whether a person will successfully complete addiction treatment is motivation. Having a genuine desire to get better can be enough to break the scarily efficient cycle of addiction. Simply wanting to be sober can be a major factor for success.
Addiction is as much psychological as it is physiological–and alcohol is very effective at hijacking our brains and how they operate. That’s why any real shot at getting sober will likely require some sort of counseling or therapy and it’s such an integral part of most alcohol addiction treatment programs. The same reason why wanting to be sober is so important is why It’s also
A believer in the idea that a recovered alcoholic should never drink again might point to the common experience known as relapsing. A relapse is when a person abandons the attempt to stay sober after a period of abstinence. It can be a frustrating experience for the person in recovery and their loved ones that feels like it’s a setback at best, failure at worst.
Not only is this not the case (that relapse is failure) but relapse is totally normal and a part of the recovery journey. Why? Alcoholism is a medical disease like that of diabetes, asthma, or cancer–not a moral failing or a lack of willpower. And like those diseases, there can be up to a 70% chance of relapsing. You would never tell a cancer patient it’s their fault their cancer came back, would you?
Once an alcoholic is always an alcoholic: True or False?
While it’s true that alcoholism can have lingering effects that can make a person more susceptible to falling into bad habits, it doesn’t mean they’re incapable of making lasting change. We don’t like the phrase “Once an alcoholic is always an alcoholic” because it minimizes that people can grow, mature, and change for the better.
Ultimately, whether a recovering alcoholic can ever drink again is a personal decision that only they can determine for themselves. Some people may find that they’re okay with having the occasional sip of beer or wine without losing control. Others may not be or are unwilling to risk it and find out by trying.
Neither sentiment is more correct than another. The most important thing to keep in mind for a recovered alcoholic considering drinking again is to consider their motivations for wanting to do so and make sure they have support nearby in case things go awry.
If you or a loved one is struggling with alcoholism, you can find help from others who’ve been in your very shoes. Find an Alcoholics Anonymous group near you today.