The Importance of Abstinence to a Secular Recovery

This is the fourth in a series of five articles originally published at atheisticaa.com and reposted here with permission. “The Secular Alcoholic and The Moment of Decision” was posted on January 5, 2020, “Meetings” was posted on February 8, 2020, and “Sharing” was posted on March 15, 2020. 

…treatment primarily involves not taking a drink…”
American Medical Association

Thus, on the front piece, begins the yellow cover, original, unadulterated recovery book, from 1975, called Living Sober.

In close parallel to this, one of the few remaining statements from that “other” non-secular program that I still carry with me and know to be true is, “Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.”

Personally, as regards my own sobriety, I have always lived with my primary purpose first and foremost in mind. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens regarding that primary purpose without complete and total abstinence from alcohol and non-medically necessary and prescribed drugs.

As someone who has been around and sober a long time it seems odd to me that I would find it timely to write about abstinence but while thinking through this series of articles it became obvious that the foundational questions about this, that I had assumed were settled many decades ago, are, in some circles, both inside and outside the Secular Recovery community, now being asked once again.

As in years past, from time to time, the concept of total abstinence occasionally comes into question. Older members may recall the advent of one of the earlier approaches to the question that was, and still is in some revised incarnation, known as “Moderation Management”. As was soon seen, that movement, in its original form, ended quite badly.

Today, we are confronted with all sorts of other, newer schemes under the ill-defined banner of “Harm Reduction” , some of which can be applied to alcoholism. Perhaps the most well-known harm reduction model is the “Sinclair Method” . This is based on a process known as “pharmacological extinction” using the drug Naltrexone to reduce cravings, induce moderation and, for some, lead to eventual abstinence from alcohol and/or drugs.

As a side note, in this essay I am not going to take up this rubric of “Harm Reduction” that has been applied to a wide range of harmful and risky behaviors in addition to alcoholism. Likewise, the “Sinclair Method” is not something I am particularly interested in dissecting at depth.

The primary reason for this is that I am not a medically qualified addiction professional or scientist in this field and, in a secondary way, that I merely want to indicate that, since the entire proposition of abstinence is, once again, under debate, that it seemed appropriate here to anecdotally describe my own experience and knowledge of abstinence as related to my own alcohol use. I’ll leave the “science fact versus science fiction” discussions to others.

Strangely, (and as a possible reason for some of the contemporaneous questions being asked and now being, no matter how improbably, transferred to the popular imagination by way of criticism of the conventional program) the idea of total abstinence got connected, then entwined, with the religious notions contained in what I refer to as the Oxford Group 12 Steps.

This confusion is at the root, I believe, of at least some of the recent conditional suppositions about what, in my mind, should be a comprehensive goal and value. That value is, of course, the utility and necessity of total abstinence itself.

So, let’s relieve ourselves of any discussions of the Steps, and what the early members of that now redundant and retrograde organization had to say on the subject. Let’s send those things back from whence they came, and only consider abstinence as a universal core value.

With a view to that I want to remove all notions of abstinence being connected to “virtue”, “self-examination”, “contrition”, “personality change”, or “moral rearmament”.

When I stripped all the excess away, I began to see that abstinence, for me, was so fundamental as to be unquestionable. In conjunction with the “moment of decision” I discussed in the first article in this series the knowledge that if I was going to retain any semblance of sobriety that I needed to totally abstain was strangely comforting in its simplicity. There was no excess baggage, no “program of recovery” to confuse me. It was something of a revelatory experience to believe, at depth, that I had decided, and that this decision was to abstain. It was also critical to understand that the decision was absolute, permanent, and unconditional and only dependent on my reaffirmation of that permanence on a regular, daily basis. As I said, it was simplicity itself and something, very early on, that I knew in my bones I could do.

Now that I am getting to be an old man and have developed several treatable but not curable medical conditions, I must take certain medications every day if I want to extend my useful life. This is based on science, statistics, and morbidity and mortality tables that apply to all human beings with these issues. I know that the science behind this is solid and react accordingly.

Likewise, despite some progress in psychology and medicine, and the advent of options such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and the various medication supported programs such as the “Sinclair Method” the only totally effective medical response to alcoholism and addiction remains the fact that “…treatment primarily involves not taking a drink…” This is all I really need to know and is the only “treatment” I have seen work, every time, when followed to the letter. In my experience, despite the decades that have elapsed since the publication of Living Sober, there still is no “cure” that is totally effective except abstinence.

Therefore, there can be no argument with the clinical effectiveness of abstinence (in terms of alcohol and drug use) in and of itself, when it is maintained. But what happens when it is maintained in the longer term?

There are those who claim, even in the Secular world, that once they became abstinent that they then embarked on some sort of “self-improvement” program (“Steps anyone?) that actively sought a better way of life. Fair enough and certainly good enough for the recovering people who so self-report. This attitude even sometimes includes one of the old program tropes involving “personality change” that tend to be rejected out of hand by those of a more determined atheistic mind set.

Some, like myself, took a more evolutionary than revolutionary path and saw changes, directly related to abstinence, evolving over time. These results can be seen, clearly, by the atheist, as changes in behavior rather than changes in personality. The abstinence based behavioral changes have been profound for me and have resulted in a productive, varied, interesting (but still far from perfect) life. Maintaining abstinence gave me the latitude to choose a less than miserable existence. It allowed me to see that misery was now optional and, as part of a behavioral change, that I could refuse to succumb to it in sobriety.

How did this supposed change in behavior come about? In my case the changes were subtle and gradual and involved, I believe, noticing the changes and evolutions as described in the stories of my fellow members that were shared at meetings. These stories began with abstinence and went on from there. They had a major impact on me and began to modify, ever so slowly, some of the negative behavioral patterns that had asserted themselves in my drinking years. I saw change working in other lives and developed some confidence that change could work in mine no matter how imperfectly change was implemented.

This all reinforced the very clear validation of abstinence for me which was that, upon abstaining from alcohol, the crushing depressions I had to deal with while drinking and the feelings of loneliness and uselessness I had experienced as a function of alcoholic desperation, vanished rather quickly, as expressed in that extremity. These extreme feelings were never to return, even decades later.

It seems that throughout my 23 years of alcohol abuse, from age 15 to age 38, I had been poisoning myself and, fortunately, had then quit soon enough to extricate myself from those final assaults to my brain and my darkest, late stage, days as an active alcoholic.

Without total abstinence I would have died prematurely and alone. Of that I have no doubt. Next January, on my 33rd anniversary, I will have been abstinent for a decade longer than I drank. There is nothing like it!

With both abstinence and a behavioral change, I found my way forward. Sometimes gradually, sometimes haltingly, my life took the most unexpected and amazing turns as I found family (two talented daughters, now aged 23 and 25, who have never seen me drunk), a career and not a small amount of “adventure” (in over 90 countries around the world), long delayed, solid, mature love at last (nearly 14 years now) and a later days return to a life as a published writer. This revived capacity to write creatively and be understood was something I thought I had washed away in a sea of Jack Daniels in the late 1970’s. As a result of abstinence, the most amazing things have happened.

As to the lives of others I see the power of abstinence evoked daily in the successes of my old program friends as well as through the adversity we all face. Repeatedly, I have seen families built or rebuilt, careers deepened and broadened, health restored, and confidence reignited.

As I age in sobriety, I am reminded of the many old friends I have seen face their last days nobly and well. They maintained a life of total abstinence till the end. Today, they give me strength and confidence for the road ahead.

With this great mass of anecdotal evidence at hand I intend to steadfastly continue to maintain that the only real way forward for the drinking alcoholic/addict is this key idea which is the only absolute program value I have personally seen validated 100% of the time.

As to the methods to achieve and maintain abstinence the other four articles in this series will serve to support that. As to abstinence itself it seems incredible that this is being questioned or is a subject of debate, but it is.

This piece was an answer, of sorts, to all that and hopefully supportive of the position that a new discussion of abstinence was not as redundant as it may have seemed at first. Proving, after all, that re-stating the obvious is sometimes necessary.


About the Author

John Huey’s student work of the ’60s-’70s was influenced by teachers in Vermont such as John Irving at Windham College and William Meredith at Bread Loaf. After many years he returned to writing poetry in 2011. He has been widely anthologized and published since then. His first full-length book, ‘The Moscow Poetry File’, was published by Finishing Line Press in November 2017.

Full information on his creative work, as well as his many Secular Recovery talks and writings, can be found at john-huey.com.

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Vic Losick
Vic Losick
6 months ago

Just superbly written and very profound. I often wonder why so many are desperate to promote harm reduction. Some studies now claim that there is no safe amount of alcohol consumption (regardless of what the French red wine lobby claims). ” To be clear I would love to be able to drink in moderation, but my PERSONAL experience is very clear that I have never been able to do so. I have been fortunate, however to follow the proscriptions of AA and have remained abstinent. Thanks again John

John Huey
John Huey
6 months ago
Reply to  Vic Losick

Thanks Vic. We continue to in some way to be of assistance to each other and not taking that first drink is what makes of use. Sort of a simple concept but something, despite its simplicity, we need to continually keep in mind.
In the meantime our fellow non believers continue to be oppressed by that conventional program and the efforts of folks like us labor under a double set of assumptions regarding how to be of service. Here, as well, we can’t help unless we have made our decision and quit for good.

Roger C.
Roger C.
6 months ago

The Importance of Abstinence for Any Recovery

John L.
John L.
6 months ago

John, I agree completely. It’s sad that one needs to defend abstinence in an AA forum. When I came into AA in 1968 it was understood by all members — religious, anti-religious, or in-between — that the heart of recovery was staying away from the First Drink a day at a time. The “Sinclair Method” killed a friend of mine. He had been hospitalized twice for alcoholism. Each time he barely survived. Then a doctor prescribed Naltrexone. My friend was led to believe that if he took a pill first, he would be able to drink in moderation. I last… Read more »

John Huey
John Huey
6 months ago
Reply to  John L.

So sad about your friend John but I fear that it’s a story that has been repeated many times.

Gail Laskin
Gail Laskin
6 months ago

Thank you John H. I very much appreciated this article. I’ve read your entire series of articles and have made each of them a topic for discussion at meetings. I like the last line where you state “This piece was an answer, of sorts, to all that and hopefully supportive of the position that a new discussion of abstinence was not as redundant as it may have seemed at first. Proving, after all, that re-stating the obvious is sometimes necessary.” I sometimes need to remind myself of a decision i have made in the past and go over again why… Read more »

John Huey
John Huey
6 months ago
Reply to  Gail Laskin

That’s great Gail… May you have many more happy years.. I had 21 years (age 15 to 36) of “way too much fun” but the last two were the pure hell I always try to recall first.

Glenn R.
Glenn R.
6 months ago

The first thing I noticed is that 466 people have read this article and only 5 comments (3 replies by the author). Interesting. Secondly, about the only thing you say John that I agree with is that “I am not a medically qualified addiction professional or scientist in this field”. I am an educated, trained, certified and experienced Addiction Counsellor and although it’s clear you’re a very good writer, you ought to stick to topics you have expertise with. You remind me of so many in AA who say “Well, the only thing I know 100% certainty is my experience”.… Read more »

John Huey
John Huey
6 months ago
Reply to  Glenn R.

As far as expertise goes the only Medical or Scientific people I have met who could lay claim to that are either MD’s with certifications in Addiction Medicine or PhD’s with both a course of study and peer reviewed articles and research in the field. As far as I’m concerned the rest of us (no matter how we earn a living) are just another alcoholic with an opinion. In this forum we never, as far as I can see, publish original, peer reviewed, science and I most certainly did not misrepresent myself in that way. I thought I clearly stated… Read more »

Lisa M
Lisa M
6 months ago
Reply to  Glenn R.

Hey there Glenn, I think this part of of John’s essay is in line with your comments : ‘In my experience, despite the decades that have elapsed since the publication of Living Sober, there still is no “cure” that is totally effective except abstinence.” So I’ll add a comment because I do read all of these posts and associated comments and find it very interesting to get all perspectives. For me, the black and white of abstinence was refreshingly clear . I was not an “all my life since teenage years” kind of drinker but more the “adult woman after… Read more »