The Role of Abstinence in Treating Addiction

LifeRing believes strongly that abstinence from all alcohol and other non-medically indicated drugs is the only acceptable goal once addiction has occurred. All of our members accept that as the goal of our approach, and many of our members have years of successful abstinence to point to along with a vastly improved quality of life. I’m one of those and I completely endorse the abstinence approach – I’m convinced that even one drink could lead to a resumption of my addicted life.

But there are other points of view. Phillip H., a LifeRing Convenor of long standing in Northern Ireland, recently shared an article that takes a slightly different view. The article is very much worth reading for it’s clear and compelling view of the problems created by a focus on “moral failing” in treatment programs based on the 12-Step program and the so-called Minnesota Model still very widely used in the professional treatment system. Throughout the article the author takes a caustic view of an emphasis on total abstinence, although it appears by the end of the lengthy article that his position is one of viewing zero-tolerance policies in treatment facilities as punitive and counter-productive. “Discharging an alcoholic for relapsing” he suggests, “is like discharging a schizophrenic for relapsing: it is not a reason for discharge but a reason to work with the client.”

This compassionate view of relapse is very much what LifeRing tries to practice. We view relapse as a setback, not some sort of moral failing. A favorite image I’ve heard in LifeRing meetings is that “if you’re driving from New York to Seattle and your car has a problem in Chicago, you don’t have to start the trip over in New York if you can fix the car in Chicago.”

The author of the article goes on to suggest that, for some people, continued but reduced use of drugs can lead to an improved life. On this point, LifeRing parts company – too often, “harm reduction” leads eventually to a resumption of full-blown addictive usage. It’s not worth the gamble.

But the article – see it Here – has much to offer.

— Craig Whalley


  1. Chris on November 24, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    Lifering would be better off focusing on offering its solution to addiction and stop taking on the treatment industry. The resentments people hold onto can’t be healthy.

  2. JeffK on November 12, 2013 at 9:27 pm

    Interesting, but it seems the author is battling a paper tiger by defining an “abstinence treatment approach” (summarized at the bottom) and then attacking every facet of that approach including abstinence. Abstinence just means, you’re a non-drinker and non-user – good stuff, and it doesn’t require you to buy into any of the bullets in the summary. :-) I think he does his entire article a disservice by tying all that baggage to the wise and almost always true notion that addicts are better off not ever drinking or using again