The Importance of Abstinence to a Secular Recovery

This is the fourth in a series of five articles originally published at 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

This Post Has 18 Comments

  1. Darcy

    Great article. I’ve distilled my recovery down to two key things: abstinence and change. Abstinence is the key and it (abstinence) because a whole lot easier as my behaviour and attitude change.


  2. Nancy W

    Great article! I especially appreciate the paragraph speaking of evolutionary vs revolutionary changes; behavior vs personality. Thanks for sharing.

    1. John Huey

      Glad you enjoyed the contrast.. For me, obviously, there was no “bright white light” experience as well..

  3. Oren

    Thanks, John. Once again, you remind us of what is essential. My experience of recovery is roughly parallel with yours, and abstinence was indeed the key for me. It opened up the door to a “normal” healthy life which has lasted for a long , long time.

    1. John Huey

      Thanks Oren… I see snowshoe season is coming to an end up there. Stay well..

  4. Pat Nagle

    Good essay, John. I’m looking forward to reading your website.

    I tried to manage moderation for decades-couldn’t do it. I always wound up drinking all my body could hold down at the moment or all that was available. That’s why I sought help from AA. At that point, I wasn’t screwing around.

    I think it’s wonderful that Naltrexone and other drugs are coming along, but their only purpose is to help a person learn to abstain permanently.

    There may be various magical books and magical Steps that help some folks, but their only logical purpose must be to help alcoholics abstain. We don’t abstain so we can work the Steps, those who work any steps are doing it to support abstinence.

    What worked for me, and what I think works for 99% of addicts who recover, is sharing fellowship with other addicts who want sobriety, so we can all learn to abstain and to help others.

    The first “joke” my big brothers taught me was this doggerel:

    “I love to hit my head with a hammer”
    said a little boy to his Pop.
    “I love to hit my head with a hammer,
    ’cause it feels so good when I stop.”

    All three of us wound up abstaining in AA, one before me and one after. The one before died with 50 years of abstinence, making jokes until the end.

    Stay safe. That includes abstinence.

    1. John Huey

      Thanks Pat… I love the doggerel.. So true for so many of us including me. Glad to see you are doing well.. Stay safe as well.

  5. Murray J.

    Thanks John. Well written. I used to be an addictions therapist in the criminal justice system. Harm reduction was the only way to engage clients particularly the young offenders I worked with. But that buzz phrase to me now looks more like extending misery under the guise of « helping ».
    For me, total abstinence was and is my best form of harm reduction.

  6. Glenn R.

    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”. I say, no, you don’t. You have an interpretation of what you think your experience is but that’s it. To top it off, really intelligent people such as yourself are absolutely convinced that because you conclude a+b=c then it must be so not even thinking for a single second you could be mistaken. If you want to actually write about harm reduction, why don’t you first open your mind just a little bit and read some articles and information on the subject by actual experts and then come back to us. In the meantime I suggest you stick to what you know rather than what you think you know.

    1. John Huey

      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 that in the article as well as the fact that I had no desire to enter into a formal debate about something as ill defined as Harm Reduction.
      What I do know was made very clear in the article and properly defined as personal experience and close observation based on 34 years of sobriety and over 32 years as a member of a Secular group. If that was not to your liking it’s just too bad I guess.

    2. Lisa M

      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 my career” kind of drinker. I found it easier to deal with the grey areas of every other situation and dilemma and path in life by making this ONE area black and white. No alcohol. So that is sort of a fact really rather than an interpretation. It’s hard to get a different interpretive spin on “I do not consume alcoholic beverages or foods with alcohol in them “. It is really black and white. Wouldn’t you agree that this aspect of abstinence can be beyond interpretation?? Just wondered. Regards. I won’t say the popular “stay safe” because life is not safe. I would rather say “stay informed”!!

  7. Gail Laskin

    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 i came to that decision and alcohol use is the perfect example of that point. I have to ask myself why i am sometimes sad that i am missing out on something because I don’t drink like a “normal” drinker. What am i missing out on I can’t quite figure out because it gave me little other than embarrassment, grief and regret. I tried over and over to moderate my drinking and failed miserably every time. Only with abstinence can i leave behind me the daily feeling of failure those years of attempted moderation brought me. I am now free for the last 3 years and 10 months of the bondage of alcohol. Each day i wake clear headed my outlook on life is brighter. It’s okay to be sad that the last years of drinking could never recapture the lighter days alcohol first brought me when i was young. I can never recapture moments in time that i wish i could and it’s okay to get a little sad about that. It’s okay I have to re-address these issues too because i’m human and a solid but slow learner by nature and i need to be reminded sometimes why i don’t drink and why moderation doesn’t work for me so thanks for the reminder!

    1. John Huey

      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.

  8. John L.

    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 saw him over lunch, where he conspicuously drank a dark beer. Two or three weeks later I heard that he had died — one more victim of the drinking-in-moderation delusion.

    1. John Huey

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

  9. Roger C.

    The Importance of Abstinence for Any Recovery

  10. Vic Losick

    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

    1. John Huey

      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.

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