The old Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) adage “once a pickle, never again a cucumber” expresses its belief that an alcoholic will always be alcoholic and can never go back to drinking in moderation. In writing about alcoholism, it asserts that “Because the illness progresses in stages, some alcoholics show more extreme symptoms than others. Once problem drinkers cross over the line into alcoholism, however, they cannot turn back.”1

A.A. literature states that “We understand now that once a person has crossed the invisible borderline from heavy drinking to compulsive alcoholic drinking, that person will always remain an alcoholic. So far as we know, there can never be any turning back to ‘normal’ social drinking. ‘Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic’ is a simple fact we have to live with.”2

Alcoholics are warned by A.A. that “After they have been sober a while in A.A., some people tend to forget that they are alcoholics, with all that this diagnosis implies. Their sobriety makes them overconfident, and they decide to experiment with alcohol again. The results of such experiments are, for the alcoholic, completely predictable. Their drinking invariably becomes progressively worse.” 3

Similar assertions about the assumed inability of alcoholics ever to drink in moderation without loss of control appear throughout both A.A. literatre and its website.

In reality, that belief is an ideological one that’s not supported by the evidence. Research for decades has reported that some alcoholics can and do learn to drink in moderation.

However, A.A. defines an alcoholic as a person who can never drink in moderation. This causes members to reject the strong and mounting evidence to the contrary. The common reaction is to argue that the alcoholics really were not alcoholic or they would not have been able to drink in moderation. They use their arbitrary definition to ignore the evidence.

When the first scientific evidence was published in 1972, it was met with strong resistance for two main reasons. First, the evidence was a direct threat to A.A.’s theory of alcoholism. To accept it was heresy...a violation of faith. Second, there was great fear that some abstaining alcoholics would resume drinking in the hope that they, too, could learn to drink in moderation. According to A.A. ideology, all such attempts would be doomed to certain failure and the results would be disastrous.

In short, not only was all such evidence necessarily wrong, but more important, it was very dangerous to the health and very lives of alcoholics.

In addition to all the other research evidence, a nation-wide survey of over 43,000 adults in the U.S. was conducted. It found that almost eighteen percent (17.7%) of people with alcoholism that began more than a year before the study had become moderate drinkers. That is, they consumed within recommended federal guidelines.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), which conducted the study, also found that about twelve percent (11.8%) had become drinkers with no symptoms but whose consumption increases their chances of relapse. For men, that was considered to be more than 14 drinks per week or more than four drinks on any day. For women, it was more than seven drinks per week or more than three drinks on any day.

The NIAAA reported that 27.3 percent were in partial remission That is, they exhibit some symptoms of alcohol dependence or alcohol abuse. Only one quarter (25.0%) remained alcohol dependent.4 For more, visit Alcoholics Can Recover from Alcoholism & Drink in Moderation.

So who’s right? A.A. and its ideologial belief that “once a pickle, never again a cucumber” or the empirical researchers and their scientific findings?

The findings can’t be ignored or dismissed on definitional grounds. At this point, a more important question might be, “what distinguishes alcoholics who can drink in moderation from those who can’t do so?”

In the meantime what are alcoholics to do? It’s probably very unwise for abstaining alcoholics to try to begin drinking. Why take an unnecessary chance? Another option might be to use The Sinclair Method under the close supervision of a qualified physician. However, the safest choice is to continue abstaining from alcohol. In the final analysis, it’s a very personal decision made in consultation with a qualified and experienced health care provider.

But remember that this website makes absolutely no suggestionns or recommendations about drinking, abstaining, therapy, or any other matter and none should ever be inferred by anyone.

Disclaimer: This website is informational only. It makes no suggestions or recommendations about alcohol, drinking, rehabs, programs, or any other matter and none should be inferred. Neither this website nor your host receives any compensation, directly or indirectly, from listing or describing any program. Such listing or description does not imply endorsement. [+]


  • 1. Alcoholics Anonymous. Is There an Alcoholic in Your Life? . . . A.A.’s Message of Hope. NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1976. Anonymous World Services, Inc.30_isthereanalcoinyourlife.pdf
  • 2. Alcoholics Anonymous. This is A.A.: An Introduction to the A.A. Recovery Program, p. 10.
  • 3. Alcoholics Anonymous. Frequently Asked Questions A out A.A. p. 31.
  • 4. Adapted from NIH/National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 2001-2002 Survey Finds That Many Recover From Alcoholism: Researchers Identify Factors Associated with Abstinent and Non-Abstinent Recovery. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism press release, January 19, 2005. The study defined alcohol use disorders and their remission according to the clinical criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association.

Filed Under: Issues and Controversies