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Can Some Problem Drinkers Keep Drinking?

For decades, the conventional wisdom has dictated that problem drinkers must quit drinking altogether in order to be successful.

But what if you don't want to stop?

In Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, abstinence from alcohol is key. But another movement says quitting isn't absolutely necessary. It is through this alternative that former problem drinker "Katie" found a workable solution.

"It ate me up. I really didn't like who I was. I really didn't like this — this person I was turning into, and I was terrified I was gonna turn out like my father," Katie told The Saturday Early Show co-anchor Tracy Smith.

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Katie, a young wife and mother, was terrified because drinking took her father's life and she worried that her two or three glasses of wine a night might turn into something that could eventually take hers.

"Is this my destiny?" She said. "When — when am I going to become, you know, this fall-down alcoholic that my father was? When is all this going to happen to me? And it was a very scary time. And I really — I hated myself."

Katie, who agreed to speak with The Early Show if her last name and where she lived wasn't revealed, tried Alcoholics Anonymous, which meant abstinence.

"Total abstinence. That's right," Katie said. "And admission that you were powerless over alcohol. And that you could never drink again and if you keep slipping it's because you haven't hit your bottom. It absolutely worked for me for a long period of time. Well, I started questioning and obsessing over whether or not I was truly an alcoholic."

Katie wondered if she could drink socially again. She found others who felt the same way on the Internet and then contacted Drink Wise, whose basic philosophy is that some problem drinkers can moderate their drinking habits and do not have to completely abstain. Through Drink Wise, Katie found Moderation Management or MM. MM began in the late '90s to help people who don't want to quit drinking altogether.

Though primarily an online support group, MM has meetings in certain cities, such as New York. A woman named Anna ran the meeting that Smith observed, but almost everyone else preferred their identities remain hidden.

Like Katie, the people at this meeting don't see themselves as alcoholics, but they do recognize they have a problem.

"I try to plan my drinking," a group member named Carl said, "and that's been working well for me."

Anna said MM works because not everyone has to stop drinking all together.

"Because most of us don't have that degree of problem, and we don't want to give up having champagne at weddings or a glass of wine with dinner," she said.

Moderation Management has specific steps to help problem drinkers get in control, including a 30-day period of abstinence. You also plan in advance how many drinks you'll have each week, and then count each and every cocktail and the maximum per day and per week should never be exceeded.

"If you're unable to modify your use, if you're not able to stick to your limits, that might mean you're more dependent than you think, and abstinence may well be the best way to go," Dr. Mark Willenbring said.

Dr. Willenbring says studies show that only 5 percent to 10 percent of people who are truly addicted to alcohol can successfully moderate their drinking. That means more than 90 percent fail, including one very public failure. Audrey Kishline, the woman who founded Moderation Management in 1994 was sentenced to prison six years later for killing two people in a drunken driving accident.

"For some people who become addicted, there are changes in the brain that are permanent," Dr. Willenbring said. "And they can never go back to being a moderate drinker."

But Dr. Willenbring recommends that everyone should keep track of their drinking, and if a problem develops, seek help.

"The important thing is for people to engage in treatment of some kind, so I would encourage people to be persistent, look on the web, ask around," he said. "There are other options out there absolutely."

Today, using the principals of Moderation Management, Katie has successfully limited her drinking to a couple glasses of wine, a few nights a week.

"Last time I had a glass of wine was about five days ago," Katie said.

She said she only feels temptation to pour herself a second and third glass of wine when she has had two drinking days in a row. When the urge comes up, she said she abstains and doesn't worry that she will become an alcoholic like her father.

"Alcohol is a very small part of my life," she said. "It's something that I can truly take or leave."

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