Yep, there is such a fine line between “being a crazy college kid who parties” and full-blown Substance Use Disorder, or at least sowing the early seeds of it. This was my immediate thought upon reading a recent report (aptly titled, “The fine line between college drinking and alcoholism”) in The Panther—the college newspaper for Chapman University. Why was I, a grown woman, reading a college newspaper? Because it’s my job to stay up to snuff on drinking news, no matter the source!
Trying to Focus on Not Focusing
In the piece, a young college student, Nicole, claims she drinks in order to “focus on having fun with my friends.” I think we can all agree “focus” is an interesting word choice when used in the context of drinking and merriment, but I definitely remember a time when alcohol was constantly my “focus” during college and beyond. I think to some degree for college students, that’s to be expected, especially in American university frat culture. The difficulties begin when heavy drinking continues to be the focus. When getting drunk is still the biggest priority well into adulthood and someone is constantly experiencing negative consequences as a result, you might be a redneck. I mean, alcoholic. Shout out to Jeff Foxworthy though. (Yes, I just referenced a popular ’90s stand-up catch phrase, what of it?)
Nicole went on to say, “When you drink, sometimes your brain slows down a little bit and one of my problems is that I am always thinking about stuff, so when I do (drink), it will help me put things aside.” I think this sentiment is very, very common for anyone who drinks; so not necessarily an indicator of a problem (yet). Plenty of people, young and old, have a drink to take their mind off what’s stressing them out. But I think how someone drinks can shoot up red flags. I was definitely not indicating a healthy relationship with booze when I was pounding upwards of eight Bud Lights every time I drank freshman year and downing entire fifths of vodka senior year (okay, that was just once and was a tradition for all seniors on the last home football game but, the fact that I finished mine before noon was telling).
Life’s Only Gonna Get More Stressful
The piece also cites Steven Schandler, a psych professor with expertise in the patterns of alcohol and substance abuse, who attributes students’ excessive imbibing with stress. He says, “I shouldn’t be surprised if an individual in college would be more disposed to look for ways to control their stress and alcohol is one of those ways…once they leave college, they won’t have all the stress they had.” Yes, this is all true but doesn’t life just get more stressful with age? College has a unique set of stressors but so does being a legit grown-up. Drinking to oblivion to stifle stress or not deal with responsibility actually seems more acceptable in college. I wrote papers drunk but don’t think it would have been cool for me to roll into my old agency job and issue contracts while hammered. In college it was kind of funny to confess to tapping the keg while doing homework; in adulthood, that would be considered, “a drinking problem.” So I guess the truth comes out when someone can no longer use the veil of, “College, amiright?” to mask their need to be fully intoxicated every time they drink, or be drinking as often as possible. Both patterns are concerning.
The Window for Getting Away with It
The article references the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism which claims that one in four co-eds deals with negative academic ramifications—like missed class and lower grades—because of drinking. Again though, this doesn’t mean they’re alcoholics or not going to survive in the real world. One crazy semester where someone prioritizes partying over philosophy class sophomore year isn’t indicative of their entire academic future. But too much partying can have a physical impact as well, so in some ways, telling kids to scale back on the binge drinking is a lot like encouraging them not to smoke and to eat fruits and veggies. Ultimately, it’s way better for their health.
I remember being so resentful that my college was so strict about drinking. I was written up three times for underage drinking in the dorms. But I thought I was so above the law and the rules because I’m in college, this is what we do! Now I look back and think, damn girl, Wake Forest University was just trying to keep you healthy and out of jail. Let’s not get me started on how often I violated the school’s honor code using expired IDs of women who looked nothing like me (other than having red hair) just to get into bars underage. Why was I in such a damn hurry to go to gross dive bars and drink bottom-shelf Long Island Iced Teas?
I think there are definitely college kids who don’t make drinking their sole priority. I know this because I went to school with these unicorns. They were involved in student organizations, extracurricular activities and had other events on the agenda besides sleeping, drinking and class. And often the ones who might be the statistics for college binge drinking their freshman year—when it’s all new and shiny—are buckled down and prepping for their future in a productive way by their senior year. Bottom line: a toxic relationship with alcohol will manifest no matter the life stage or environment when “taking the edge off” becomes “constantly being on the edge of destruction.” This former sorority keg lover can definitely attest to that.
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