Being a College Student and an Alcoholic Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse, one in five college students suffers from Alcohol Use Disorder.
July 27, 2017
11 mins read

A boy falls over on the sidewalk, the contents of the red cup in his hand spilling on the floor. “Come on, get up,” his friends holler at him, pulling him back up to a standing position, then say with a laugh to each other, “Dude, he’s trashed. He’s not gonna remember any of this tomorrow.”

A girl is walked home by her two friends, or rather, carried home, one arm around each of their necks, as they wave away concerned onlookers, saying with a laugh, “She’s fine, don’t worry,” and then whisper to the babbling, semi-conscious friend, “Oh my gosh, you’re so funny when you’re this drunk!”

Students have most likely seen some variation of the above scenario at least once during their college experience, if not countless times, and many of them have been on both sides of the story—the helpful sober-enough friend, or the drunkard with a patchy memory of how he or she made it back to their room in one piece.

Many schools pride themselves on their “work hard, play hard” mentality. This means that the weekdays are a time for classes and studying, for working and stressing, and then the weekends are a time to let it all loose. Students pregame the frat party, the mixer, the club, the bar, the sports events, the dinner — it’s not even uncommon at some schools for students to pregame the pregame, because God forbid a student shows up sober to an event; it’s the weekend, they’re supposed to be having fun, after all.

The girl wakes up in the morning in the same black crop top and ripped jeans she went to sleep in, her makeup smeared across her face. She looks at the sharpie tally marks that have slightly faded from her hand. She remembers drawing the first few as she took each new drink, but she must have forgotten to keep track after the fifth drink, the fifth mark. Well, who could blame her, she had tried to keep track of her drinks, had tried to be responsible.

The boy opens his eyes and sits up in his bed, then quickly lies back down again, shutting his eyes against the bright light coming through the window as his head spins and his stomach lurches. He slowly turns to the side and sees a mini garbage bin on the ground next to him, lined with a plastic bag that’s filled with his vomit.  He sighs in relief, he’d done well, getting it all in the bag and not on the floor of his room or on himself.

Situations like this have become normalized on college campuses. Students praise themselves and their friends for being a neat-puking drunk or for marking their hands and arms up and down with tally marks to keep track of how much they are drinking. The idea that they shouldn’t be getting sick from alcohol this frequently, or that they shouldn’t be drinking so many drinks when they go out that they have to mark up their entire hand, is not the concern.

It’s not alcoholism until you graduate, they’re told. Maybe it’s said jokingly to them at a pregame, or maybe they see their friends tagging each other in a meme reading that very sentence on Facebook. I like us better when we’re wasted, they sing, raising their glasses. I drink too much and that’s an issue / but I’m okay, the music goes as they dance, tipping back their fifth drink — no wait, was it their sixth? Or seventh?

What many of these students don’t realize is that there is something wrong with what they are doing. They see themselves as the average party-goers, as typical fun-loving college students. They look at the person shotgunning ten beers or the person passed out in a corner of the party and think, I’m pretty good at this whole drinking thing; I could be worse, clearly. I could be that person.

But just because that person has a problem, doesn’t mean that you don’t have one. In fact, about 20 percent of college students meet the criteria for Alcohol Use Disorder. Yes, you read that correctly, if you walk into a room with four other college students, odds are at least one of you could be classified as an alcoholic.

The boy rolls over and checks the time. It’s 11:15 a.m. He groans; his Spanish class began at 11 a.m. He could throw on clothes quickly, run over and make up some excuse for being late … nah, better to sleep off the nausea for a little while, then maybe go grab a sandwich from the café next door. Besides, he wouldn’t have been able to focus or learn anything had he made it to class anyway, not in the hungover state he was in.

He’d email the professor the homework later and tell him how he’d been really sick all week and couldn’t make it to class this morning. He rolls back over and falls asleep, no feelings of guilt or regret.

Image via Red Magazine

The girl sits up wearily, grateful once again that she didn’t sign up for any Friday classes. After all, Thursday evening is the beginning of the college weekend, and she knew there was no way she’d be able to make it to a Friday class with her tendency to stay out late drinking most Thursday nights.

She unlocks her phone and sees that she has several unread messages. She opens them nervously, not being able to remember her text exchanges from the night before. The first few are from friends. Hey, make sure you text me when you make it back so I know you’re okay, one reads. You left your jacket at the bar. Text me when you’re around and I’ll come drop it off, another says.

The girl rolls her eyes at herself as she reads the texts she sent these friends earlier in the night, filled with spelling errors and incoherent language. She reassures her friends that she’s fine and tells them to fill her in on what went down last night. After all, if she couldn’t remember it, it must have been a good night.

About 25 percent of college students who drink report resulting academic consequences. These include missing class, falling behind in class, doing poorly on exams or papers and receiving lower grades overall. In addition, a national survey of college students found that binge drinkers who consumed alcohol at least three times per week were roughly six times more likely than those who drank but never binged to perform poorly on a test or project as a result of drinking and five times more likely to have missed a class.

Many college students picture alcoholics as jobless, sad, middle-aged people who drink on a daily basis by themselves. They don’t realize that their own peers (or that they themselves) could have Alcohol Use Disorder. I’m a social drinker, they tell themselves. I don’t just sit in my room drinking away my problems by myself. I only drink when I go out, maybe four nights a week. Sure I blackout a lot, but don’t we all? 

That’s not to say that every college student who drinks too much on a given night and blacks out or gets sick is an alcoholic. Drinking in moderation as a college student is somewhat expected for most social students, and it would be pointless for one student to tell another to not drink at all while in college. But when a student is constantly binge-drinking to the point where it damages their health, hurts their grades, or ruins relationships, it may be time for that student to realize that they are not immune from abusing alcohol.

Alcoholism doesn’t have an age, and it certainly can hit before you graduate.

Lexi Lieberman, University of Pennsylvania

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Lexi Lieberman

University of Pennsylvania

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