Staying sober: Recovery is a daily struggle for those trying to kick alcohol addiction.
Drinking is a rite of passage for the typical college student.
Pat doesn’t know what normal is, so he drinks to try to feel that way. He struggles with sobriety every day. This is his third try and he hopes it will work this time.
His relationship with alcohol began when the drinking age was still 18 — the same age at which he had his first blackout. Driving home from a party in Wisconsin, he woke up at O’Hare Airport with no recollection of how he ended up there. Even after multiple blackouts, Pat still denied he had a problem. It took five days of being in a motel room, boozing and snorting cocaine, to realize he had a problem.
Pat is one of millions of recovering alcoholics in the United States. For them, the story rarely changes — they have thrown away college educations, big time jobs, houses with white picket fences and loving families who try, in vain, to help them into recovery.
“I had the home and the family, but I tore it all down. All the times I got sober my life changed completely, but I never changed and that was the problem,” Pat said.
There are 14 million alcoholics in the nation. Experts estimate that 32 percent are of college age.
Some students see drinking as a reward for a long week of studying or a job well done.
“I work really hard all week, I go to school and I have two jobs and I deserve to have fun on the weekends,” said Lindsey Areaga, a SAC student who averages seven or eight drinks on a good Friday night. “I’m not going out every night and getting drunk.”
For many college students who drink to relieve stress this leads to a lifelong burden for them and their families and, for some, years of addiction.
Young adults often overestimate the drinking habits of their peers and assume their fellow students drink more than they actually do. Some of this can be attributed to aggressive advertising campaigns that often lure the college set into the hard partying lifestyle, American Medical Association researchers say.
Many alcohol ad campaigns target young adults by promoting sleek, sexy liquor bottles and beautiful people having the time of their life with drinks in hand. In the ‘80s there was the Spuds Mackenzie campaign, the hard partying Budweiser Mascot, and the ‘90s brought the infamous Budweiser frogs.
These days, gaudy pirates ask if you have any Captain in you and the ubiquitous Absolut Vodka is available in a rainbow of flavors. Slogans quickly enter the American lexicon along with sensory overload from television, Internet and radio. Children and teens view 20,000 commercials a year, and about 2,000 of those are for beer and wine, according to the Alcohol Policies Project. Alcohol has wedged itself into pop culture and, by default, our daily lives.
The alcohol industry spends about $5 billion a year in the United States on advertising and promotion. About 75 percent of those dollars go towards promotional efforts, including sponsorship of community events.
Alcohol conglomerates like Anheuser-Busch donate more than $370 million to charitable organizations, including public education and environmental causes. However, the alcohol industry costs taxpayers more than $180 million in accidents, productivity loss and hospital visits.
Alcohol takes its toll on more than just the taxpayer. Friends and family members of alcoholics often visit support groups like AlaTeen or Al-Anon to help cope with the after effects of a loved one’s drinking.
“It is incredibly difficult to deal with an alcoholic in the family,” said Martha, an Al-Anon member. “They don’t want your help even though you try to help them. In the end, you blame yourself. These meetings help us better understand that no one can fix the addict besides themselves.”
Some people don’t realize they need help until they have bottomed out and can no longer function.
“I just couldn’t stand myself anymore,” Pat said. “I had to change that. I had gone to jail, my family had left, none of that mattered to me anymore. You just have to change yourself at some point.”
Risky drinking habits first appear in the eighth grade and increase dramatically during the early college years. Underage drinkers generate $10 billion in profits for the alcohol industry. Their alcohol consumption is rarely in moderation; typically, they consume five or more drinks in a single session, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Here at SAC, there are no on-campus support groups for alcoholics seeking treatment. Although there are many Alcoholics Anonymous groups that meet in local churches and community centers.
“There’s sometimes an element of embarrassment to AA meetings. Students don’t want their peers to know that they have a problem,” Health Center Coordinator Arlene Warco said.
However, students can be referred through psychological services to find a local support group or be referred to a rehab facility through private insurance.
Pat is still on a one-day-at-a-time path to sobriety. He knows that once an addict, he will always be one, and that it is all a matter of will power.
“There are hot summer days that I sometimes feel the urge, but those urges are fleeting. The longer I stay sober, the more fleeting they become,” Pat said.
Pat is one of many alcoholics who have gotten sober and can function as adults. For others the battle is much more difficult. One SAC student recently relapsed after a little over 30 days of sobriety.
“I don’t know why I did it. All I know is that I’ve screwed up and I need to get back up again,” the student said. “As hard as it is, I can’t let it beat me because even though it’s the simple solution, I would be throwing away all of this progress I’ve made.”