Drunken college mayhem is as much a part of the American Dream as a station wagon and a 9-5 job. The alcohol-related deaths of young, bright-eyed hopefuls evoke sadness and even surprise from the media, but anyone recently enrolled in college knows the binge-drinking culture runs rampant across college campuses of the most privileged seeking to live out their “Glory Days.” Drunken mayhem is more than a quintessential part of the college experience for most; it’s the currency used to establish social status, the lubricant applied to develop friendships and romantic relationships, and the magical potion invoked to diminish inhibitions. “Glory Days” have no place for inhibitions. Binge-drinking is obviously dangerous for anyone, but what happens to the students on these campuses who are alcoholics?
I started drinking heavily at 17. Growing up gay in suburban America means growing up with shame and secrets. As a high-strung perfectionist, alcohol was my release from the rope wire I walked along for most of my teenage years. Alcohol took me to a world where I was free, where the racing thoughts in my mind finally calmed down.
In college, booze is the great equalizer. Everyone wants to get messed up, so it unites people. Shame and secrets made me a guarded kid, and alcohol equipped me with the chainsaw to take down my own walls. Booze helped me make friends and step off my own razor’s edge.
Until it didn’t. Early on in college, things weren’t right. I blacked out regularly, waking up with immense shame and anxiety about the stupid things I likely did the night before. I skipped classes or went drunk. All of my choices were driven by the quest for alcohol.
I fell and cracked my head open at 10am on a Friday when I was blacked out with a .35 BAC. Not even that trip to the ER was enough to make me quit drinking. Months later, I landed in jail when cops found me passed out on a bush in the middle of my college town. I woke up with no memory at all of the night before.
When I got in trouble the first few times from the school for drinking, they assured me that they understood drinking was part of the culture for all college students, and I would just need to be more careful. But not anymore. My school’s administrators were ready to kick me out after the arrest. As good at I was at throwing my own life away, I could talk myself out of anything, and convinced them to let me stay if I started a sobriety support group.
I went home for the summer and after a few drunken nights, my parents were clear: you get it together or you’re not going back to college. Being gay was once the secret that drove me into the ground, but now my life was consumed by the attempts to hide my drinking. I was sick of hiding things, and I wanted something better, so I set out to get sober.
Getting sober wasn’t just a decision. It was a quest, full of failures, devestations, and mini victories. My identity and relationship with others and even myself was so heavily rooted in alcohol.
Embarking on the quest for sobriety amidst the binge drinking culture of American colleges seems impossible, but it taught me more about myself than a handle of Captain Morgan ever could. Here’s what I learned:
1. Just because it’s normal doesn’t mean it’s right.
Everyone drinks in college. Even college disciplinarians didn’t task me with sobriety or downplay the normalcy of underage drinking in college, but that doesn’t make it healthy. I LOVED drinking, but sobriety forced me to step back and look at the destructive relationship that my generation and I had with booze. Life has challenges, and we use drinking as a way to avoid handling those through reflection and action. Instead of facing on our problems head on, we hide from them in a bottle.
2. You’re not invincible.
I drank because it made me feel like my best self: calm, powerful, outgoing. Recognizing that I had lost control demanded coming to terms with my own weaknesses and limitations. I’m human. Realizing you’re an alcoholic is realizing you’re human.
3. Alcohol didn’t make life beautiful.
“Stop and smell the roses” is a total cliche, but I spent years racing past all the things that made life worth living when I was drunk. My entire life was centered around the pursuit of alcohol. I didn’t care about relationships or experiences that weren’t rooted in drunken mayhem. When I stopped drinking, life became slower. A lot slower. But I found joy and beauty in things that were once mundane. I appreciated my college classes, the friends who were down to stay in and watch a movie, and books. Life is beautiful; alcohol isn’t necessary to see it. Getting sober helped me find power in peace and an appreciation of the moment.
I never thought I would be sober. There was a period of time when I couldn’t go to sleep without calming myself down with alcohol. I learned to trust. In myself. In a higher being. In the belief that there was a better life for me than one I couldn’t remember or control.
5. Sobriety isn’t a fix-all.
Life is hard. Buddha said that pain is inevitable. When I first got sober, I really believed that this would fix all my problems. It didn’t. Alcoholism isn’t the root cause of loneliness, feelings of inadequacy, and sadness; being human is. Struggle and sadness are universal; self-love isn’t. Sobriety will NOT cure all of your problems, but self-love will remedy them.
6. Life is short.
I threw my life away so many times that I am just lucky to here. I still get caught up in wanting the perfect job, body, relationships, blah blah blah, but I got a second chance at life. It’s human nature to strive for something more, but I’m lucky to wake up every morning, so I owe it to myself to honor my dreams, follow my bliss, and do something better with my life. You do, too.