Ask Katie: How Much is Too Much College Drinking?

Ask Katie: How Much is Too Much College Drinking?

By Katie MacBride 02/21/17

Drinking is practically built-in to campus life, but most students grow out of it. It's hard to know who will become an alcoholic, but you can keep an eye on yourself if you're worried.

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A woman in cap and gown looking into a bottle.
A major problem?

I am a sophomore at a large university. I am mostly happy–-my grades are good, I’m enjoying my classes (after a bit of a rough patch last year), and I have great friends. Drinking culture is big here–-social life revolves around fraternities and sororities and even though I am not in one, many of my friends are. Everyone drinks all the time. Many people blackout with regularity. I’m not that bad, but unless I have a big test the next day, I pretty much drink every night. I casually alluded to the amount people at school drink when I was home over winter break with my somewhat conservative/religious parents. They immediately began to worry that my friends and I are all basically alcoholics. Truthfully, I worry about our drinking from time to time but the odds of me and everyone I know all being alcoholics seem slim. Do you think there is a different standard for determining if young adults/college students have a problem with drugs or alcohol than there is for the rest of the adult population?

From, On Campus

When I found myself in rehab less than a year after graduating college, I doubt a single college friend of mine was surprised. My inability to control my drinking was obvious to pretty much anyone I encountered. The only thing that might have been surprising is that more of my friends didn’t find themselves in the same situation. We all drank heavily. For many of us, this was simply an escalation of our high school antics but for others, it was fairly new territory. It wasn’t a hard habit to fall into–-events revolving around drinking were built into campus life. Over a decade after graduating, I can still remember which drinking events fell on which days of the week.

There’s no doubt that binge drinking (NIAAA defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration levels to 0.08 g/dL), is prevalent on almost every college campus in the country. From a social standpoint, college is designed to function a little bit like real-life training wheels. You’re not living under your parents' roof (and if you are, you likely have more freedom than you did before); you’re responsible for managing your work/life balance. You're on the bike. But you're not totally an adult: you've got a meal plan, college subsidized housing, and guidance counselors to help ease the transition. All of which is to say it is an environment ripe for experimentation. For many, that experimentation comes with a lot of substance use.

Of course, you know this. You're living it. What you want to know is if it means you and your friends are going to continue using in the future the way you're using now.

It's very unlikely that after college–-you and every single one of your friends–-will always drink like you are drinking now. The novelty will wear off a little, your hangovers will get worse, and the stakes of substance use will get higher. The scientific data on this is mixed: some studies have shown that young adults who binge drink in college are more likely to become alcoholics, other studies show that many young adults who have symptoms of a substance use disorder (something consistent binge drinking would certainly be a symptom of) simply “grow out of it.” Both are probably true. Some of your friends may go on to have a substance use problem, others might never binge drink again. There’s no guaranteed way to tell.

The more pressing issue, however, is how your drinking is working out for you now. What makes you “sometimes worry” about you and your friends’ drinking? Is it exclusively a worry about future consequences or are you concerned about the impact of your (and your friends’) drinking now?

I can’t tell you if you will become an alcoholic. A good way to gauge where you are at in your relationship with alcohol is asking yourself if your drinking is having negative consequences in your life. If so, are you continuing to drink/use despite those negative consequences? Consequences can be anything from the personal (how you feel about your own behavior) to the concrete (missing class, etc.). It’s important to have an understanding of if and how those consequences change over time. 

I know talking about the “consequences of drinking” makes me sound like the mom on an old afterschool special; it’s a phrase I would have bristled at, too. But there’s simply no other way to say it: regardless of if any of you are drinking alcoholically, there are real dangers to binge drinking. Accidents happen. Especially on college campuses and for precisely this reason. There's a grown-up playground feeling to college sometimes and it contributes to an illusion of invincibility. Two of my close friends died in a drunk driving accident on campus my freshman year so I'm unfortunately familiar with this reality.

Part of what makes me an alcoholic is the fact that I did not stop binge drinking after my friends died. The negative consequences of that night simply added themselves to the pile of negative consequences over which I felt entitled to drink. I kept going.

I was lucky but luck is accidental. I struggled with my drinking more than either of my friends who died in the crash. I became an alcoholic and was given the opportunity to get sober. My friends may not have been alcoholics, they were never given the chance to find out.

All of which is to say: focus on your actions and your feelings right now instead of what might happen in the future. More than figuring out of the alcoholic label applies or not. If you make a resolution to yourself about when you won't drink or what activities you won't engage in, write them down. If you find yourself constantly breaking those resolutions, go talk to someone at the health or counseling center. Be as honest with them and yourself as possible. As for your parents, you may agree with them, you may not. Listen to their concerns and discuss them with health professionals. In the meantime, be safe.

Regular Fix contributor Katie MacBride is not an expert or a mental health or medical professional; she is a sober person offering her experiences and advice about sobriety. Every other Tuesday she will answer one recovery-related question posed by our readers, based on her experience. Send your general advice questions to Katie at [email protected] with the subject "Ask Katie."

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Katie MacBride is a writer and the Associate Editor of Anxy Magazine. In addition to The Fix, her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, Quartz, and The Establishment. She writes an advice column about recovery for Paste Magazine. Follow her on twitter at @msmacb; find her work at www.katiemacbride.com.

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