Freshman Year, On the Rocks

by Shannon Moran

It’s a fairly faint scar now, though I still have the bloody pictures I sent my brother when it first happened. Louie deemed the rough gash to be a “botched appendectomy,” both in location (further research revealed the appendix to be on the right side of the abdomen, while the scar is on my left) and unprofessional appearance. “What the hell happened to you?” he asked. “That looks like a fucking battle wound.”

I replied that that was half true, if wrestling an old wooden chair counted as a battle.

My nineteenth birthday fell during a break from school my freshman year of college, necessitating a week of celebration by means of heavy drinking. The fourth and final night of festivities coincided with a rearranging of our dorm room, leaving my normal route to the top bunk (a chair to desk to bed roll that I had perfected over the course of the semester) reduced to a running vault onto an old, unstable wooden chair we’d found, and into bed. It was a dangerous enough venture while sober, and I just barely managed to get into my bunk that night by moving the chair right up to the edge of the bed.

While my roommates got into their pajamas, I fell sound asleep and, so they allege, began to talk to myself before going silent for a moment, sitting up, and turning to let my legs dangle off the edge of my bed. Before either could step in, I was in a dead-man fall off the top bunk and into an unconscious wrestling match with the wooden chair.

My memory kicks in at the front door of our dorm, at which point I remember a sharp pain in my abdomen, confusion as to why I was out of bed, and the paramedics arriving. There was an ambulance ride, the conclusion that I did not have internal bleeding, a shot of painkiller, and by 5am I was safely in a roommate’s bottom bunk, groaning myself back to sleep.

One might think that this would be sufficient motivation for my now nineteen-year-old self to reevaluate my drinking habits, but the badass factor of having a drinking battle wound only served to justify further escapades. “I’m Irish!” I’d yell. “A high tolerance is my God-given genetic right!” This I had noticed early on in my drinking career, and was something I clung to like a security blanket. Surely, I would not have been given such a high tolerance if I weren’t meant to drink that much.

As my friends and I began to mature out of drinking for the novelty of it and adjusted to schedules with greater work demands, our drinking calendars learned to accommodate. With “IT’S A DAY ENDING IN Y!” no longer a valid excuse to go out drinking, social rendezvous began to be planned for the end of particularly taxing weeks with the rationale that it’s-going-to-be-a-hellish-week-and-I’m-sure-as-hell-going-to-want-to-blow-off-some-steam. For most of my friends, “blowing-off-steam” meant a night spent with the gang; for me, it meant a night that I got alcohol.

It would take me over a year to recognize this fundamental psychological difference in the way my friends and I viewed drinking. There’s also, I later realized, a significant difference between myself and them when it comes to alcohol—while many of them come from families who either haven’t drunk alcohol for centuries (in the case of some of my Indian friends) or only drink lightly, I have a history of alcoholism on both sides of my family. Research over the last decade has indicated that college students with a history of alcohol abuse in the family are notably more likely to develop substance abuse problems both in college and beyond. And yet, despite the numerous alcohol and substance education programs in place at colleges across the country, there is no standard protocol (and often there is no protocol) for identifying students with family histories of alcohol abuse, a proven risk factor for potentially dangerous behavior during the college years and later life. Why should colleges take steps to identify incoming students with family histories of alcohol abuse, and what should they do in the way of education to prevent risky substance abuse among this high-risk group?

­

Blowing Off Steam—A College Culture of Alcohol

The Harvard School of Public Health’s “College Alcohol Study” reports that in 2001, 44.4% of respondent undergraduate students were classified as binge drinkers, a non-negligible increase or decrease over previous years (Wechsler, “Trends in College Binge Drinking” 207). Since its original publication in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1994, the Harvard School of Public Health’s definition of binge drinking as “five drinks in a row for men or four drinks in a row for women” has held as the industry standard, and introduced the idea of applying the label “binging” to college alcohol use (Dowdall 21).

“[W]hat the 1980’s labeled as a ‘party animal’ has now taken on the label of ‘binge drinker,’” complained one undergraduate to Harvard researchers (Wechsler, “Dying to Drink” 35). Indeed, in his thorough overview of the social influences on college drinking, George Dowdall, professor of sociology at St. John’s University, points out that in the years after the release of Animal House, the 1978 film that glorified college drinking and what we now view as the stereotypical “frat life,” drinking games became notably more present on college campuses. Later, “pre-gaming,” the act of drinking heavily before going out to party so as to arrive already buzzed, if not drunk, also became widespread on the college scene (Dowdall 5). What was once dismissed as adolescent foolishness, though, began to be viewed as a growing social problem in the 1990’s, when many colleges and universities began to amp up their substance education programs at the urging of the federal government.

Driving this shift was the increased media coverage of alcohol abuse and its consequences at universities around the country. The National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s Task Force on College Drinking reports that in 2009 alone, 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 died from “alcohol-related unintentional injuries,” nearly 97,000 students reported alcohol-related sexual assault or “date rape,” and over 599,000, including this author, were “unintentionally injured under the influence of alcohol”  (“A Snapshot of Annual High-Risk College Drinking Consequences”). While those chilling statistics regrettably can’t be undone, there are some statistics that can be changed through university intervention. The Task Force also reports that 31 percent of college students fit the criteria for alcohol abuse, while 6 percent fit the guidelines for alcohol dependence. In English? The Neurophsychological Assessment of Neuropsychiatric and Neuromedical Disorders puts it simply: alcohol dependence is just a less alarming way of saying alcoholism, which is defined as “a constellation of symptoms that develop in the context of  a maladaptive pattern of alcohol consumption and continue despite adverse life consequences” (Grant 398). Alcohol abuse is similar to alcoholism in most respects, though it does not involve the “tolerance, withdrawal, or a pattern of compulsive use,” as is the case with the former (Grant 399).

Almost half of our nation’s college students fit the criteria for binge drinking, and nearly a third are merely a step away from alcoholism. The status quo of alcohol abuse prevention in universities is clearly not working.

But I’m Irish!—A Family History

I may as well come out and be honest. Those stereotypes about the Irish? They’re true. My paternal grandparents have not missed their three-cocktail cocktail hour in my living memory, and I have no memory of meeting a maternal aunt before she and the family had a falling out over her alcohol problem. Apparently she has a daughter my age; I’ve seen pictures of us playing dress-up when we were little.

It’s not so much the being Irish that’s the problem (or at least, it can’t be blamed until some overarching alcoholic gene is found)—it’s the family history of alcohol abuse and dependence that’s found within nearly every Irish family. In the labeling system first coined by Miller and Marlatt in 1984, this makes me FH, or “family history,” positive. Namely, I have at least one biological relative that “has or has had a significant drinking problem—one that should or did lead to treatment” (LaBrie 2009). The jury’s still out on whether this relative in question is indicative of a genetic predisposition to alcohol abuse or merely provides a negative environmental influence.

Regardless, there is one thing for certain about being an FH+, college-aged female: you look at alcohol in a very different light than the average 20-year-old. On the bright side, when it comes to drinking games and general bragging rights, recent research reveals that FH+ individuals as a whole (not just me) exhibit a higher alcohol tolerance than FH- individuals—that is, a greater number of drinks is required to achieve the same buzzed effect (Indiana University). A study specifically focused on first-semester undergraduate women revealed that the FH+ group consumed more alcohol in general and during each episode of drinking, perhaps as a consequence of this heightened tolerance (LaBrie 2009).

Unfortunately, though, it’s not all fun and beer pong. In a follow-up study, LaBrie et al. revealed that while we FH+ women assess the negative results of alcohol use—aggression, cognitive impairment, etc.—as worse than our FH- peers do, possibly due to first-hand awareness, we’re also more prone to agree with assessments of alcohol’s positive effects—“liquid courage,” enhanced sex drive, and the like (LaBrie 2010). While we’re acutely aware of the risks and negatives of alcohol use, we’re also very in tune with how wonderful it is to be under the influence, even if it takes us twelve drinks to get there.

IT’S A DAY ENDING IN Y!—Current College Policies in Alcohol Abuse Prevention

Like many college freshmen, I was submitted to a thorough alcohol and drug abuse prevention program by my university of choice, MIT, deemed a 2004 “Model College Campus” in this regard by the United States Department of Education. According to the department’s overview of these model programs, successful campuses focus on three primary methods of substance abuse prevention:

  1. changing people’s knowledge, attitudes, and behavioral intentions regarding substance use (e.g., awareness programs, peer education);
  2. protecting students from short-term consequences (“health protection” strategies, such as safe ride of designated driver programs); and
  3. intervening with and treating students with substance use programs. (DeJong 7)

In particular, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that colleges focus in on students “identified as problem, at-risk, or alcohol-dependent drinkers,” where at-risk refers to students well on their way to one of the other categories, not those who may have genetic or environmental risk factors. To this end, the most successful campuses use in-person or web-based screenings of student drinking habits in order to make corresponding follow-up recommendations for healthier choices and available alcohol education options.

At MIT my first year, such web-based screenings and follow-up webinars were mandatory for freshmen, and my friends and I used to giggle as we were informed of our “problem drinker” status and told that our alcohol use placed us on the upper end of the spectrum among MIT students. We joked that it was the highest score we were ever likely to get on an exam in our four years there.

During none of this, though, do I ever recall being asked if I had a family history of alcoholism; and if I was, nothing came of it. There are two key parts to the university intervention model that must be present, and currently are not mandated by any governing body. First, the colleges must identify this high-risk group; second, there must be some level of subgroup-specific education. Without the second, the first serves no purpose.

Losing the Novelty—A Call For Revised University Policies

It’s widely accepted university practice in the United States to inquire into students’ drinking practices, and to recommend or require appropriate education or treatment courses for “risky” students. However, there is no nationally-accepted standard practice for dealing with students with a family history of alcohol abuse, a proven risk factor for dangerous substance use later on in life and particularly in college.

It took me a year to realize that something was amiss with the way I viewed alcohol—surely, there must be many other students with family histories of alcohol abuse that could be well-served by learning how their brain will respond differently to alcohol. Colleges ought to incorporate a specified version of alcohol education for students with family histories of alcoholism, informing these students of their increased risk for alcohol abuse during college and later on in life. Additionally, it should become a priority to identify these students, just as a college would any other high-risk group.

Will this cure binge drinking and alcohol abuse on America’s college campuses? No. But it’s certainly a step, and a do-able one, in the right direction. Would such an education program have prevented my freshman year battle wound? Impossible to say. Would I have been more cognizant of my drinking habits far earlier? Absolutely. Two years and several heaps of maturity and sobriety later, my ideal college campus would be one where incoming freshmen are taught to recognize their own risk factors and risky behavior before the university must intervene in the case of another problem drinker.

Now that would be something to drink to.

Works Cited

“A Snapshot of Annual High-Risk College Drinking Consequences.” College Drinking- Changing the Culture. National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s Task Force on College Drinking, 01 July 2010. Web. 4 Dec 2010. <http://www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov/statssummaries/snapshot.aspx&gt;.

DeJong, William. United States Department of Education. Experiences In Effective Prevention: Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention Models on College Campuses Grants. Newton, MA: The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention Education Development Center, Inc., 2007. Web. 6 Nov 2010. <http://purl.access.gpo.gov/GPO/LPS88603&gt;.

Dowdall, George W. College Drinking: Reframing a Social Problem. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009. Print.

Grant, Igor, and Kenneth M. Adams. “The Neurobehavioral Correlates of Alcoholism.” Neuropsychological Assessment of Neuropsychiatric and Neuromedical Disorders. 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Indiana University. “Alcohol Tolerance Associated With Family History.” ScienceDaily, 14 August 2002. Web. 6 November 2010. <http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2002/08/020814065654.htm>.

LaBrie, J., S. Kenney, A. Lac, and S. Migliuri. “Differential drinking patterns of family history positive and family history negative first semester college females. ” Addictive Behaviors  34.2 (2009): 190. Health Module, ProQuest. Web.  6 Nov. 2010.

LaBrie, J., S. Migliuri, S. Kenney, and A. Lac. “Family history of alcohol abuse associated with problematic drinking among college students. ” Addictive Behaviors  35.7 (2010): 721. Health Module, ProQuest. Web.  4 Nov. 2010.

Wechsler, H. et al., “Trends in College Binge Drinking During a Period of Increased Prevention Efforts,” Journal of American College Health. March 2002. p. 207.

Wechsler, Henry, and Bernice Wuethrich. Dying to Drink: Confronting Binge Drinking on College Campuses. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale, 2002. Print. p. 35.


Shannon Moran is a 4th generation Irish American who’s never been to Ireland and prefers IPAs to Guinness. A rising senior in the class of 2012, she’ll graduate with a degree in Chemical Engineering and a minor in Writing (and possibly Materials Science, if class schedules work out). She tends to shoo off questions about the nebulous topic of “post-MIT,” but current plans involve a year abroad in Germany followed by a PhD program in Chemical Engineering and Saving the World. She also says “hi” to any future employer that finds this essay.

This particular essay won first place in the Robert Boit Writing Prize Competition. It was written for Karen Boiko’s “Food for Thought” class, which the author highly recommends to anyone who likes writing and/or food.

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