College Drinking Then and Now

surviving_college-3026Like it or not, college life and drinking often go hand in hand. So what do you do, or think, or say when your own kid is soon to enter that four-year phase of alcohol meets academia? And will they really listen?

When I think back to my own college experience, the images that come to mind include lush green quads and the boundless energy of the students walking across them, the classes filled with youthful, eager faces (okay, not all so eager) and most certainly, the rousing football games with pitchers of bloody marys, the games of quarters and cheap beer, and the colorful jello shots that were a main attraction at many a late-night party.

Do I tell my daughters that nearly every night of the week, starting on tuesday, my crew of friends and I had a different bar we’d frequent once our studies were put to bed?

Times are different now. The legal drinking age isn’t 18, like it was when I was in college, and it seems that any level of moderation college drinkingwent out the window with the younger drinking age. Binge drinking is a big problem for college kids. So are incidents of sexual abuse, drunk driving, assault and death. (For a more elaborate list, check out A Snapshot of Annual High-Risk College Drinking Consequences.)

“On average, college students in the U.S. purchase an estimated 430 million gallons of alcoholic beverages, including 4 billion cans of beer annually,” reports an article titled, How Much Drinking is too Much for Students? in Marshall University’s newspaper.

Those are pretty astounding numbers.

My older daughter just finished her sophomore year at college, and has adjusted to the so-called drinking life that seems inevitable on nearly every campus. I’d like to think we taught her how to make smart choices and sound decisions. I have another daughter who’s got one year to go before she, too, is off to college. I’ll just have to hope that when my younger one goes off to school, she’ll use her brain both in class and at parties. And that like her sister, she’ll be good to her brain and body. It’d be naive to think that her college experience will be alcohol-free. And that’s okay. I hope.

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When Your Friend Is An Alcoholic

girls-drinkingby Ronna Benjamin

My friend Tammy had troubles, but it took me awhile to figure it out. She was a redhead who smoked menthols, loved music, dancing and beer.  Her father was a judge–a real one, but she herself was totally non-judgmental.

Tammy was the friend that held the ice to my ear Freshman year and then pierced a second hole in my left lobe, sterilizing the needle with the alcohol from our sloe gin fizzes.  She would drag me to frat parties,  grab a beer and start dancing, while I stood awkwardly in a corner complaining about the sticky floor.

I was one of the girls who left the party early, but Tammy always stayed and regaled us with great stories the next day. But as we got to be juniors and then seniors, the stories became increasingly uncomfortable to hear. There were times she slept with multiple men in one evening.  There were times when she blacked out.  There were times she woke up in places she did not want to be.

There was the time she came back to the dorm drunk at 3:00 am and burnt half her arm making popcorn.  There was the time she tearily told me she was pregnant, traces of gin on her breath, and pleaded with me to bring her to Planned Parenthood. I had driven halfway there the next day before she told me it wasn’t true–she wasn’t pregnant.  Never was.  It  was just her idea of a joke.  That almost ended our friendship, but I hung in there.

I knew there was something different about what happened when Tammy drank, but I wanted to be non judgmental too.  By day and on weeknights, Tammy was fine.  She studied, went to movies and plays, joined us for dinner, and did really well in her classes.  I thought once we graduated and she got a job, things would be different.  We were in college, after all.

In 1981, Tammy came to visit me at my apartment in Boston where I was in my first year of law school.  We went out on the town, but after a while, I wanted to go home.  She insisted I leave; told me she was having fun and would take a cab home.  Tammy got home safely in the early hours of the morning; but the next day she told me she had shared a bottle of vodka and slept with the cab driver.

And that is when I ended the friendship.

Telling Tammy that I thought she was an alcoholic was the hardest thing I ever did as a young woman, and amongst the hardest things that I have ever had to do.  I didn’t have the balls to tell her in person.  I called her from the safety of my bedroom, reading the words off a legal pad because I was so nervous. “Tammy, I think you have a problem with alcohol.  I think you are an alcoholic, and I cannot be friends with you until you get help.”  I described some of her behaviors that made me think so.  I described the hurt and worry she was causing me.  She said nothing, and hung up.

That was 32 years ago, and that was the last time I talked to Tammy, but it wasn’t the last time I thought about her.  As the years passed, I Googled her name.  Tammy was the first name I searched on Facebook.  One day, about a year ago, she “friended” me.  I barely recognized her picture, she had aged so. We had a brief FB exchange, but neither of us mentioned the alcohol.

A few months later, Tammy started a game with me on Words With Friends.  And I knew from those games that something wasn’t quite right.  She couldn’t get beyond 13 points.  She left spaces for triple words open.

I was waiting for Tammy to take her turn on Words With Friends when I read on Facebook that Tammy had died.  She was 53 and died “unexpectedly.”  I was not in her inner circle, so I don’t know the details of her death, and it was not my place to push. I was saddened, but to be honest, not shocked.

I had an alcoholic friend in college.  I told her the truth, abandoned her, and she died at 53.  I wonder now if I should have done something differently.

*This essay was originally published on


Will My Kid Be an Underage Drinker because of Ads on TV?

My 11-year-old son watches a ton of sports on television. Weekday evenings (after his homework is done, of course) and weekend afternoons are often spent surfing from basketball to baseball and back again. If there’s a tennis match or horse racing on, he may watch that too. With all the game and tournament coverage, however, come a constant stream of commercials—a great number of which are for the likes of an ice cold Bud, Michelob, or Coors Light.

So do watching, singing along with and remembering these frequent beer and booze advertisements mean he is more likely to drink alcohol as an adolescent? Apparently, yes, that’s a distinct possibility, according to a new study reported in Science Daily.

In the study, conducted at the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, researchers questioned more than 2,500 young people ranging from 15 to 20 years old about their exposure to alcohol, if they had a favorite alcohol ad, and if they owned alcohol-branded merchandise, among other behaviors.

After being shown 20 images from the most popular TV ads for alcohol, with the brand names removed, the participants were then asked if they remembered the ads, liked the ads and knew about the products being advertised.

The results showed that 59 percent of underage kids drank alcohol. Of those who drank, 49 percent had engaged in binge drinking (had more than six drinks in a row) at least once the previous year. Familiarity with TV alcohol advertising was much higher among the drinkers than nondrinkers, and having alcohol-branded merchandise or having a favorite alcohol ad was linked to more hazardous drinking.

“Underage drinking remains an important health risk in the U.S.,” said lead author Susanne E. Tanski, MD, MPH, FAAP, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. “In this study, we have shown a link between recognition of nationally televised alcohol advertisements and underage drinking initiation and heavier use patterns.”

I have to admit, I’ve never paid much attention to the product when my son calls me over to watch his favorite commercial of-the-moment. It’s usually the witty tune or humor that he’s urging me to notice. But after learning about this study and its results, I may encourage him to take a bathroom break or go grab a snack when the game on the screen is interrupted for a commercial break.

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Bracing for the Tour de Franzia

A couple of weeks ago, I received a letter from the dean at my daughter’s university. It wasn’t an update on the blooming cherry blossoms or the latest award-winning professors, but rather a serious warning.

In an effort to prevent any alcohol-related disasters, the dean’s letter asked parents to discuss the dangers of an event that takes place on campus each spring called the “Tour de Franzia.” I read on.

Apparently, the event involves teams of students drinking a box of Franzia—a 5-liter box holds the equivalent of 42 drinks—while going to various campus locations. Sounds like an intense, drunken scavenger hunt to me.

The dean urged parents to discourage students’ participation in this Springtime tradition, only three years old. Needless to say, the worries are many—from intoxicated students crossing busy streets to alcohol poisoning.

And the consequences go beyond the college campus and into the surrounding community. He writes: “A dramatic number of students required hospitalization for acute intoxication or injuries, flooding the emergency room at [the local] hospital and disrupting its normal operation.  Many of these students had potentially lethal blood alcohol levels.  Although our principal concern is the safety and well-being of students, we were also dismayed by significant damage and vandalism, numerous complaints from neighbors living adjacent to campus, and disrespectful treatment of the Public Safety officers and other staff who attempted to monitor and address concerns that arose during the event.”

Does the dean really believe that parents have that kind of influence with their college age children?

When my daughter returned home for Spring Break, I mentioned the letter—a warning e-mail was also sent to students—and asked her what she thought about it. Let’s just say that her reply made it clear she is indeed looking forward to the upcoming Tour.

But what so many college kids don’t realize is not only how dangerous these extreme drinking events can be, but also that binge drinking costs the health care system half a million dollars in blackout-related emergency room visits each year at the average large university, according to newly published research reported in U.S. News on

In a report published in the  journal Health Affairs, Marlon P. Mundt and Larissa I. Zakletskaia surveyed nearly a thousand students at five universities. During a two-year study, 30 percent of the men and 27 percent of the women visited the emergency department at least once, some with major injuries like broken bones and head or brain trauma. Of the 404 emergency visits reported by 954 participants in the study, about one in eight were associated with blackout drinking, the researchers found.

Mundt and Zakletskaia called binge drinking that can lead to a blackout–usually defined as drinking five or more alcoholic drinks by men or four by women during one occasion–“a pervasive public health problem” among college students.

“Fifty percent of college students who drink report alcohol-induced blackouts, and alcohol abusers in general put a heavy burden on the medical care system,” they wrote.

So while I imagine the Tour de Franzia will carry on as it has in recent years–despite the warnings and urging of the college administration–I imagine that every parent will pray it goes without the serious incident that these statistics suggest.

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One Step at a Time: One Year Sober

“One Step at a Time” is a series of original essays by writer and mom Patty N.  who has been chronicling her first year of sobriety.

by Patty N.

The day after tomorrow, my handy 12-Step iPhone app – the one with the sobriety calculator that I compulsively check every day – will finally read, “You’ve been sober for one year / 12 months / 365 days / 8,760 hours.”  Yes!

Needless to say, I will not be celebrating with champagne, like I did after drying out in 2008.  That was the year I set out to prove to myself that I wasn’t an alcoholic. So I quit drinking – except at my 25th high school reunion when, in my whiskey-impaired state, I got into a car driven by an inebriated classmate and, thankfully, didn’t die on the way to Denny’s.  I also drank on New Year’s Eve and blacked out after only a few glasses of champagne.  Then there were the prescription drugs – which I took not exactly as prescribed but, hey, at least they weren’t alcohol.

After my year “on the wagon,” I bought myself a big bottle of bubbly and picked up where I left off.  But it became very clear, very fast, that I shouldn’t drink and that I couldn’t stop.  Embarrassed and ashamed, I started counting days in AA.  At first, I felt like I was being punished. I’m the good kid, the hard worker, the hands-on mom, I thought to myself.  How did I end up here?  And, every time I said, “My name is Patty and I’m an alcoholic,” I would think to myself, But I quit for a year! I didn’t drink everyday! I was high-functioning! I can’t be an alcoholic!”

Slowly, though, the veil of self-criticism and harsh judgement receded and a gentle, clear-headed, self-compassion took its place.  I started wondering:  Would I hate myself for having asthma?  Would I attack myself if I had diabetes? Would I be terrified of running into someone I knew at the dentist office if I had gingivitis?  No!!  So why didn’t I view my alcoholism in the same, straightforward manner?  As Dr. Drew says (I can’t help it, I love him), alcoholism is about chemistry, not character. So why would I be ashamed about a condition over which I have no control?

Looking back, I’ve spent a lot of time this year regretting the past and, oftentimes, wishing to shut the door on it.  I realize that’s part of the process. But as I mark this significant milestone, I’d like to quit mourning my old life and start celebrating my new one.  On Sunday, I will go to my regular AA meeting and announce that I have one year of continuous sobriety.  I’ll collect my special anniversary coin and an amazing group of people, whose last names I may never know, will greet me with applause and hugs and flowers from the corner deli.  And I will call myself an alcoholic, without reservation, without judgement, without shame, and with enough strength to finally bust through that cocoon of self-hatred and fly like a beautiful liberated butterfly.


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