Young Drunk: Social Drinker or Alcoholic?

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I didn’t just drink when I was young. I drank alcoholically, drinking as much as possible as often as possible, and getting sucked into every drinking game in the book. I drank Jungle Juice. I played beer pong. I did “kegstands,” which meant being hoisted upside down to drink directly from the keg’s tap, flipping my shirt up and exposing my bra in the process. Luckily, I was too drunk to care.

I “bonged” beers, sucking an entire beer down in a few gulps from the business end of a funnel-and-tube contraption. I played “power hour,” taking one shot of beer a minute for a full hour, drinking the equivalent of five beers in sixty minutes. I played “Edward Forty-hands,” a game where you tape a forty-ounce bottle of beer to the hands of everyone at the party. Once bound, you can do nothing with your hands until you’ve consumed eighty ounces of beer. This can get complicated, because you have to finish the drinks fast in order to free a hand to go the bathroom. Drinking twenty-one shots on your twenty-first birthday is a newer tradition, one I missed. When I mentioned that tradition to people my parents’ age, they were shocked, but it’s ingrained enough in youth culture today that my twenty-five-and-under friends just shrugged when I asked them if it was normal.

Binge drinking is officially defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as consuming more than five drinks within a single day. I first heard that during college, and I almost spit out my beer. Five drinks isn’t binge drinking! That’s a regular Thursday night. I wasn’t alone. More than a third of American college students binge drink.

I found it hard to believe at first, but fourteen percent of these drinkers have had ten or more drinks in one sitting. I had to verify those numbers over multiple sources to believe it. Ten or more drinks is a lot, so I was surprised that so many students admitted to doing it. Some take it to a deeper extreme: almost six percent will have as much as fifteen or more in an evening. Fifteen. That’s about a fifth of hard liquor. This type of drinking is known as “extreme” binge drinking, which sounds more like an X-Games event than a medical term.

Ten to fifteen drinks would be enough to get anyone wasted. I should know. I drank that much regularly. It’s definitely enough to make a 150-pound eighteen-year-old male vomit in his sleep, and could even be enough to put a 125-pound eighteen-year-old female in a coma. The first time I got drunk, I went to the hospital with a BAC of 0.36. I couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds at the time. I shouldn’t have been able to walk out of the hospital that night. I’m unbelievably lucky.

The more often someone drinks, the more her body will adjust to having blood laced with booze. That’s why I was able to drink more and more over time. I was proud of it. I could drink a lot of full-grown men under the table, and I liked to prove it. This is also known as building a tolerance, which is the same thing that can kill a longtime heroin addict. The amount of drug needed to catch a high starts to exceed what the body can physically handle. Binge drinking is one way to increase your tolerance, and after a few years of regular drinking, I was a pro.

I refused to admit that my drinking had gotten out of control. I told myself that bingeing is a symptom of alcoholism like nausea is a symptom of pregnancy. Not all pregnant women experience nausea, and not all nausea indicates pregnancy, so you can’t automatically assume that every nauseated woman is with child. She might just have the flu, or maybe food poisoning, or a migraine. Just because I binged didn’t mean I was an alcoholic. People who watched me drink didn’t think I was an alcoholic, either. They thought I was celebrating. Or maybe I’d had a bad day. They say, “I never thought you were a drunk.” Then they look down and sigh, “But then again, I was drinking, too.”

At some point during my downward spiral, I started to wonder if maybe I was drinking too much. I took an online quiz, trying to convince myself that I was just a youthful partier, that I wasn’t a problem drinker or an alcoholic.

NCADD Self-Test: What are the Signs of Alcoholism?

1. Do you drink heavily when you are disappointed, under pressure or have had a quarrel
with someone? Yes
2. Can you handle more alcohol now than when you first started to drink? Yes
3. Have you ever been unable to remember part of the previous evening, even though
your friends say you didn’t pass out? Yes
4. When drinking with other people, do you try to have a few extra drinks when others
won’t know about it? Yes
5. Do you sometimes feel uncomfortable if alcohol is not available? Yes
6. Are you more in a hurry to get your first drink of the day than you used to be? Yes
7. Do you sometimes feel a little guilty about your drinking? Yes
8. Has a family member or close friend express concern or complained about your drinking? Yes
9. Have you been having more memory “blackouts” recently? Yes
10. Do you often want to continue drinking after your friends say they’ve had enough? Yes
11. Do you usually have a reason for the occasions when you drink heavily? No
12. When you’re sober, do you sometimes regret things you did or said while drinking? Yes
13. Have you tried switching brands or drinks, or following different plans to control your drinking? Yes
14. Have you sometimes failed to keep promises you made to yourself about controlling or
cutting down on your drinking? Yes
15. Have you ever had a DWI (driving while intoxicated) or DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol) violation, or any other legal problem related to your drinking? No
16. Do you try to avoid family or close friends while you are drinking? No
17. Are you having more financial, work, school, and/or family problems as a result of
your drinking? Yes
18. Has your physician ever advised you to cut down on your drinking? Yes
19. Do you eat very little or irregularly during the periods when you are drinking? No
20. Do you sometimes have the “shakes” in the morning and find that it helps to have a
“little” drink, tranquilizer or medication of some kind? No
21. Have you recently noticed that you can’t drink as much as you used to? No
22. Do you sometimes stay drunk for several days at a time? No
23. After periods of drinking do you sometimes see or hear things that aren’t there? No
24. Have you ever gone to anyone for help about your drinking? No
25. Do you ever feel depressed or anxious before, during or after periods of heavy drinking? Yes
26. Have any of your blood relatives ever had a problem with alcohol? No

I answered “yes” to sixteen of the twenty-six questions. That put me in the “serious level of alcohol-related problems requiring immediate attention and possible treatment” category. I took it again and got the same results. I took a different quiz the following week. And another a month after that. Every time I took one of those quizzes, the results said I should seek treatment for my alcohol consumption, but I still didn’t believe it.
I wasn’t a bum. I wasn’t drinking in the morning. I didn’t get the shakes or hallucinate. I called the tests bogus. I knew better. I was different from those people who can’t control their drinking without a support group and a chip that says how many days its been since the last drink. I thought I didn’t need help. I was wrong.

I don’t know if binge drinking caused my alcoholism, or if I was an alcoholic from the start. The culture surrounding alcohol in my teens and early twenties certainly made it easy for me to drink lots and lots of booze without being labeled a drunk. From the very first time I had more alcohol available to me than I could physically consume, I binged, to the point that I had to be hospitalized. No one else went to the hospital that day, even though we all got drunk. I wasn’t alone in my overindulgence, but I was somehow different. I was an alcoholic, but it took me ten years to admit it and finally get sober. I’m glad I did, because it saved my life. I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t found the courage to say, “Hi, I’m Emma, and I’m an alcoholic.”

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3 Comments

  1. 1

    Thank you for sharing. The type of drinking is different for every alcoholic, but one thing remains the same: all alcoholics are powerless over alcohol, but they think they are the exception to the rule – that they are different, that they can overcome their drinking on their own. You are not alone by any means. I’m so glad that you realized that.

    I’m not an alcoholic, but the love of my life is. I didn’t know him when he was drinking, but ironically I feel like I benefit enormously from the fact that he is a sober alcoholic in recovery. Because he works his program, our relationship is completely honest and transparent, and we have a deep intimacy that comes in large part from him working the spiritual program of AA. I think alcoholics in recovery have a lot to bring to their relationships with family, lovers, and friends. As terrible a thing as being a drinking alcoholic is, being a sober alcoholic is a beautiful life full of love, giving, and gratitude. I wish you nothing less.

    • 2

      I agree! I often wish ‘non-alcoholics’ had such a spiritual program that would help them engage in a lot of the healthy and intimate relationship behaviors a 12-step program can offer.

    • 3

      Thanks so much for your comment, Elizabeth. I agree with everything you said, and I’m so grateful to know the beauty of recovery. It’s improved my life, my husband’s life, my pets’ lives, and even my parents, siblings, and friends. I’m available now, in a way that I never was before. Best of luck to you and your love! It sounds like you’ve got a good thing going.

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