You're not an alcoholic
“It’s been an awful week - I need a drink”
“I have such a drinking problem”
“I’m an alcoholic”
In college, I’ve heard all these phrases at least once.They’re said through smiling teeth, effortlessly sliding off our lips, casually eliciting smirks, agreements, and laughs from people around us. These terms seem to fit so naturally into nostalgic stories of high-school and college, into plans for the future, into moments in the present. They parallel the words “party,” “fun” and “Saturday,” with no one thinking twice about the gravity that alcoholism really holds.
Even though I’m smiling during these moments, my stomach turns and my heart leaps up into my throat as the severity of these words crashes into me. Now, I know they would understand if I expressed my discomfort, my friends would understand -- but somehow I can’t bring myself to say the simple words, feeling as if not using these terms somehow excludes me from my peers. But why does my heart beat a little faster when I hear it thrown into such normal conversation?
Why do I perceive the normalization of this word in casual conversation as such a volatile thing? It’s because alcoholism, which is a serious addiction, has become so normalized in our description of college culture, trivializing the experiences of the 15 million Americans who struggle with alcohol abuse. Alcoholism is not classified by our desire to drink on the weekends with our friends or go out to a bar; alcoholism is a physical compulsion and mental obsession that defies common sense and becomes either a subconscious or conscious priority for those afflicted. This addiction can lead to a variety of detrimental health effects, but also has the potential to harm others involved in the lives of those afflicted. I pray that this is not what my peers are referring to when they use this term, and I know that this is generally not the case.
I grew up in a house where alcohol use was discussed openly and healthy drinking habits were generally practiced and taught throughout my early teens. But I also knew that alcoholism ran in my family. My maternal grandfather passed away due to continued alcohol abuse throughout his life, culminating in a binge drinking night that led to his death on my second birthday. My aunt has been in and out of rehab for the past 20 years, sometimes leaving her family for years- long periods to attempt to overcome the addiction, which, despite a myriad of resources, she has not been able to stay on the wagon for very long.
These familial ties to alcoholism tainted my perception of drinking, no matter what lessons and habits my parents attempted to teach me. When I partied in high school and the beginning of college, I occasionally thought about my genetic predisposition to alcohol, the damage the substance had caused to my family, or the problems that heavy drinking on weekend nights could cause. I considered my judgements regarding alcohol to be pretty decent and I didn’t let these moments prevent me from going to the same parties as my friends or matching them shot for shot.
Then the end of September came, and I received a phone call on a Sunday, as I was studying with some friends. I can hear the catch in her voice as she calmly asks me about my weekend. Worried, I ask if everything is okay. She responds with a deep, shaky, sigh and tells me:
“Your father has been arrested for an aggravated DWI and is currently in jail.”
My nose starts to tingle as I feel the initial shock turn into anger and fear as she begins to tell me the details of the previous day. That he had been drinking before he left work to come home, taken down a hotel sign, and had called the cops to report it -- blowing a 0.12, far over the legal limit. She had no idea when he was getting out. She had tried to tell him not to drink to de-stress before coming home and that this habit had been going on for years. I remember feeling so genuinely irate with my father for drinking and driving, for acting as if he had healthy drinking habits, for lying to my mom and I when he came home at night. For condemning my aunt’s behavior, yet being a complete hypocrite.
How could someone so important in my life, that I had looked up to as an example of success, make such poor decisions?
As the initial emotions subsided, I realized that maybe my anger had been poorly placed. My father, while part of this instance could be attributed to poor decision making, needed help; he was afflicted with the same addiction that had affected so many others in my family. Although he had the DWI expunged off of his record due to extenuating circumstances and exceptional legal advice, his relationship with alcohol hasn’t changed -- he continues to see alcohol as a way to de-stress, drives home after a few shots of bourbon, harming not only himself, but his family too.
I began to become increasingly conscious of the way that myself and my peers were using alcohol, especially the ways that we discussed our various experiences with the substance; the nonchalant nature of the way we talked about alcohol addiction was honestly frightening. While I had entered college expecting a party culture that revolved around binge drinking and alcohol, I was completely surprised by the way these experiences were talked about.
The terms “alcoholic” and “drinking problem” were almost completely normalized terms in our college vernacular. I refused to speak out in fear of being oversensitive or losing my friends. As we have entered a new era of social life on campus due to the pandemic, I’ve had a lot of time to think about why I was too anxious to speak out about my feelings and about the ways we discuss alcohol use on campus. About the way that our normalized use of these terms dismisses the experiences of people struggling with alcoholism. About the societal circumstances that engendered such a frivolous use of these terms on a campus that promotes acceptance, understanding, and inclusion.
So why has this term become such a normalized and accepted part of the college vernacular? While I don’t believe that I have the capabilities or knowledge to answer this question, I can at least offer some insight. Colleges, especially Duke, are places where extreme success is valued; it's what gained many of us admission into the school in the first place. Those who have internships at the most prestigious companies, are in the most difficult classes, and have the most interesting experiences gain respect and clout among their peers; it is an avenue for us to make the friends we so deeply desire in an incredibly new atmosphere. We use humor to discuss these experiences to make sure we aren’t overtly bragging, complaining about how class A is “kicking my ass” or how “it must be a mistake” that we got internship B because of how competitive it is or that “we’re drowning” in all the work club C is giving us, even if this isn’t the case.
This desire for social acceptance through extremes and the way that we talk about ourselves bleeds over into our social lives. Our ability to rally for a party after a darty, the insanity of the previous night, or the people we hooked up with all generally become experiences that we exaggerate to impress other people. We recognize the terms “alcoholism” and “alcoholic” to be similar extremes, using it to impress upon our friends just how exciting and deserving of their approval we are, that we can reach similar extremes, that we have clout too. This desire to be included in a space where radical exceptionalism in all parts of our lives is not an option, but a requirement, causes us to trivialize terms that describe extremes that aren’t applicable to our situations. “PTSD,” “ADD,” “anxiety,” and “depressed” are also used indiscriminately to describe our experiences, discounting the struggles and value of those who actually experience them. However, unlike these terms, alcoholism has become intricately associated with how we define the college experience, more specifically how we describe an exciting and memorable college experience that gains us respect in our social circles and on campus in general. We learn to use this extreme vocabulary in a trivial way to parallel the exceptionalism that we see as a necessity, that we strive for in our academic lives.
So here’s my proposal: the college drinking culture needs to change and the language around it does too. The binge drinking, excessive partying, and trivialization of what alcoholism is can have serious consequences for our futures; if we continue to see alcohol as an essential avenue for fun, stress relief, relaxation, and peer-approval, alcoholism may become a serious issue for all of us, impacting our adult life and our relationships in irreparable ways. Unless you believe that you actually exhibit the characteristics that define alcoholism or are worried that someone you know might actually have a drinking problem, refrain from using the terms “alcoholic” or “alcoholism.” When we use them in such an off-handed and casual way, it discounts the experiences of those struggling with alcoholism, trivializing the concept and the struggle.
This is not just a plea to the Duke community, but also to college drinking and party culture in general -- drinking is a part of the party scene on college campuses, something that many people enjoy, including myself. However, the language used must be changed in order to promote compassion and understanding about alcohol use disorders and accurately depict and support those struggling with this disease; I hope that, as a community, we can begin to understand the weight that these words carry, changing both our behavior and the language that we use to discuss our college experiences.