The weekend alcoholic
By: Alon Coret
Drunk. Tipsy. Inebriated. Intoxicated. Hammered. Trashed. Sloshed. S***-faced. Slizzered. F***** up. Our extensive vocabulary says it all: alcohol consumption is very common in our society, especially on university campuses. For many first-year students, getting drunk has almost become a rite of passage. Alcohol is a substance that allows people to relax, feel less inhibited and be livelier, making it an integral part of any social occasion. Problems arise when alcohol consumption becomes excessive, leading to higher risk of negative physical and/or sexual behaviors, violence, vomiting, and in extreme cases even death.
It is easy to establish a dichotomy when it comes to drinking patterns by labeling people either as ‘alcoholics’ and ‘non-alcoholics.’ This oversimplification is not only wrong, but also gives many regular (and sometimes heavy) drinkers the chance to avoid the classification of alcoholism. Instead, we should be thinking of alcohol consumption as a continuum, ranging from normal, socially acceptable, and healthy drinking to detrimental, long-term drinking. The McMaster Student Wellness Center (SWC) outlines four main ‘types’ of drinkers that we should be aware of:
- Low to moderate drinkers: people who do not drink more than two drinks (drink = one standard beer, or one ounce of alcohol) during one sitting. This often includes middle-aged or elderly people who like to have a drink with their meals, and in such quantities, alcohol may even be beneficial for one’s health.
- Episodic drinkers: commonly known as “social drinkers” or “binge drinkers,” these are usually teenagers and young adults who do not drink daily, but when they do, they consume more than five standard drinks (men) or three standard drinks (women).
- Dependent drinkers: these are drinkers whose alcohol tolerance is much higher than when they first started drinking; they need much more booze to get the same buzz. Often characterized by withdrawal symptoms (headaches, nausea, etc), and feelings of anxiety or panic when alcohol is not readily available.
- Long-term drinkers: people whose life surrounds alcohol to the point where they are so addicted they cannot live without it. Long-term drinkers often lose their jobs or destroy relationships due to alcohol, and may run into debt from the high cost of their addiction.
While most university students fall into the first two categories, gradually developing a more serious dependence on alcohol is not as big of a jump as one might think.
The SWC also identified possible risk factors for becoming an alcoholic. These include: beginning to drink early (before age 16), drinking more than one to two drinks per day, being under a lot of stress, having an underlying psychiatric condition or being a smoker. One or more of these risk factors likely applies to many university students.
It’s not just long-term or dependent drinkers that experience negative effects on their health. Episodic, or binge drinking, can have serious health ramifications as well. A study conducted at the Complutense University of Madrid showed that binge drinking causes general brain deterioration similar to that caused by old age, such as dementia. Binge drinking has also been shown to damage the hippocampus region of the brain, affecting cognitive performance and long-term memory. Binge drinking is defined as five drinks or more in one sitting for men, and three or more drinks for women – this is not an uncommon amount to drink at a party.
While the responsibility of living a healthy and safe lifestyle lies in great part with the individual, their environment also plays a crucial role. On the McMaster campus, there are two venues serving alcohol to students – TwelvEighty and the Phoenix (you could also try the Faculty Club, but that’s a different story). There are numerous alcohol-infused parties and events taking place every year on school grounds, not to mention the countless off-campus alternatives. There is nothing illegal about having these options for students of drinking age, and there is nothing wrong with having a great time. It’s just important to recognize the environmental pressure on students - from venues as well as peers - that may encourage drinking.
The bottom line: most of us are aware that alcohol negatively impacts our health, but we should realize that it can do so even at quantities which we consider normal, or quantities that would ‘only make a lightweight drunk.’ The line separating healthy, typical drinking and alcoholism is often a fine one. Lastly, nobody should feel pressured to drink when coming to university. While it might seem as though everyone enjoys Thursday night clubbing, many surveys show that the majority of students do not see alcohol as being important at a party.
If you want to drink, that’s cool – just be smart about it.