"College drinking . . . to me it was all about getting drunk. I can actually recall being afraid that I wouldn't be 'drunk enough' for a concert, or for a football game. I would drink almost frantically and of course in haste. Sometimes, this provided a great buzz . . . other times it would hit me like a ton of bricks and I would end up throwing up on my boyfriend's comforter. You never knew."
~Lauren, college graduate
"Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights I would black out, not know how I got home, and I would leave my credit card out."
~Andrea, college graduate
"College partying consisted of drinking at parties/bars and continuing the binge drinking until I would run home by myself or throw up and go home."
~Tiffany, college graduate
Lauren and Tiffany were binge drinkers in college, but as young professionals they were able to normalize their drinking and are not alcoholic. In contrast, Andrea was unable to phase out of college binge drinking and is a high-functioning alcoholics now in recovery. These quotes demonstrate the confusion of determining whether heavy college drinkers are alcoholics or problem drinkers who will phase out of these drinking habits. Recovering high-functioning alcoholics often have insight into their past drinking and can see signs of their drinking problems from the start of their drinking in high school or college. However, during the time of college binge drinking and even as young professionals, these individuals may have a difficult time knowing or admitting that they are alcoholic.
Research from the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA) indicates that about 72% of people have a single period of heavy drinking in their life that lasts on average 3-4 years, and then they may mature out of it. This period peaks between the ages of 18-24 and most often occurs during college. There are 11 million underage drinkers nationally and over 7 million binge drinkers. Unfortunately, there is no clear way to determine which individuals will phase out of binge drinking and which will continue. There are a number of risk factors that increase the chance of an individual being alcoholic that include:
• The Surgeon General's 2007 "Call to Action" report indicates that genetics account for 50% of the risk of developing alcoholism, therefore, family history is one of the strongest determinations of who may be alcoholic. In addition, the drinking culture of the individual's family and the role that alcohol plays.
• The age that he or she began drinking is another key factor. Specifically, research by the NIAAA indicates that teens who begin drinking before the age of 15 have a 40% greater chance of becoming alcoholic with or without a family history of alcoholism.
• Certain work or graduate school environments tend to incorporate alcohol into their social events such as going out after work or class for drinks or drinking while networking (ie, law, business). These cultures may normalize heavy drinking and also breed a "work hard, play hard" mentality that enables alcoholic drinking patterns.
• The drinking patterns of the group of friends that he or she lives with or socializes with. Heavy drinkers tend to migrate towards spending time with others who drink like they do and this often allows them to justify and minimize their excessive drinking.
• The individual's predispositions toward mental illness (such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety) or a trauma history (PTSD) may lead he or she to self-medicate with alcohol.
• Impulse-control issues that include thrill-seeking behaviors and a need for immediate gratification.
• Certain drinking patterns are "red flags" for alcoholism including: blacking out (ie, memory loss when drinking),inability to have just 1-2 drinks, obsessing about alcohol, rotating their social life around alcohol, drinking daily or frequently, behaving in shameful ways while drunk, always needing to drink excessively before going to a party (ie, "pre-partying") and surrounding themselves with peers who drink heavily.
HFAs don't grow out of a heavy drinking phase, while those around them may. It sometimes takes until HFAs are in their mid-late twenties, thirties or older before it is clear that this drinking phase is not ending. But this does not mean that they will then stop drinking, because HFAs are able to maintain jobs, friendships, etc, and may not feel that there is reason enough to stop drinking. Over time, their alcoholism may begin to progress so that they experience negative consequences (ie, DUI, failed romantic relationships, high-risk sexual behavior, increased guilt and shame, health issues, weight gain, hurting others emotionally or physically). The best method for young professionals to find out if they can leave their college drinking days behind them is to try and control their drinking. If they never try to control it then they may fall deeper into denial and continue to engage in risky behaviors. Alcoholism does not need to keep progressing- now can be the time to become aware of heavy drinking patterns and to make a change.
The NIAAA "Rethinking Drinking" is an online program targeted towards young professionals and can help them to assess their drinking and even set goals to cut back on their drinking. (http://rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov/).
Source: My new book release, "Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic: Professional Views and Personal Insights". For more information or alcoholism resources, please visit www.highfunctioningalcoholic.com