College drinking culture brutal for some

By TaylorGleason

In fall 2005, Nick Molyneux was admitted to Forest View Mental Health Services in Grand Rapids, Mich. While a freshman at Grand Valley State University, Molyneux spent his first few months partying. After one particular night of hard partying, he woke up to call his parents for help.

Molyneux didn’t always struggle with substance abuse. Months prior he was a typical college freshman, and like his fellow classmates, he enjoyed partying and drinking socially. But things quickly spun out of control.  Alcohol led to drugs, which led to an episode with an 8-ball, a cocaine and heroin mix, that landed Molyneux in rehab. His time there was filled with therapy sessions, lectures and group talks with fellow recoverees. Men and women were kept separate at Forest View and patients were required to wear sandals, or other footwear without shoelaces.

“Honestly, I can’t remember how long I was there,” Molyneux said. “I know it was less than a week, but more than three days.”

Once released, he started attending Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

The Midwest winter passed.  As Molyneux tried to climb out of his troubles, “Sam,” a 32-year-old Chicagoan, who requested anonymity,  was deep into the drug and alcohol lifestyle he adopted in college. By spring 2006, Sam would find himself in the hospital after he too took an 8-ball and binge drank.

A thin man with a premenant smirk, Sam previously worked in the music industry and to him, drugs and alcohol were a part of business. But growing up, he heard his uncle—a recovering alcoholic—admit a lack of control over alcohol abuse and the confession never left Sam’s mind.

By the time Sam’s ex-wife proposed rehab, he had spent four days detoxifying in the hospital and he was ready to admit to himself that he had lost control. He was admitted to New

Hope Recovery Center in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, a place that enforced gender segregation, supervised outdoor smoke breaks and limited the possessions of those under treatment.

“But we could wear shoelaces,” Sam said.

Deciphering the Trend

Unhealthy consumption of alcohol has always been synonymous with student lifestyles. But the prominence and magnitude of binge drinking has escalated substantially in the past five to 10 years, according to Mariann Piano, a professor at University of Illinois at Chicago who studies long-term effects of heavy drinking and adverse drinking patterns.

Most experts define binge drinking as the consumption of dangerous amounts of alcohol—sometimes they draw the line at four drinks per night for women, and five for men—or drinking with the intent to become overly intoxicated.

So why is it almost unheard of to find college students who can limit themselves to the enjoyment of just one drink?

“That’s the golden egg question, or probably the most important thing that we don’t know,” Piano said. “It’s very complex.”

Adjusting to school demands, being away from home, continued hormonal maturation and socializing are all factors Piano said promote unhealthy partying behavior.

“I did it because I wanted to, because I needed to,” Sam said. “I wanted to get messed up as much as possible, and I did.”

While drinking remains a preeminent aspect of college culture, it’s difficult to know exactly why Molyneux and Sam landed in rehab while most of their friends who partied just as heavily went on to lead a balanced life.

Neither Molyneux nor Sam knew they were destined to be different than their friends. Sam was a music major at Elmhurst College, where he studied piano and there was always a party to attend.

“There were parties in my dorm room pretty much every night,” Sam said. “We would pack 20 people in my dorm room.”

Similar to how Piano mentioned drinking as a major player in most college social scenes, Sam said he believes it functions as a competition arena for men.

“I think in the United States, for men, drinking is kind of a macho thing,” Sam said. “I can’t speak about women—I know plenty of female alcoholics. But I think for men it’s just a macho thing. If you can drink more than the guy next to you, then you were tougher … I didn’t really think like that because I could always out-drink anyone.”

However, Sam said his ability to drink more than anyone he knew didn’t attract women because he “would get sloppy drunk and keep drinking.”

Molyneux also subscribes to Piano’s belief that students turn to alcohol while adjusting to the college environment.

“When you’re in college, you’re thrust into this world that most people aren’t ready for,” Molyneux said. “You’re forced to take care of yourself and that stress weighs down on people.”

Molyneux said he noticed that students spend most of their week studying alone in their room, so students binge drink during the short weekend because it’s the only time they have to relax.

“As soon as the weekend comes around, they know that they only have Friday night [and] Saturday night to get their excitement,” Molyneux said. “A lot of people drink heavily on the weekend, so it’s almost like a skewed or perverse version of time management.”

In hindsight, Molyneux said he can see he wasn’t only making the most of his opportunities to party, but was also using alcohol to avoid dealing with anxiety.

Molyneux would not be considered an alcoholic because his troubles were a slew of mental, drug and alcohol issues. He wasn’t addicted to alcohol. But the medical community and he himself would label him as an abuser.

“In the beginning, I was able to have only one drink at a time,” Molyneux said.

He considered himself a lightweight and as he built a tolerance, he learned that he didn’t like to have only one drink.

“Having one was pointless to me,” Molyneux said. “I didn’t like the taste and if it’s not doing anything for me, then there’s no reason to be doing it.”

Facing Demons

Although May 5 isn’t Sam’s real birthday, he also celebrates this day in honor of his choice to become sober. He said he thinks of that day as the start of his new life. Sam said he finds it humorous that his new birthday falls on Cinco de Mayo, a holiday which, like St. Patrick’s Day, he considers “an amateur’s drinking day.”

In the days following his new birthday, Sam was treated at New Hope with therapists and counselors who dealt with reasons why people abuse


“They addressed every issue. They educated us about alcoholism and drug addiction,” Sam said. “And they also educated us about the ‘Big Book’ of Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s the best book I’ve ever read in my life.”

Patients at New Hope were also introduced to scientific studies that link alcoholism to certain genes.

The discovery of this was interesting to Sam and a breakthrough for his mother.

“When I first got sober my mother used to think it was her fault that I drank too much,” Sam said. “Then she started going to Al-Anon meetings [a support group for friends and family members of alcoholics] and realized that she is not to blame. It was my decision to drink in excess.”

Prescription meds, group sessions and therapists in Forest View helped Molyneux face his anxiety. Then he attended outpatient programs that assigned him introspective homework to help him invest in himself.

“That’s the foundation to any recovery,” Molyneux said. “If you have things you’re not dealing with, they will come up again, there’s no doubt.”

He also said he grew up a little and realized he no longer cares to wake up “with a violent headache and throwing up” in the mornings.

Systematic plans that support a healthy approach to alcohol are the most crucial ways in which Piano believes binge drinking can be fought.  This includes identifying and targeting risk factors.

These factors are mostly environmental: family life, selling alcohol near schools, Greek life and advertisements for alcohol on campus. These systems enable, if not encourage college students.

Piano said she believes parents must take a more active role in their child’s life.

“It is sort of thought that your kid is in college and there isn’t much parent involvement, but there is,” Piano said. “Parents should remind their kids of the dangers of drinking and stay involved.”

On a much larger level, both the U.S. Surgeon General and the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism target these risk factors, Piano said.

Strict and specific rules that restrict underage drinking on college campuses would greatly decrease the amount of binge drinking, according to Piano. She also said the popular belief in a younger drinking age, like that of Europe, is not the answer to changing our country’s drinking culture.

“There’s a lot of data in Europe that actually shows most European countries where kids are allowed to drink have the highest rates of binge drinking,” Piano said.

She added that the U.S. ranks 25th for binge drinking throughout the world.

Never-ending Recovery

Molyneux attended Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for nearly three years after his time in rehab. He said he believes he got everything he could from them and no longer attends.

“Recovery is not an end point,” he said. “But for now, I found a different way to live and until I am wrong about it, I will stay this way.”

The new way of continual life changes come in the form of restructuring his time. Molyneux works five days a week, so there are no more midweek binges. He said this helps him face his anxiety while sober and clear-of-mind. Molyneux said drinking remains a social event for him and his friends, but he avoids having a whole drink with each of his friends because it could lead to 10 drinks a night.

What might surprise some is that even after everything Sam went through with his addiction, he doesn’t believe students should stop drinking completely.

“Drinking is a part of college,” Sam said. “I know that sounds weird and selfish. To be honest, I don’t think people should stop drinking. Just don’t drink yourself

into oblivion.”

Whenever you talk to Sam about his former alcohol habits, he is quick to remind both you and himself that he remains an alcoholic. In his mind, he will always be an alcoholic—a pervasive mantra in Alcoholics Anonymous teaching.

“If I even think that I am not an alcoholic, then I’ll start having crazy thoughts like, ‘Oh, I can handle one drink,’ even though I never had just one drink,” Sam said.

Sam is Jewish and he said his deep belief in God is a part of his recovery. On the day he chose to change his life, Sam said he told God he needed help.

“And God has always been with me.”