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College and Law School Drinking

I made it through junior high school and high school drinking regularly on weekends.  I could drink a lot.  Miraculously, no one seemed to know how inferior I was and I was somehow elected as president of everything honor society, junior high, freshman, junior, and senior class, key club, and high school fraternity.  My grades were above average. The head cheerleader was my girl.

I attended UNC Chapel Hill for four years during the early 1970’s.  Drug experimentation was rampant and alcohol was everywhere.  I smoked pot every day.  I tried to become a doctor, but couldn’t understand the material.  I found an English professor who was generous with grades and followed him from course to course.  I graduated with honors but without any meaningful relationship or any recollection of what I had learned.

In law school, I succeeded out of a fear of failure.  I never drank until I finished studying and then I drank to relax quickly and to get to sleep.  This method of drinking followed me into the practice of law.  I never drank in the morning, and always was able to wait to drink until I finished work or other activities, whether that was at 5:00 p.m. or 1:00 a.m.

Seeing double while editing footnotes for a Bluebook exercise was troublesome.  I was in my second semester of law school, and I knew my problem with alcohol had not been abated by the academic challenge.  The intended one glass of wine before I started my homework turned into a bottle.  I completed the exercise by closing one eye, squinting at the computer screen, and trying to bluff my way through.  The Bluebook exercise was completed, but I never did write the article for the law review; drinking was more important to me.

My drinking had been a problem long before I enrolled in law school.  I drank in high school and college, and had fun most of the time.  I did drink more than my friends, and prided myself in my ability to hold my liquor.  Marriage to a drinking companion was predictable.  We partied hard with others who drank as much as we did.  Like many women, I was in a relationship with a man who drank along with me.

My drinking career took off in my junior year of high school.  I never had just one, or even two.  From the time my friends and I began drinking on the weekends, I got drunk every single time, often to the point of vomiting, only to get up and drink more.  My parents didn’t catch on because I managed to stay at the top of my class and work my way towards college.  There was never any question that I would do well in school, nor was there any discussion about whether or not I would go to college  it was simply a matter of where and the quality of the school.  Needless to say, as the stress mounted I drank more  sometimes, as I look back, I cannot believe how high-strung I was, often to the point of breaking.  I even think that my weekend binges may have kept me sane.

My first experience with drugs, ironically enough, occurred while I was in law school.  I experimented with pot, which I enjoyed and used primarily to relax and end my evening.  That was as far as I went, other than drinking alcohol, which I also limited to weekends.

I had gone straight from college into law school and from there to a job with a reputable firm.  Having clerked for this firm the previous summer, I knew that not only would I learn a lot in my chosen area of practice, but also I would never want for drinking companions.  It was easy to continue a pattern of drinking that I began early in my college days.

I started drinking in late high school.  It was the cool thing to do and it made me feel accepted and relaxed.  When I moved into the real world, I began to drink liquor, and I began to drink everyday.  There came a time ten years or more ago when I knew that I was drinking too much, but I would not let myself think that I was an alcoholic.  I thought that if I ever became an alcoholic, I would go to AA and get fixed  learn to control my drinking or maybe even quit altogether.  In the meantime, I kept drinking.  No lost weekends.  No missed workdays.  No DWI’S.  But I began to drink more and more after work (usually at home) and on weekends.  I began to note some of the damaging effects drinking was having on me.  I finally realized that I had a real drinking problem a bad one.  But I thought that I needed the alcohol.  Far from thinking that I would function better and be happier without alcohol, I thought that without it I could not function or be happy at all.  I began to despair.

I drank in college, but the alcoholic drinking started in the military and persisted through law school and the next 22 years.  I was a quite drinker.  I did not hang out in bars; I drank either in the office at night or at home.  I thought I hid my drinking well from everyone else.

All of the quotes above come from lawyers who are alcoholics, describing their patterns of alcohol use in college and law school.

These quotes, along with the recently released Report by a task force of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, tracing for the first time alcohol use among college students to the impact on their health and safety, suggests every college and law school student needs to evaluate his/her use of alcohol.

There is a brief flurry of local media attention when a college or law student dies from alcohol overuse, but the thrust of The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Report is much more far reaching.  While isolated incidents make the news, the Report demonstrates that excessive drinking is a widespread, destructive, persistent and costly problem that affects virtually all college and university communities and their students, whether the students drink or not.

The accompanying sidebar from the report gives statistics that demonstrate the pervasive and persistent nature of excessive student drinking.  These facts describe a social trend that has become a college tradition.  The tradition of student drinking has, over time, developed into a kind of culture entrenched at every level of the higher educational environment.  This culture reinforces the student’s unconscious expectation that alcohol is a necessary ingredient in student life.

Although not specifically addressed in the report, it is apparent that the culture of excessive drinking has provided a gateway of acceptability for other drugs besides alcohol.  At most schools, the use of illicit drugs flourishes as a campus subculture.  This subculture may contain a larger or smaller number of students (depending on the school) but regardless of size, it flows seamlessly into, reinforces, and is reinforced by the culture of alcohol overuse.

Students derive their expectations of alcohol from this cultural environment and from each other, as they face the insecurity of establishing themselves in the new social milieu of college or law school.  Environmental and peer influences create a culture of drinking and excessive drinking that is actively or passively promoted through tolerance or even tacit approval.  (This is a phase kids need to go through.)

The NIAAA Report found that the reason the culture of drinking gets promoted unhindered is that college administrations see drinking as an unsolvable problem.  The Report notes that this perception is untrue, that there are good research based approaches that work to achieve a change in culture.  Still, the perception persists.

Thinking the problem of excessive drinking on campuses is unsolvable has allowed it to grow.  Four out of five college students drink and about half of these student drinkers engage in heavy episodic consumption.  The data show that two out of every five students engage in binge drinking at least once every two weeks.  That is the average on college campuses; it goes as high as 70 percent biweekly binge drinkers at some schools.

To change the culture of drinking on campus, the Report sets out a comprehensive three-in-one framework to help colleges and universities.  This framework includes addressing: 1) individuals, including at-risk or alcohol-dependent drinkers; 2) the student population as a whole; and 3) the college and the surrounding community.  Since the audience for this article is not college and university administrators, but lawyers and law students, I will forego discussion of the prevention strategies set out in the Report and concentrate on what is of most interest to lawyers and law students what is the effect of excessive drinking among college and law students?

First, students do not complete the maturation process into young adults.  The excessive use of alcohol prevents students from learning how to handle their emotions without altering their moods chemically.  (The connection between alcohol use and emotional maturity is not obvious.  A fortnightly or monthly binge may be the emotional escape that compensates for the intervening weeks of undetected and unlived feelings.  The drinking episodes then become necessary in order to feel okay.  Lawyers never see the connection between the two except in retrospect.)

Second, binge drinking is the most effective pattern of abuse to trigger the neurochemical changes that create the onset of the disease of chemical addiction.  This binge drinking culture is creating a number of functional (at least for a time) alcoholics.

Three, the combination of stunted emotional development and early development of chemical addiction means the addicted person is much less likely to have the insight to understand his/her need for help with addictive disease.

Fourth, for those students who binge drink, but do not become alcoholics in school; they are establishing a pattern for dealing with stress that makes it much more likely they will suffer chemical addiction later in life.

Fifth, for those students, who binge drink but do not become alcoholics in school, but thereby stunt their emotional maturation, it is much more likely that they will suffer from other emotional disorders later in life, if not addictive disease, particularly depression and/or anxiety disorder.

Sixth, by perpetuating a culture of drinking in school, we are prompting a culture of narcissism in our society.  Those who suffer from addictive disease or emotional disorders are more self-focused and self-centered.  Of necessity, they are more me-focused, because their diseases force them to be the center of their attention.  In failing to teach our best educated how to be mentally healthy and well adjusted, we are not creating lawyers who are going to be the kind of leaders we like to expect from our profession.

In the light of the stories with which this article opens and the weight of statistics given in the Report, the question remains why do students, even with this information, so often persist in destructive binge drinking?

The answer is complicated.  There are two layers.  First, there is the adolescent tendency to believe that while statistics apply broadly, I am unique and will not be a part of those statistics.  This attitude is most pervasive at high school age.  The high school student often eats poorly, exercises poorly, and generally disregards risks to his/her health.  Unless maturation is arrested, by late college or law school one should be responding to medical and health risks appropriately.  If one is careful to eat healthy but binge drinks, then the inconsistency in approach to one’s health suggests the binge drinking is related to addressing undealt with emotional issues.  Self-deception has begun to set in.  If there is an emotional need to drink, then the mind will easily rationalize how general statistics may not apply to oneself.  If there is no underlying emotional need, then a college or law student would act just like most of us do upon getting in a car, we put on a seat belt; i.e. avoid the grave health risks of binge drinking.  (Of course, if the student has become alcoholic, then the self-deception will be complete  drinking or binge drinking will not be a problem the problem would be not to drink.)

The second layer is suggested in recent research.  Research shows that alcohol has a greater neurological impact on adolescents than adults and that these effects are longer lasting.  At the same time; however, research suggests that adolescents are less sensitive than adults to some of alcohol’s effects.

For example, adolescent rats, on their first exposure to alcohol, are less susceptible than adult rats to alcohol’s sedative effects, as well as its effects on balance and motor coordination.  This finding suggests that adolescents might be able to stay awake and mobile at higher blood alcohol levels than adults with an equivalent history of alcohol exposure; while at the same time, experiencing greater alcohol-induced cognitive impairments and, possibly, more injury to the brain following high alcohol exposure levels.

In other words, the negative physical impacts of binge drinking may be disguised to the young drinker.  The young binge drinker’s body may be sending sensory information to the brain that minimizes the impact of binge drinking.  This leads to the rationalization that I can drink well without negative results, that the statistics don’t apply to me.  When you add these two layers to the ease by which one can learn to cope emotionally by using alcohol, it is apparent that there is often a formidable barrier of self-deception preventing the student from using good judgment in his/her drinking habits.

The bottom line is that while our educational system spends years helping us develop our minds and grow mentally; no time is spent helping us to grow to be emotionally healthy.  To quote an old-time lawyer’s comment on flawed evidence presented by his adversary: This is passing strange.  For it is our emotional well-being, not our intellect that controls the quality of our life.  Recent brain research even shows that 90% of the decisions made by our brain, including most of those that regulate our emotional states, are made outside of our conscious awareness.

We only allow individuals to drive who study driving and pass a test.  Yet we turn our college and law students loose on alcohol without any requirement that they understand themselves well enough to know if they are unconsciously conditioning their bodies, by binge drinking, to a way of coping that can lead to a serious disease.  Alcohol can be just as lethal as a car.  The student believes he/she is exercising his/her personal freedom to binge drink when, in fact, he/she is most probably acting not out of freedom but out of ignorance of how the decision is being made for him/her by the psyche’s unconsciousness coping.

What do law students need to learn in law school (and us as lawyers if we didn’t learn earlier) to assure good mental health in our years of practice?

1. That it is okay not to feel good all the time.  One needs to learn how to tolerate, even enjoy the normal emotional ups & downs of life.  This is usually intolerable in isolation.  One learns to do this by being connected to other people with whom the feelings can be shared without judgment.

2.     That the work hard, play hard motto is a formula for disaster. Too  often the work hard phase means grinding away without feeling and is characterized by the repression of emotions.  Then, the play hard phase usually consists of anesthetizing those repressed emotions chemically when the lawyer gets a break.

3. That we need to be comfortable making emotional mistakes and fixing those mistakes.  To avoid repressing feelings, and the consequent need to binge to avoid emotional discomfort, one has to learn to be okay living with and expressing uncomfortable feelings.  It needs to be okay to get upset, even at the “wrong” time.  It needs to be okay to get angry even when you shouldn’t have.  Most lawyers need to be perfect prevents them from living emotionally present lives.  It needs to be okay to be human, to make mistakes, to have to apologize.  To not live a life of fear and repression one needs to learn the emotional tools of empathy, reconciliation and compassion.  You can’t learn or practice those tools from the small emotional island created by binge drinking.

The author would like to express his thanks to Nora Carroll, a college sophomore, for her suggestions and critique of this article.

– by Don Carroll

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