Is drinking enhancing your existence, or putting a hangover on your life?
By Sharon Miki, Section Editor
It’s Friday night. You’ve spent the week waking up early, dragging yourself to class, and dealing with the general drudgery that is your life. All you want to do is relax, kick back, and chill with your friends. So you go out: to a bar, a club, a friend’s house. Over the course of the night, you have a few beers or cocktails, maybe a shot or two. You laugh, you dance, you’re happy. Sometime after midnight, you stagger outside and take a bus or a cab home and crash in bed. You’ve had a fun night. The next morning, you wake up feeling a little bit hung-over, but overall, it was worth it. You continue with your life and repeat the process the next Friday night, week after week—you’re basically living in the bubblegum and champagne world of a Katy Perry song.
You are also—technically—considered a “heavy drinker.”
According to a report published by Statistics Canada, “heavy drinking” for Canadians is defined as consuming “five or more drinks, per occasion, at least once a month during the past year.” Whether it is for special occasions, weekend partying, or a week-long bender, drinking that amount of alcohol and more is a commonly accepted practice amongst most young Canadians. Basically, if you attend at least one social gathering a month at which you drink more than five beers or cocktails, you are a heavy drinker. This, in itself, is sobering news to many.
“That surprises me,” said Lori, a 24-year-old Douglas College student. “I would not consider myself a heavy drinker… I feel that having five or more drinks once a week might be more realistic. Most people my age are doing that once a week or more.”
Heather, 23, adds that “most people I know would probably be defined as a heavy drinker by that definition… I am surprised by that [definition].”
Indeed, though few would classify themselves as being heavy drinkers, StatsCan shows that the prime college-age demographic of those aged 20-34 report the highest levels of drinking of all Canadians—with 44 per cent of men and 23.5 per cent of women classified as heavy drinkers according to the organization’s parameters. Whether we are aware of it or not, even those who consider themselves casual drinkers may be verging on heavy territory.
With heavy drinking among young people being so clearly widespread and commonly accepted, the question then becomes: is it an issue? Or is heavy drinking just a way that young people can escape the hardships of modern life?
Do we know if we have a problem?
After a certain age, messages about alcohol become a mixed dichotomy—on one hand, we are presented with images of mature adults drinking a few glasses of wine an evening “for their health” in a positive light; on the other, we are bombarded with cautionary tales of spiralling, crippling addiction to alcoholic substances. As college students, many of whom are about to or have recently reached the age where they can legally procure alcohol, these messages can be confusing.
Similarly, when we see images of alcoholism in the media, we are often faced with the dark visages of people so addicted to drink that they can’t make it through a day without a fifth of something. Culturally, representations of alcoholism tend to be extreme and hyperbolized: Barney Gumble suckling beer straight from the tap, Lucille Bluth’s vodka breakfasts, or Don Draper’s shaking hands reaching for a fifth of whiskey before a big presentation. Rarely are we confronted with the quiet habits of those who can’t sleep without a cocktail, or who need a few drinks every day at lunch to make it through their workday.
As such, issues with drinking are often obscured if they are not extreme; socially, many college-aged people generally view abstaining from drink as shy teetotalism—and this social pressure can lead to an all-or-nothing view towards drinking.
What’s the harm for college students?
So most college students are drinking alcohol, with many doing it heavily. What’s the harm?
Physically, it’s hard to deny the downsides of drinking alcohol. Over time, heavy drinking can increase your risk of long-term health issues; according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, these health risks include “liver disease, heart disease, sleep disorders, depression, stroke, bleeding from the stomach, sexually transmitted infections from unsafe sex, and several types of cancer.”
Still, these detrimental health effects tend to take years to develop—something that most young drinkers will not have had time to worry about. For college-aged drinkers, the most obvious adverse effect of drinking is usually a hangover: a horrible combination of factors like nausea, exhaustion, thirst, confusion, shame, and depression.
Beyond the physical effects of heavy drinking, there are also a number of negative social repercussions that don’t always spring to mind when anticipating a night of cocktails, from the fairly innocuous like embarrassing yourself at karaoke to the potentially dangerous—like drinking to the point where you are sexually violated or manipulated.
Further, many young people find their judgment with alcohol faltering, resulting in legal consequences. At 24, Lori notes that “drinking and driving is a big issue these days since I personally have four friends with DUIs.”
What about school?
Beyond the obvious physical consequences and dangers, drinking while you’re a student presents a unique situation: does so-called heavy drinking effect your ability to succeed in your post-secondary program?
It’s hard to say. Some, like Heather, attribute occasional social drinking as a necessary evil for unwinding from the stresses of studying and as a way to combat the sometimes crippling isolation that can come from spending most of your time in class, studying, or working. During her time as a student, Heather explains that she drank regularly “either alone or at one of the bars down the street from the campus… [for] fun mostly, but also [to combat] stress and loneliness. Or boredom.” Still, she never found that drinking interfered with her schooling, noting that “sometimes I would push an assignment back or miss a class to go out and have fun at the pub but I would always get it done in the end.”
While a student, Heather often drank alcohol “probably four or five days a week… Most of my on-campus or during class time drinking was with a friend. We’d go for lunch or be bored in a night class, and decided to liven it up a little with a few drinks.
I did more heavy drinking after class time [though].”
Still, while some might feel that social drinking is a rite of passage for the college experience, others suggest that it might take time away from studying or getting enough rest to properly engage in their course loads.
A toast to you
Ultimately, the question of whether or not drinking is for you rests with you. The main thing to keep in mind—which many of us forget while in our intoxicated stupors—is that drinking isn’t a forgive-all excuse for anything. There are repercussions for our actions towards others, and ourselves, even if they are fuelled by Pilsner. Still, provided that you are over the age of 19 and aren’t driving while drunk or drinking to the point of public disturbance, it’s your choice—and the consequences, good and bad, will be yours to bear.
Being aware of your own limits, the possible physical and emotional consequences, and the legalities of drinking can help you make those choices more responsibly. After all, you’re an adult now, and adulthood is all about responsibility.
Cheers to that.
*Identifying information for some subjects has been altered to protect their anonymity.