Editor’s Note: All information printed in this story has been done so with the sources’ expressed consent.
One night on campus, Jennifer Black* ended up at Porter Meadow with her new college friends. Black felt great about her acceptance to UC Santa Cruz, like she deserved to have her first drink. She didn’t know then that this decision would change her life forever.
“I had that attitude for the next year and I just drank and drank and drank,” Black said. “At first it started out as just plain fun, a lot of crazy adventures with zero inhibitions or fear. I only vaguely remember going to parties, because I would black out so frequently.”
Black, who is now 20, had to drop out of UCSC because of her addiction to alcohol.
“I didn’t start drinking until I got to college,” Black said. “I was always the last one to finish off a bottle and the first one suggesting to get another drink.”
While alcohol use is prevalent on most college campuses across the United States, some students take it to another level, where alcohol begins affecting their lives in a negative way. Although there are differences among binge drinking, alcohol abuse and alcoholism, all three exist at UCSC.
The Safer California Universities held a survey in 2010-11 that found that 41.1 percent of students at UCSC reported experiencing some kind of personal problem at least once during the past quarter as a result of drinking. In addition, 28.8 percent reported experiencing some kind of serious personal problem as a result of drinking, and 16.5 percent reported some form of public misconduct. Of the people who completed the surveys, 96.5 percent were full-time students and 60.8 percent were under 21 years old.
A handful of students are forced to deal with their alcohol dependency, but there are hundreds of students at UCSC and thousands across America who do not recognize their problem with alcohol.
Doug Smith*, a middle-aged man from Santa Cruz, has been in recovery for the past two years with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. Before recovery, Smith lost his job, house and family to alcoholism.
Smith, who had been using drugs and alcohol since he was 18, never felt that he had any problems with alcohol.
“It’s not even that you know you have a problem, it’s your family and your loved ones who notice it,” Smith said. “You’re just a young person, you think you’ve got everything in check, you think you’re wise, and then you just end up doing the wrong stuff.”
Jim Mosher, an attorney and alcohol policy consultant based in Felton, spoke to campus radio station KZSC in November 2011 about alcohol policy.
“Drinking on college campuses is a real serious problem,” Mosher said. “The brutal fact is that alcohol is the most abused drug in the country. It causes 4,700 young people to die each year.”
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “Approximately 5,000 young people under the age of 21 die as a result of underage drinking; this includes about 1,900 deaths from motor vehicle crashes, 1,600 as a result of homicides, 300 from suicide, as well as hundreds from other injuries such as falls, burns and drownings.”
At UCSC, an Alcoholics Anonymous group, Sober Slugs, meets twice a week for students to receive support dealing with alcoholism. At 8 p.m. sharp every Tuesday, the meeting begins with a moment of silence, followed by the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference,” they say in unison.
As a result of the prevalence of alcohol abuse, college campuses like UCSC are reaching out to their students to provide a safe space to discuss their problems.
Alcoholics Anonymous is a 12-step program that helps men and women of all ages deal with alcoholism. Sober Slugs meets up twice a week on campus for students to help each other deal with their drinking. In Santa Cruz alone, there are over 20 different AA meetings at various locations across the county, including on-campus meetings.
Vince Velasquez, a UCSC graduate student who attends Sober Slugs meetings, knows he has a problem with alcohol.
“I like young people meetings better because I don’t feel so different; normal AA meetings have older people,” Vasquez said. “It’s why I go to Sober Slug meetings, because I feel like I can relate to the people in the room.”
Black, who has struggled with making true friends in school, feels at home in meetings.
“AA was the first time I felt a part of a group of people that won’t judge me, where I felt like I could really fall apart and be accepted without drinking,” Black said.
Students come to the Sober Slug meetings with different lifestyles, backgrounds and reasons, but they all have one thing in common: alcohol addiction. Although the initial decision to take drugs or drink alcohol is largely a voluntary choice, the substances change the brain chemistry and cause a user to compulsively seek out a drug and use it, regardless of the negative consequences to the addict and those around them, said Jennifer Lowry, a clinical pharmacologist and medical toxicologist. In a U.K. study, the addictive properties of alcohol have a higher propensity for addiction than amphetamines, tobacco and ecstasy.
“There are so many people in AA, people you wouldn’t expect to be there,” Black said. “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you stand for. If you’re in the room trying to get clean and sober, you’re welcomed. I’ve never seen a more diverse and unusual group come together in that way, so peacefully.”
Black, who was new to Santa Cruz in 2009, turned to alcohol when she was nervous about making new friends and starting new relationships.
“Drinking came so natural to me and it felt so good for so many reasons, like all of a sudden I didn’t have fear anymore,” Black said.
Though Black made many friends through drinking, none are her friends today.
“When I first started drinking, I remember having heart-to-hearts with everybody. Suddenly everybody was my best friend,” she said. “But a lot of them were my friends because we had really awesome parties. They all supported my drinking.”
Since her great-grandfather’s generation, each generation of Black’s family has experienced alcoholism.
“I knew from a very early age to stay away from alcohol,” Black said, “but I was tired of walking on eggshells because of the fear I had around drinking.”
Black — who had been living in an apartment on campus — was no longer allowed to reside there after she left UCSC.
“After I dropped out, I was basically squatting on campus,” she said, “staying at different friends’ dorms or apartments until the RA would tell me to leave.”
Even at this point, Black continued to drink.
Naturally, not everyone who drinks is an alcoholic. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, a standard reference for psychiatrists and psychologists, there are different levels and variations of alcohol use.
The DSM classifies moderate use of alcohol as unproblematic. One bad incident with drinking is known as a critical incident.
When a pattern of negative consequences and multiple incidents is established, the individual is considered to have a substance abuse issue. A person is classified as alcohol-dependent when they have “tolerance; periodic loss of control of quantity and/or behavior, important activities reduced or given up because of use; moderation difficult or impossible.”
Fortunately, there are many resources and helpful individuals on campus at UCSC that serve to help those struggling with substance abuse issues.
Paul Willis, an alcohol and drug educator at UCSC, works on education, reduction and prevention programs that are created to support students. Willis is in charge of many prevention programs, including the Student Health and Outreach Program (SHOP) and Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS).
SHOP offers information, education, resources and support with alcohol and other drug use, sexually transmitted infections, rape crisis counseling, and sexual health, holistic health and stress management. BASICS is the two-session process with online survey/assessment that SHOP offers for students to reduce high-risk behaviors. Some of these students are already experiencing patterns of abuse or dependence. The majority are not.
“Everything we do is around harm reduction,” Willis said.
Between these and other similar programs, Willis offers information, resources and support for students. For potential alcoholics, the intention of these programs is to reduce high-risk behaviors of addiction.
UCSC requires all first-year and transfer students under 24 to take Alcohol Education (AEDU), a mandatory online pre-matriculation prevention course. It provides research-based information about alcohol and its effects. AEDU seeks to create a learning experience that will motivate behavior change, reset unrealistic expectations about the effects of alcohol, link choices about drinking to academic and personal success, and help students to practice healthier and safer decision-making. Through these and other programs, UCSC’s goal is to educate, assist and support students in making decisions about alcohol and other drugs.
Yet, despite all the resources, some students and even parents reinforce the myth that college is where you learn to drink, Willis said.
“Drinking and being reckless was a huge part of the college experience,” Black said. “In college, you don’t have to be responsible for how risky your actions are. The more hardcore you can drink, the cooler you are and that’s just the truth.”
Grad student and Sober Slugs member Velasquez agrees.
“At the college level, people feel like they need to drink to fit in,” Velasquez said.
Willis said although college plays a role in a student’s drinking experience, it’s not the only factor.
“It partly has to do with our society,” Willis said. “Young people start drinking and smoking pot in high school and already have patterns established before they get to college. Some of it is just continuing the patterns that are already there.”
Willis says he knows each individual person and situation is different, and cannot put any person into one category.
“For some students, it’s curiosity, or the pressure of wanting to make new friends,” Willis said. “The pressure is strong and alcohol does act as a stress reliever and makes it easier to be around people.”
Willis, who has been working with SHOP for the past 10 years, knows the importance of proper alcohol education.
“We’re just trying to educate people to make their own choices based on what are they looking for in school, what do they anticipate doing in life, and if alcohol has made consequences that made a mark, and do they want that to continue,” Willis said. “But we also reinforce and support students who don’t drink and smoke.”
Doug Smith, a Santa Cruz native, got involved with drugs and alcohol at an early age because he was hanging out with kids who were older than he was and who could easily access substances. Smith felt that his lifestyle of drinking beers and smoking marijuana was normal.
“Alcohol cost me my family, my business, my life, everything. I got really deep into it,” he said. “You don’t become an addict overnight; it takes a long time. First you use the drugs, and then they use you.”
Similarly, alcohol cost Black her college career.
“I lost so much of what college is really about while I was there,” she said. “I earned nothing and I ruined that experience for myself. I thought of myself as superhuman, like nothing could hurt me, but alcohol ruined me.”
Smith, who has depression and anxiety issues, felt the need to use alcohol to cope.
“It’s an escape,” he said. “You drink and you forget about all your problems, so you continue to drink to relax, but then it gets to a point where you want it every night. You need a shot in the morning so you don’t feel hungover.”
Smith calls drugs and alcohol “the great deceiver” because they led him to believe everything was fine, when in reality his life had gotten out of control.
“I missed out on a lot of things through the years I was an addict, but what’s done is done and I want to stay clean and sober,” he said.
Smith, who attends AA meetings, understands where he is in his journey.
“I’m an addict in recovery,” Smith said. “I get excited when young people come into the meetings. If they want advice, I’m willing to talk. If I can influence someone to stop using, then I’ve done my part.”
Black and Velasquez, who both attend Sober Slug meetings regularly, are “working the program” that AA offers. Black has been sober for over a year and Velasquez has been sober for at least five years. Both understand alcoholism is something they will have to deal with for the rest of their lives.
Even though Velasquez knows he has a problem, he doesn’t enjoy dealing with it.
“I don’t like going to meetings, I can’t stand it.” Velasquez said. “But I get something out of going to meetings. There are some really good things about AA.”
On rare occasions, when the problem of drinking isn’t dealt with, there are more severe consequences.
“Alcohol killed one of my friends,” Velasquez said. “He went to sleep [at a party] and never woke up. He was that wasted. After that, I knew it was time to get sober.”
When Smith was 21, he got a DUI and was forced by the courts to attend an AA meeting every day for two months. Smith attended meetings, but felt that he wasn’t an addict until he lost his family because of his alcohol use. Today Smith has been sober for two years.
“I wish I would have taken advantage of that experience and actually worked the program,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to change. It’s never too late. Being sober is a good way of life.”
*names have been changed