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FALL 2005

Vol. 06, No. 1


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Alcohol and its effects

Alcohol and its effects

In my family, being called a drunk was a compliment.

It meant you had the disease of alcoholism and that recovery was a day-by-day, minute-by-minute thing, and without it you could easily become the drunk on the street. It meant you had the humility to stay sober.

My father and my brother are recovering alcoholics, so I grew up attending open Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Ala-teen and AA social events. Recovering alcoholics have great parties. There was the annual Labor Day bash with horseback riding, a bonfire, and a huge cast iron kettle of boiling water to cook the live lobster. And there were the New Year's Eve celebrations. These people had fun. Stone cold sober. They danced till they dropped, then attended an all night open AA meeting. I remember laughter, hugs, and adults engaged in deep conversation. Good memories.

Of course that was post recovery. Prior to that time there was fear, grief, and pain. And always the presence of alcohol. I did not know the definition of alcoholism at age twelve, but I knew in the pit of my stomach it was right when I was told that my father was in treatment. And I knew it was right when my brother sought treatment, at the start not willingly, but in the end resolved. It was relief. It was the beginning.

During the family days that were a part of the treatment programs, I learned about the disease of alcoholism. I learned that alcoholism is a life-long illness and that recovery is a spiritual path that requires daily surrender. I learned that surrender would bring freedom for the alcoholic. I also learned, not at age twelve, but ten years later, that alcoholism is a family disease and recovery is necessary for everyone.

I had my own work to do. Work that involved grieving, letting go and giving up the behaviors that helped me survive, but that no longer served me well. I learned the importance of honesty, faith, and self care. I realized that I needed to actively strive for my own recovery on a daily basis. And I learned that recovery from alcoholism is really a gift, without which my family, and I as an individual, would be less than whole.

In 1999, North Dakota State University was looking for someone to lead its alcohol and drug abuse prevention efforts. Students, faculty, staff, law enforcement, the liquor industry and alumni had just finished a process of self study about the impact of student alcohol use. They concluded that high risk drinking was a problem that touched all aspects of the university. It kept students from succeeding. It put the university at risk legally. It threatened lives. Solutions were needed. A leader was needed to coordinate campuswide prevention efforts.

I was interested. As director of Orientation and Student Success I cared deeply about students. The goal of the department was to help new and returning NDSU students achieve success. High risk drinking was a student success issue. And if we framed it in that way, maybe students would be more open to our efforts.

I felt that my background as a child of an alcoholic helped me to understand the issue in a deeper way. My supervisors understood the connections I was making between student success and high risk drinking and they trusted me to give it a try.

I realized the magnitude of the task when I told my colleagues about my new role. They replied with similar responses, "College students will always drink. It's a rite of passage." Students responded similarly. "It seems like the university is out to take away our rights. Our parents did this, our sisters and brothers did this. Drinking is what college is all about!" I argued with this line of thinking, "The university is not against drinking.

Just the kind of drinking that is dangerous, and that leads to horrible consequences like drunk driving, sexual assault, poor grades, health problems and death." "Good Luck," they said. And the journey began.

At first, people on campus had difficulty understanding my role. I had difficulty understanding it! I was looking for the silver bullet.

Everybody had an idea. Teach kids to drink responsibly. Work with the K-12 system. Give them more to do on weekends. Create stiffer penalties. Get rid of alcohol advertising. I became frustrated with the multitude of phone calls I received wondering what I planned to do about various alcohol related problems on campus.

I knew we had turned a corner when people called me to tell me what they were doing regarding alcohol related problems. And somewhere along the line, I began to realize that they were all right. How can we "teach" students to drink responsibly when everything around them tells them not to? When they are exposed to hundreds of hours of alcohol advertising? When they see adults drinking in risky ways? When they experience inconsistent enforcement or mixed messages? There was no silver bullet. It would take multiple solutions to address the many causes of alcohol abuse.

NDSU has made strides in the past five years. It's just that those strides are somewhat smaller and slower than I first envisioned. Many times I am reminded of the twenty year struggle to eradicate smoking from the workplace, encourage seat belt use, or, to institute recycling programs. These social changes required persistence, passion, and hope. Most importantly, they required a belief in the power of people to change. I am hopeful. I believe that North Dakotans are alarmed that our state is ranked number one in the nation for binge drinking, drunk driving, and alcohol dependence, not just for children, but for adults. I believe that college students are no longer willing to accept that the experience of a power hour (a tradition of attempting to down 21 drinks on the 21st birthday) is worth the risk of death.

There are positive signs of change. The new substance-free floor in the residence halls is full. We weren't sure if students would want to live in a place that required a "substance-free" lifestyle. They do. The floor filled up soon after room sign-up began. Though all residence halls are to be substance free, this floor will require a pledge to remain substance free on and off campus. And students will hold each other accountable.

Student organizations are actively involved in providing late night weekend activities on campus. The Greek community is adapting and growing under substance-free housing rules.

A recent survey conducted on campus shows that more students under the age of twenty-one are choosing not to drink.

Despite these signs of change there also have been setbacks. The same survey indicated that high-risk drinking continues to rise at NDSU and is well above national averages. The recent death of a student at Minnesota State University Moorhead and near death of an NDSU student as the result of power hours were shocking reality checks. They remind us that we are not immune to this type of tragedy.

It occurred to me that trying to teach college students to use alcohol in less risky ways is a lot like the first year of parenting. You get very little feedback. I think of those long days at home on parental leave. Don't get me wrong.

I love being a parent. Especially now that my boys belly laugh at my jokes and ask things like, "where does the moon go when it is day time?" But those first two months were hard. No smiles, no "thanks mom," just lots of grueling work with little feedback. Yet, the work is monumentally important. And most parents would not give it up for any amount of money.

So why do I stay passionate about this work? I remind myself the answer to this question frequently. I do this work because I want students to know that more college students die each year of alcohol-related deaths than from all other drugs combined. I want them to know that a high tolerance is a sign of increased risk for alcoholism. I want them to know that when they drink in risky ways they are putting themselves at risk for accidents, sexual assault, legal problems, academic failure and paving the way for the lifelong disease of alcoholism to take hold. I want them to know that power hours are perpetuated by peers and that they can result in death. Mostly, I want them to know that they have the power to change their own lives and the lives of their friends.

I also am motivated more selfishly, by the image of my sons, now ages three and six, in the faces of today's college students. I am clutched with fear when I hear students joke about their weekend parties, running from the cops, babysitting a friend who passed out. I get physically sick when I listen to the stories of parents who have lost children to alcohol poisoning. I do this work for myself. And for my sons.

-- Laura Oster-Aaland

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.