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Phillips: The normalization of binge drinking supports unhealthy behavior

Ruby Phillips, Assistant Opinion Editor

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On Fridays, I teach a class of freshman girls at Lake View High School about healthy decision-making as a peer health educator for Peer Health Exchange. We address topics like sexual assault, alcohol abuse and healthy communication. Being a peer health educator is one of my favorite activities on this campus, but it has unfortunately made me realize I really don’t practice what I preach.

The curriculum doesn’t tell the students whether they should or shouldn’t drink, but tries to educate them about the consequences of substance abuse so they can make informed decisions. Ever since I started teaching, I have become extremely aware of all the informed choices I make that aren’t healthy. Just because we are informed about a topic doesn’t mean we always choose the better option.

Most of the students ask me about my own experiences with drinking. They are fascinated by alcohol. They believe it gives you confidence and skills you don’t have when you are sober. They view it as a truth serum. I answer them honestly, but even when I tell my students about my own drinking, I neglect to include the poor decisions I’ve made personally with alcohol, like forgetting people’s names right after I met them or breaking my leg. No one wants to hear about the gritty parts of college drinking. People don’t want to see themselves in that way, especially not Northwestern students who cherish and value their intellectualism.

Certainly this campus is aware that blacking out and binge drinking are so normalized that some students don’t even feel like going to a party is worth it if they aren’t extremely intoxicated. Incoming college students are never surprised to see drinking on a college campus. However, the culture around drinking has intensified in the past few years. Drinking and drug use are seen as both social capital and a method for escaping the week’s academic stress. There is no moderation or portion control when it comes to drinking because the goal is to be drunk. Regular binge drinking is defined by public health officials as “a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL.” However, binge drinking is about more than just that number — it is indicative of a larger problem with the way college students think about relieving stress. It is a phenomenon that facilitates student sexuality, alcoholism and self-proclaimed “confidence.” Binge drinking and blacking out are supposed to be liberating for college students, like these actions give them powers they don’t have when they are sober. This emphasis on the power of binge drinking is ironic because in reality, being overly intoxicated can make people feel small. There have been more times when I wanted to run away from what I did the night before while I was binge drinking, than times where I used binge drinking to effectively escape my hectic life.

Even though Northwestern’s drinking culture doesn’t match that of some bigger schools like Tulane University, which is ranked the No. 1 party school by the Princeton Review’s 2018 college ranking, this is still a college. No one is to blame for wanting to experiment with alcohol and other substances, but the phenomenon of binge drinking and substance abuse in college distorts our conception of health and is only getting worse. In fact, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that binge drinking rates have stayed above 40 percent for the past 20 years, and trends indicate this number will go up.

College students have to work hard to be physically and mentally healthy. In the exceedingly stressful environments we face, there are so many factors working against us, from economic stress to drinking culture to academic pressure. But I always thought that if you just survived, you were healthy. I misinterpreted taking care of myself to mean stretching myself as thin socially and academically as I possibly could while praying I didn’t snap in half. Alcohol and other substances complicate students’ quests to be healthy. They make people believe that to survive, we must partake in substance abuse — not only to be social, but to endure all of the other responsibilities and expectations placed upon us.

As I become more introspective about my own drinking habits, I wonder why I can’t even imagine being sober when I go out. I learned that the proper way to have fun in college was through drinking and substance use, but since I have been teaching with PHE, I have been trying to deconstruct these lessons and remind myself that health and fun look different for many different people. For example, following the infamous “holiday” of 4/20 this past Friday, I encourage college students who smoked and celebrated marijuana on this day to think about the romanticized corporate narratives surrounding marijuana that contrast the deeply criminalized perception of it from 30 years ago. Millions of black and brown people still suffer the consequences of this cultural phenomenon in prison today, even as some communities tout marijuana as a healthy or relaxing agent. As cultural outlooks on substance use have changed over time, so has our definition of health and what it means to engage with these substances in a healthy way. Now, we have moved to a stage where binge drinking is seen as a way to exhale from a stressful work week and let our feelings pour out by any means necessary.

I am tired of looking through pictures on my phone and not remembering where they were taken, or making friends with people whose names I don’t remember. I deserve the right to feel conscious in the spaces I take up and to live in a brain I can trust. Drinking in the way our culture has taught me to drink takes away my memories, my choices and my history. And I do it to myself all in the name of fun. But as our generation grows and matures, we must redefine our conceptions of healthy drinking habits the same way I ask my PHE students to do. I hope that moving forward, I can define my own health and live my life through my own perspective — instead of through my friends’ recaps of what I did the night before.

Ruby Phillips is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at rubyphillips2020@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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