Yes, Virginia, you can go to the University of Wisconsin and be an alcoholic. But don’t tell Bucky that. There is no disease on campus dismissed as readily as alcoholism, which likely affects more students than H1N1 ever will. But it’s all about context, we’re told. At one of the nation’s most notorious party schools, our friends tell us it is impossible to develop a legitimate, grave physical addiction to alcohol. It’s all just part of the cultural experience. You come to college, spend four years binging, and then apparently re-enter the world of normal social drinking.
But I wonder how often that really happens. Right now I’d bet I know at least 20 alcoholics. They know who they are. Do they really believe they’ll magically be able to moderate their drinking the moment they receive their diploma — even though alcoholism is often a genetically inherited disease?
Of course, here we enter a game of semantics. Alcoholics Anonymous, to date the most effective treatment for alcoholism, ultimately leaves it up to the individual to make the self-diagnosis of alcoholism. Others prefer more objective criteria. The loosest definition I’ve heard labels an alcoholic as anyone whose functionality has been seriously compromised by alcohol. Since that last definition would suggest a campus comprised primarily of alcoholics, I prefer the more reasonable AA criteria. If you act like an alcoholic and feel like you’re an alcoholic, you are probably correct. And if you are struggling with alcohol, you owe it to yourself to cut through the white noise of campus culture that convinces you to postpone getting help. Whenever I hear UW is one of the top party schools in the country, I read this to mean we probably have one of the highest rates of student alcoholism nationwide.
And yet I have never heard anyone seriously say — even when all evidence points in this direction — one of their friends is likely struggling with alcoholism. I have never heard of friends encouraging such individuals to join AA meetings. Perhaps this is borne of the mistaken assumption that AA is a group of “old people” who enjoyed their fair share of youthful drinking and are now ready to stop. In reality, AA is a diverse group of people, young and old, who all realize alcoholism is a potentially deadly disease which at some point, for them, passed outside the realm of physical control.
Once I was riding the No. 6 bus home. In front of me was a young couple discussing their most recent AA meeting. They looked shell-shocked, and it was obvious they were new to the program. A middle-aged woman sitting in front of them turned around, said she’d been sober for three years and assured them “it gets easier.” Yet another voice chimed in from the seat next to them: “Look at this — we’re having a meeting on the No. 6. Go figure.” It was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve had in Madison. Here was genuine love and solidarity between people determined to conquer a progressive, ultimately deadly disease. And as I overheard their spontaneous meeting, I thought of those 20 people I know who could really benefit from solidarity like that. I wondered what they would look like after three months of AA sobriety — the “90 Meetings in 90 Days” recommended for new members — and what a conversation would be like with someone who’d emerged from behind the opaque veil of addiction, back from the figurative dead.
We are a campus with great individuals, but some of us are indeed very sick and have been unwilling to call the kettle black. If this applies to you, know there are more than 150 weekly AA meetings in Madison and the surrounding area, taking place within hours of you reading this: they’re all listed at http://aamadisonwi.org. Find a friend to drive you. You might even discover more familiar faces at these meetings than you anticipated. Meet some friends and save your life.
And if you are the friend of someone you consider to be an alcoholic, you have a moral responsibility to never drink with or otherwise enable that person. Some things are inexcusable, among them knowing your friend has a disease and making it impossible for them to address it responsibly. The excuse does not fly that you go to a school where being an alcoholic is acceptable.
I have not always been a perfect columnist. Neither have I always been the perfect exemplar of the preceding advice. I have stumbled too, sometimes quite embarrassingly. But one error I will never make is confusing rampant alcoholism with mere campus culture. My only prayer is that none of my readers make the same mistake.
Eric Schmidt ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science.