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Drinking to Blackout

By September 21, 2016February 27th, 2017Uncategorized

“I call this the holy spirit,” he said, putting a concoction of blue Gatorade, vodka and God-knows-what-else in front of me — a single Jolly Rancher rested at the bottom of the bottle. I declined, he shrugged and passed the drink around to the two other women I was with.

It was 2013 and I was a high school senior visiting my first prospective college — a small liberal arts school in the middle of nowhere that boasts a 10 to 1 student-to-faculty ratio and uses the word community in every pamphlet. I was with a group of students who had offered to give me a tour and let me spend the night in their dorm. We were supposed to be going to a fraternity party that night, and this was the warm-up. But the somber faces and dimly lit room made it feel more as if we were heading to a funeral.

“It’s pretty stressful here during the week,” explained the guy with the blue concoction in response to my uneasy glances. “So everyone tends to go pretty hard on the weekends.”

I hadn’t known it at the time, but this was my first introduction to the aspirational “blackout.” That is, intentionally drinking with the goal of submersing yourself in so much alcohol that you can’t remember what happened and the only vestiges that remain from the night before are the videos on your friends’ phones.

I attended that college for one year before transferring to the University of North Carolina. During that time I never got “blackout,” but I was a frequent observer of it. I’m not naïve; I know that drinking is part of the college experience, you hang out with some friends, you party too hard and sometimes you pass out. But what I saw was something different.

Times to start drinking were scheduled on Fridays and Saturdays, liquor runs were arranged with someone who was of age. “Pregaming” festivities were set up in various rooms. These festivities included games like king’s cup, in which losers have to drink, and power hour, where you have to drink a certain amount in a specific period of time. Groups then moved to other dorms, and more games were played with more people, and then to on-campus apartments with even more people. And finally, they descended on the frat houses where trash cans filled with p.j., or party juice, also known as pink panty droppers, were at the ready. The game favored at the frat parties was cuff and chug, here you are handcuffed to a partner until the two of you finish a fifth of alcohol. For the supercompetitive, Sharpie pens were used to tally the number of drinks on your arm, establishing a ratio of drinks to the time it takes to black out — a high ratio was a source of pride among the guys.

Small schools are especially conducive to blackout culture. Many are in small towns and have limited social activities. Sports teams are minimally competitive at best, the Applebee’s tends to get old, and the bowling alley becomes insufficient. A general lack of bars and off-campus gathering places means that fraternity houses become the focal point of partying and social interaction.

Of course, many college students drink, including the scholarship winners, the three-sport athletes and the club presidents. They’re free from their parents, and they feel safe because everything is in walking distance. Drinking on campus is by far the most convenient way to have fun. Plus it’s cheap and accessible. But there’s something else in the mix, something that pushes them from casual drinking to binge drinking to blackout.

I think it’s the stress. It permeates everything we do as college students. Many small, elite colleges are insanely competitive to get into in the first place and they remain competitive as students try to outdo one another with grades, scholarships, extracurricular activities and internships. Having been one of those hypercompetitive students, I can tell you that it never feels like enough. The person sitting next to you in class is always doing more and doing it better. I became obsessed with stacking my resume, even more so than I was in high school. I saw it as a reflection of whether I would succeed in life. And I’m not alone. The obsession seems largely driven by fear — fear of a crumbling job market, of not meeting parents’ expectations, of crippling loan debt.

Such an intense preoccupation with success — or at least what we’ve been told success looks like — is not without its consequences. Rates of mental illness in young adults have spiked in the last couple of years. According to a 2013 survey by the American College Health Association, 57 percent of female and 40 percent of male college students reported feeling overwhelmingly anxious, while 33 percent of females and 27 percent of males reported feeling seriously depressed. The association also found that suicide rates in young adults had tripled since the 1950s, with the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimating that a quarter of college students have had suicidal thoughts.

So the mentality behind the decision to black out boils down to the simple question of why not? No one will stop you. You’re in a familiar environment. You assume that if you black out, someone will make sure you get back home. And most of the time you do get home, which makes it seem a lot lower risk than it really is and allows for it to be repeated every weekend.

The way we as students treat the blacking out of our peers is also partly responsible for its ubiquity. We actually think it’s funny. We joke the next day about how ridiculous our friends looked passed out on the bathroom floor or Snapchatting while dancing and making out with some random guy, thus validating their actions and encouraging them to do it again. Blacking out has become so normal that even if you don’t personally do it, you understand why others do. It’s a mutually recognized method of stress relief. To treat it as anything else would be judgmental.

There is also a tacit understanding that blacking out works as a kind of “get out of jail free card.” A person can say or do any number of hurtful or embarrassing things and be granted immunity with the simple excuse that they were “blackout” that night. People accept this with no question. Blacking out therefore becomes a way to avoid responsibility. Of course, this mentality backfires with issues such as sexual assault when people are held accountable for their actions.

Despite the risks — health and otherwise — blackout is not going away. Not as long as we continue to be competitive overachievers who treat the trend as a joke and as our only means to relieve stress. At the end of the day, for a lot of students, forgetting will always be the best option

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