Staying sober or drinking to remember to forget

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February 1, 2008

7:23 PM

As a kind of social experiment, I’ve abstained from booze since the beginning of this semester. That’s right. For just over two weeks, I haven’t had a drink. It’s relatively unimpressive, but this abstemious stint o’ mine has inspired some mini-epiphanies.

p. For starters, consider how enormous a cliche it is that college kids get drunk all the time. The bibulous youth is an archetype; in pop culture, fraternities’ high-proof hijinks are well-mined territory. Even prim grandparents are rarely shocked by our crapulousness. It’s an immutable truth: Undergraduates like to get their swerve on.

p. As tends to be the case with cliches, the statement is so irrefutable that few people pause to ask why. Sure, religious zealots might ponder it, but their answers are often caught up in Satanic temptation, moral bankruptcy and all that bunkum.
What my whopping 15 days of sobriety have suggested is this: I drink not out of any intrinsic hankering for intoxication, but to maintain a kind of catch-all excuse for aberrant behavior. That is, with my first pint in fist, I can justify almost any bizarre outbursts or actions for the remainder of the night, regardless of how ferschnickered I really am.

p. Again, this might strike you as obvious and hackneyed, but to me it’s a big deal. As a culture, we agree: drinking in excess often leads to bad decision-making. Years of melodramatic classroom videos, MADD speeches and worksheets have inculcated the danger, and it is very real. But our collective awareness of these perils radically shifts our approach to ethanol. No one beyond ourselves can experience our internal drunkenness, and we take advantage of this.

p. We all knew that girl in high school who downed a single can of Natural Light and was, within seconds, tottering into light fixtures and slurring the words “so wasted.” Part of this was the placebo effect, sure, but part of it was the girl’s awareness that she could now perform certain forbidden acts — confessing to a crush or dancing topless on a table — and get off scot-free the next a.m., blaming her lost inhibitions on 12 fluid ounces of Natty.

p. Granted her friends called bullshit because she’d had only one beer — her execution was sloppy. For whiz kid collegians like you and me, this game is plenty easier. If everyone accepts that x number of drinks will alter your consciousness, then we can quaff x+1 and voila, we’re free to indulge our propensity for the outlandish. Sometimes we’re legitimately drunk; sometimes we think we’re drunk; sometimes your guess is as good as mine. This is more than individual play-acting; it’s a clever social contract with all sorts of fine print and escape clauses and hidden stipulations.

p. Given the contract, drinking is a no-brainer. What if you could attribute your every moronic remark and risky exploit to “someone else,” the Mr. Hyde to your Dr. Jekyll? What if you knew your peers would believe you as long as you believed them?
Hangovers further complicate things. When, the day after drinking, I struggled to focus or study, I held the bottle at fault for my mental slackness. Even if I’d had just one or two libations, rationales presented themselves: Maybe I hadn’t eaten enough or maybe the drinks were stronger than I thought.

p. Staying sober ruins all that. It means conceding that I have neural defects, shortcomings and laxities with no root other than chemistry. It took me more than a week to own up to this. At first I could say, “Well, I stopped drinking. Perhaps sluggishness is a minor withdrawal symptom.”

p. The point? All this undergrad hooch-lust is more of an interpersonal complex than many folks, students or otherwise, care to admit. Hedonism is a slight motivator, but understanding why we binge-drink entails researching cultural norms and self-accountability — pinning down where the drug ends and social posturing begins.

p. We seem to need something out of life — candid or exaggerated behavioral opportunities with others — that only the ambiance of partying will provide. This is the truth and it’s not simple at all. If only our potential employers could grasp it.
Dan Piepenbring is a senior at the College.

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