By Alexa Epitropoulos | firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo by Sarah Williamson
Editor’s note: Names have been changed to preserve the anonymity of AA members quoted in this story.
Every Saturday night, an unlikely group congregates at Flagler Hospital in St. Augustine. It isn’t the neighborhood watch, a study group or even a book club — it’s Alcoholics Anonymous.
A group of over 30 men and women of all different ages with no visible connection sits in a sterile, spacious room, some greeting fellow members, most sipping coffee out of a Styrofoam cup. The individuals gathered share more than it initially appears: a substance abuse problem and a painful past.
Such is the case with Mike, a young, local everyman who grew up with an alcoholic parent and a tumultuous family life. From his first experience with alcohol at age 18 to the age of 29, an ordinary night could mean drinking a full bottle of Jack Daniels.
“As anonymous as you think you’re being, everyone knows,” Mike said, referring to relationships with friends and co-workers. “Alcohol and drugs took everything from me, including my ambition.”
Mike’s story is not unique. By the age of 18, 70 percent of individuals have had at least one drink, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). While underage drinkers drink less often than legal drinkers, those who are underage are more likely to binge drink, or consume five alcoholic beverages in two hours.
In fact, more than 90 percent of the alcohol consumed by underage drinkers, aged 12 to 20, is consumed through binge drinking, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
While binge drinking is distinct from alcoholism in many ways, it may put an individual at risk for developing alcohol dependency or abuse problems if it means men consuming more than 14 drinks a week, or women consuming seven drinks per week, according to the NIAAA.
The director of the Flagler College Counseling Center, Glenn Goldberg, said binge drinking is the most significant and widespread problem when it comes to college students and alcohol.
“Some students, especially younger students, have very little experience with responsible drinking,” Goldberg said. “What can occur is that they will drink fast and they will drink way more than is necessary to achieve what they’re seeking.”
Binge drinking increases the chances of engaging in high-risk behavior, including driving drunk or riding in a car with someone who has been drinking. It could even lead to more serious consequences.
“There were a couple of recent cases involving a few young ladies who drank Four Loko, which has the equivalent of about four to five drinks,” Goldberg said. “They drank more and more, and before they knew it, they were in the back of a police car.”
Although binge drinking is one of the most significant problems facing younger drinkers, Goldberg said it is not limited to those without drinking experience.
“Even if you decide that you’re going to develop a tolerance to alcohol so you can drink more, it’s still taking a toll on the nervous system,” Goldberg said. “It’s depressing parts of the brain that aren’t supposed to be depressed.”
Flagler College has worked toward addressing some of these issues, through encouraging students and providing incentives for students to participate in the “e-Checkup to Go” system, an online alcohol and marijuana awareness program.
Positive influences could make a difference when it comes to college students, who are more likely to binge drink, which may result in injury, assault, sexual abuse or even fatal events, such as car crashes or alcohol poisoning, according to the NIAA. Binge drinking, if allowed to disrupt daily life, can be classified as alcohol abuse.
Flagler graduate Caitlin, a recovering alcoholic, said being in college facilitated her drinking problem.
“I wasn’t just partying. I was upset and I would say ‘let’s go get drunk.’ Because everybody else was in college, they would say ‘yeah,'” she said. “That turned into getting drunk every night, drinking and driving or putting myself into dangerous situations.”
Caitlin, who regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, said her problem stemmed less from drinking alcohol than from consuming it in excess and using it as an emotional crutch.
“It was a lot of fun for a while, but two years after I began drinking, I realized I was abusing it and using it to destroy myself,” she said. “The way I was using it is the reason why I come to meetings in the first place.”
Many of the individuals who attend meetings frequently have stopped drinking because of the destructive way they used alcohol. Staying sober, the biggest hurdle for recovering alcoholics, has come from a sense of community.
Many have stayed sober for a year to five years, and a few have refrained from alcohol for 40 years. Many more have experienced disappointments and relapses.
The most successful members have returned to Alcoholics Anonymous, even after they have undergone a relapse or a hardship. Most members expressed similar sentiments: being able to share problems with individuals who have gone through similar experiences is fundamental to rehabilitation.
“No matter how different our stories are at the beginning, they always seem to be similar at the end,” said Jay, another member of Alcoholics Anonymous.