Blackout or Back Out: A Look at Drinking Culture on Campus
During my first Abnormal Psychology class this semester, we started with an exercise where we read theoretical scenarios about people's behavior and then discussed if each problem was psychologically “normal” or not and why.
One case described a female college student who drinks and parties three or four times a week and frequently ends the night vomiting, blacking out, or stumbling into risky sexual encounters.
“Who thinks this woman has a psychological disorder?” my professor asked the class. Just a few hands in the 100-ish person sized lecture went up.
“And who thinks this is normal?” she contrasted, as the majority of the hands in the room went up.
Then she asked us, “Let’s say this woman is actually 35. Now who thinks this is abnormal?”
Nearly every hand in the auditorium shot up.
It turns out the theoretical blurb we read in class is the reality for a lot of students here.
Fall 2016 alone, from the start of school through early November, totaled 196 alcohol caused student transports to the ER, according to a Syracuse University Senate report from last year.
The same report shows an average of 10-12 students per week were taken to the emergency room for alcohol problems during the 2015-2016 school year. By March of 2016, the academic year wracked up a total in the high 200s, surpassing the year before.
And this year on Sunday, September 9 (read: Juice Jam), five students were hospitalized for alcohol intoxication. The data on 2017’s total amount of student hospitalizations is currently unavailable. After initially agreeing to be in the story, SUA declined to comment and stopped responding after multiple attempts to contact them.
Side note on this data: it doesn’t include students who were picked up by ambulances besides Syracuse University Ambulances, in which case hospitals can’t report cases of students 18 and older to SU due to privacy and confidentiality rights.
When I was entering SU as a freshman in fall of 2014, SU was ranked the nation’s No. 1 party school by Princeton Review. But despite the chancellor’s attempt to polish the hell out of ‘Cuse’s image (remember the whole “Save Cuse” campaign, anyone?), the more dangerous consequences of partying don’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon when you look at the numbers. Data shows that first and second year students account for the greatest number of transports according to DPS, but keep in mind that this data is skewed in some ways because many of these calls happen in dorms and on campus.
Scientists have identified two types of blackouts: en bloc—when you forget everything—and fragmentary—when you forget some things and remember others (often dubbed in college kid-speak “browning out”).
I talked to two of my fellow senior classmates who’ve been transported via SUA to the ER when they were underclassmen.
Between 35-50 percent of college students have blacked out once, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. That was the case for these students, whose nights getting transported were replayed back to them by friends and hospital bills in their mailboxes.
Maddie’s* third week into sophomore year, she went to an “around the world” party—a party that involves drinking types of alcohol from all different countries (i.e. sake for Japan, Guinness for Ireland)—with her sorority.
She drank three tequila shots, gulped down liquor from an ice luge, and was handed a Monster energy drink. She didn’t expect the amount she drank to get her hammered, but soon enough she was, and ended up walking back to her dorm alone. She doesn’t remember it, but she found out after the fact that she was opening people’s doors, walking around until she finally ended up in her room. Soon after, her RA found her passed out on her desk in a puddle of black vomit. She woke up in the ambulance on the way to Crouse.
For Maddie, one of the most upsetting aspects of being transported was that the consequences of the night seemed to follow her long after. After receiving her punishment from the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, she found out she would have to attend a counseling session, write a short paper about what she learned, and meet with the dean of her school. She says she already felt awful enough, and these added requirements only made her feel worse. The office of student rights and responsibilities, did not respond to media requests and emails asking for information for this story.
Maddie says that if she could talk to someone who was transported, she would tell them that it’s nothing to be ashamed of and doesn’t have to define them or their drinking habits.
Research shows that drinking games are one of the most common activities likely to lead to negative consequences from drinking, like landing in the hospital, the director of SU’s Psychological Services Center clinic, Afton Kapuscinski says. She coincidentally is also the professor of the class I opened with to start this story.
James* and his friend challenged each other to a drinking contest his freshman year. After going to a string of house parties way too sober the weekend before, they were on a mission to get drunk—they agreed on a shot for shot competition. They each tallied on their arm with a sharpie for every shot. After the first hour, him and his friends both hit 13 tallies.
Before leaving for an off campus party, the marks on their arm totaled 16. Eventually, after peeing in the attic of the party he was at and then throwing up later, his friends called an ambulance. When the staff asked him—wearing just a bathrobe, T-shirt, sunglasses, and underwear—“what day is it?” to test his sobriety, he replied “Thanksgiving.” He was only at Crouse Hospital for roughly half an hour before being shuttled back to his dorm.
He echoed Maddie’s sentiments on the social stigma of his night being one of the toughest parts of the incident.
“I felt a lot shame. I mean I was definitely mad at myself. But I think I was more mad that I put my friends through that, especially since it was November of freshman year. So it just kind of felt weird them taking care of me for the night.”
He was so scarred after the fact that he didn’t take a shot for a full year after the incident and says in general hasn’t had that much hard liquor ever since.
Crouse Hospital’s Emergency Services Chief and Medical Director, David Mason MD, says the ER is most congested with intoxicated SU students the first few weekends of the school year, concerts like Juice Jam and Mayfest, big game days, and during Greek Life initiation seasons. This isn’t shocking news by any measure to anyone who lives above ground, but these events make up a lot of the 36ish weekends in that span from students’ typical arrivals and departures from campus in an academic year.
So drinking culture is a thing on campus—we know that. But what students don’t always think about when slamming down shots at a pregame are the people who will be cleaning up after their quite often literally sh*tty—and sometimes scary—mess:
On an average night at Crouse Hospital, social worker Michele “Missy” Domachowske sees everything from hammered students hollering at the nursing staff to kids literally pissing themselves. While describing to me the standard behaviors in the ER, she used the word “horrific.”
“I think people would be beyond shocked at how much we see here,” Missy says.
On the rough nights, she’s seen students who have been sexually assaulted while passed out or worse.
During her 17 year career at Crouse as a social worker, only one student has ever followed up with Missy about using the substance abuse resources she referred him to. Normally, the only time she sees a student patient she’s helped after they sober up and leave Crouse is if they’re hospitalized for intoxication a second, third, or even fourth time during their time at school.
But does blackout culture on campus serve as a handy disguise for true alcoholism?
Missy described that students she’s seen experiencing textbook withdrawal symptoms—heightened anxiety, jumpiness, and an amped up heart rate—only to think they have ADHD and need meds for that. That’s how blind students can be to their own addiction.
She also said they’ve been seeing “kids with higher and higher blood alcohol levels, which is just alarming.” Missy’s observation is corroborated by the University Senate report, which also noted an increase in hospitalized students with blood alcohol concentrations in the 300s. BAC measures .1 grams of alcohol per deciliter of blood.
We’ve all heard the common complaints among students trying to get hammered at parties, “ugh, my tolerance is too high,” and the like, as if it takes more alcohol to get them drunk than other people. Truth is though, just because you don’t feel drunk doesn’t mean you’re not. The more frequently you drink a lot, overtime eventually the less drunk you’ll feel when you hit the same BAC level, even though it’s equally dangerous.
Some major factors that influence an individual’s BAC are weight, food recently eaten, use of medication or other drugs, and gender.
“Some students are really high [BAC levels]. You get people who’ve been alcoholics for years and their bodies adapt to the alcohol. They can drink 24/7 and still function,” Mason says. “And there are students who come in, their blood alcohol level can be in the 300s and and that just shows they have a drinking problem. It’s not a few drinks here, a few drinks there, that give them that level tolerance.”
For reference, the legal limit for a DWI in New York state is 80, only a fourth or a fifth the of that.
“High 200s is dangerous. If that’s a tolerance, it’s a red flag,” Missy says.
Another concern about students’ use that’s visible from Crouse Hospital is that, according to Missy, they’ve been seeing more students who end up there not just once during college, but two, three, or four times, which is indicative of a larger pattern or issue with a student’s use.
“People do tend to seek out experiences that help them cope with emotions that maybe they don’t have the skills to deal with otherwise,” Kapuscinski says of students with a larger problem. “So it’s very common for people with substance use issues to have other problems as well.”
One of Missy’s big worries is that kids don’t know where to go or who to talk to. She believes there’s a need for a space where students can walk in without an appointment to discuss these issues—she emphasized that people need to be validated and supported when they’re experiencing a perceived crisis, whether professionals would label it as urgent or not.
She described the missing piece: “A safe place where they can say, ‘Oh I’m really kind of concerned about Jane Smith. She’s out every single night drinking, and she passed out twice this week.’ Very rarely do you see friends who will step up and say, ‘Yeah this has been going on for a while; this is not the first time Susie Q’s passed out here in the ER. She also has problems at home.’ You know, that type of stuff. I don’t think kids, students have a place or someone they can talk to where it’s not gonna come back on them.”
A toxic drinking culture so ingrained in our campus life is not an easy thing to dismantle—heavy drinking on college campuses has been a part of the experience for nearly three generations. But Missy has another idea. She thinks that if students who are struggling could volunteer at the ER from the 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift, they would get a much-needed healthy dose of perspective.
“I don’t think anybody would want to be incontinent of urine. I don’t see anyone who wants to lay in vomit. Haven’t met anybody yet. If they could see themselves through our set of eyes, through a sober set of eyes, I think that would be a reality.”
*We changed the names here to protect our source’s privacy.