Though alcohol-soaked Halloween parties play into Cornell’s weekend traditions, students choose to abstain for a variety of reasons. Some students are not drinking on this holiday because they are recovering from an Alcohol Use Disorder.
According to the NIH, 16 million people in the United States, or about 6% of the population, have an Alcohol Use Disorder. That percentage is much higher for college students — according to the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 20% of college students meet the criteria for AUD.
AUD can have a serious impact on a person’s health and safety, including an increased risk of liver disease, poor decision-making, and problems at work and school.
“I was losing weight, my muscular composition was changing,” said Dave* a Cornell undergraduate student who received treatment for from AUD. “The sleep quality is horrific. You are never sleeping so you are never quite awake anymore. I would wake up, dry heaving because I wouldn’t eat very often.”
According to the NIH, research has found a strong genetic connection to AUD. Some students with AUD have fewer environmental factors, such as emotional trauma, but a strong family history of AUD.
“I am not the type of person who drank because I was stressed or had mental health problems, or had trauma or some terrible upbringing. Alcoholism runs pretty deeply in my family, and I think it was a condition I was born with and activated as soon as I started drinking,” said Joe*, a graduate student at Cornell.
After failing out of his first undergraduate institution due to his AUD and returning home, Joe underwent went through 9 months of outpatient therapy that included individual and group therapy.
AUD and other substance abuse disorders often co-occur with other mental illnesses, according to the National Institute for Drug Abuse. According to G.P. Zurenda, an Ithaca-based psychotherapist who specializes in AUD and other substance abuse issues, cases at Cornell are no exception.
“In my practice, in my experience, most of the people who end up alcoholics have pre-existing anxiety, depression, low self esteem, trauma — trauma is extremely common,” Zurenda told The Sun. “Alcohol is pretty attractive to deal with those things, but eventually it stops working.”
This statement rang true for Dave.
“I never felt I belonged … I was sad, I was always thinking, and it was fun to just do something bodily and physiologically stimulating than just thinking about shit that upset me all the time,” he said.
After his friends and professors expressed concern, Dave voluntarily hospitalized himself for mental health concerns, and underwent an alcohol detox protocol while hospitalized.
Timothy Marchell, Director of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives, described resources for students at Cornell in the Ithaca area. On campus, Cornell Health resources including counseling are available to help people recover from AUD and maintain their recovery.
According to Marchell, students at Cornell Health can make an appointment at Cornell Health with primary medical care providers or CAPS counselor, and could get information from the BASICS program. If they would rather use non-Cornell Health resources, they can attend local self-help organizations including Alcoholics Anonymous.
One housing option for students in recovery is the Cornell Sober House, a student run co-op for “students who arrive or are returning to Cornell after experiencing problems with substance use.”
According to a self-reported survey, 33% of Cornell students do not drink.
Abstaining from alcohol is not the only part of a sober lifestyle, according to Dr. William Sonnestuhl, a Cornell professor, president of Cornell Sober House, and advisor to Sober@Cornell.
“Part of learning to live a sober life is also learning to be open to other people and be supportive of other people. It also means thinking about your own health, what are you eating, how much are you sleeping,” said Sonnestuhl.
All of Cornell’s community can play a role in creating a supportive environment for people to drink safely or stay sober. Sonnestuhl believes that people organizing parties should be more mindful of the norms they create for drinking and for behavior while drinking.
Joe said, “If you offer someone a drink and they say no, don’t push it.”
*The names of these individuals have been changed to protect their identities.
Students struggling with substance abuse concerns can get on-campus help through Cornell Health at health.cornell.edu. Help can also be found in the Ithaca area through Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services at carsny.org. Students may consult with counselors from Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) by calling 607-255-5155. Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. An Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. For additional resources, visit caringcommunity.cornell.edu.