December 4, 2019

SULLIVAN BAKER | When We Use Alcohol to Cope, We Fail Ourselves

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On a November evening — more winter than fall — two dozen Cornell Political Union members debated a contentious question: Is Cornell failing the United States? I passionately opposed a fellow ILRie who argued that Cornell does a disservice to the nation by failing to address its toxic student culture, since I’m confident that Cornellians’ contributions to society outweigh our institution’s flaws. But a portion of her speech stuck with me.

“To deal with [Cornell’s] hyper competitive environment and zero-work life balance,” she observed, “Cornell students turn to alcohol — whether it’s karaoke Tuesday, Fishbowls or the handle of vodka in the closet.” This tendency should be glaringly obvious, but it’s one that many of us seem to be in denial about. For many Cornellians, alcohol doesn’t just enhance a night out; it’s seen as a tool for coping with the demands of life on East Hill. But when you target stress with Svedka, things just get worse.

Though many Cornellians have recently indicted our campus’s destructively-competitive tendencies, less attention has been paid to how we cope with our stress culture — which, let’s face it, won’t disappear any time soon. We have to denormalize drinking-to-escape and drinking-to-avoid because they contribute to addiction risk, damage relationships, burden caring friends and ultimately do nothing to alleviate the pressures of college life. And though this unhealthy alcohol use is by no means unique to Cornell —  substitute any other U.S. university and this column still holds true — we still need to address its impact in our community.

I’ve witnessed the destructive power of alcohol and drug dependence firsthand. My biological father, a law school valedictorian, a pillar of my hometown’s legal community and a legendary local disc jockey (who, according to family lore, inspired Warren Zevon’s 1976 hit “Mohamed’s Radio”), struggled with addiction for years until he passed away in 2012. He had much to offer the world beyond his 57 years, but he was never able to completely overcome the vices he developed as a young man.

As I watch friends with promising futures drink themselves to sleep or descend into maudlin incoherence night after night, I can’t shake the fear that their life story might end up looking something like his. As the Mayo Clinic points out, excessive drinking can lead to alcohol use disorders by altering brain function and reducing one’s self-control and judgment. Students who drink to alleviate the pressures of student life wind up drinking to excess because sources of stress — from problem sets to career recruitment to social expectations — are ever-present.

We too often insist on trying to resolve disputes and misunderstandings while drunk. Doing this means taking the easy way out. It’s much more difficult to let your guard down, expose vulnerability or admit error while fully lucid. But drunken attempts at interpersonal problem-solving create more room for misunderstanding or unproductive confrontation, which only damage bonds. And if you avoid facing the sometimes-uncomfortable work it takes to maintain relationships while sober, you deprive yourself of an opportunity to grow in maturity and emotional intelligence.

We too often fail to understand the burden our stress-induced intoxication has on those close to us. No one wants to babysit a friend who’s too drunk to make it home on his own, but good friends will do what it takes to ensure that the people they care about are safe. So, when you drink so much that your friends have to take care of you, there’s a good chance you’re contributing to their own cycles of stress.

Alcohol can only offer a temporary respite from the demands of Cornell life. Sure, if you take enough tequila shots you might temporarily get your mind off the seemingly make-or-break interview you have next week, but you’ll wake up in the morning, head throbbing, with the daunting call still bearing down on you.

So, next time you’re hit with a painful prelim result, find yourself reeling from romantic rejection, or become overwhelmed by the weight of our culture’s expectations, don’t reach for the bottle. You owe it to yourself to do better.

To seek alcohol and drug addiction resources, visit health.cornell.edu. Students may also consult with counselors from Counseling & Psychological Services by calling (607)255-5155. Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program at (607)255-2673. An Ithaca-based Crisis line is available at (607)272-1616. For additional resources, visit caringcommunity.cornell.edu.

John Sullivan Baker is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at jsullivanbaker@cornell.edu. Regards to Davy runs every other Wednesday this semester.