“Ever heard of beer, bro?”
American drinking culture, especially male drinking culture, is seriously flawed. No matter what anyone may say, there is an implicit pressure on young adults to consider drinking a fun pastime with no serious consequences. The explicit pressure is largely nonexistent, but the status quo, especially in Greek life, encourages drinking. Our worldview is to see drinking as innocuous. If someone chooses to abstain from alcohol, that choice is accepted — but usually with reluctance and without in-depth consideration of the reasons behind their abstinence.
But why don’t some people choose to drink? To say it’s because that person is “soft,” which I often hear, is ignorant and misguided. Real reasons — fear brought on by a history regarding alcoholism or other negative experiences — need to be brought into what I will call our “alcohol frameworks.” People with serious reasons for avoiding alcohol are all around us. I never considered this too deeply before an experience I had over winter break, likely because I have been entrenched in the alcohol framework surrounding me. It involves a family friend about my age, who I’ll call Zoe. She’s the daughter of my mother’s best childhood friend, who I’ll call Jenny. Zoe very easily could have been me.
My mother and Jenny grew up together on Maryland’s Eastern shore. They went to the same schools, shared similar experiences and came from parallel socioeconomic backgrounds. My mother became a doctor and stayed in Maryland; Jenny became a caregiver for geriatrics in New Hampshire.
My mom has been blessed with a happy marriage, a devotion to the Catholic faith and economic stability. Jenny’s life has been a bit different. Although she has one beautiful, exceedingly intelligent daughter, Jenny’s husband passed away soon after Zoe’s birth. Jenny worked incredibly hard to keep financially afloat. She turned to alcohol to cope, and gained weight to the point of morbid obesity. (Jenny has been to rehab for her alcoholism several times, but she’s currently unemployed, and drinking again.)
Zoe’s story broke my heart. I know her well, but I hadn’t heard her whole story until this past December. Jenny began drinking heavily when her daughter was seven years old. Zoe quickly learned not to interact with her mother while she was inebriated, so every day at 4 p.m. (when her mother typically began drinking) she would lock herself in her room. She grew up with a deep distrust of alcohol as a result of her intimate understanding of its detriments.
In high school, Zoe had to mature quickly to help her mother. She had a busier, more stressful life than other high schoolers; nevertheless, her sharp intellect earned her a full ride to a top university in the Northeast. Here, Zoe couldn’t avoid alcohol. Even if she never consumed it herself, she found herself constantly taking care of her drunk friends, to whom she felt an obligation to keep safe. She hated it. To make the situation worse, two of her friends had been sexually assaulted at parties in the first semester. Both incidents were tied to alcohol. When I talked to her, she was thinking of taking a break from school. My mom, who feels like Zoe’s guardian, urged her not to do so. My mom later told me she feels like Zoe is drifting toward Jenny’s path. When Zoe was younger, she aspired to be a trauma surgeon. As she has gotten older, her ambition has been steadily slipping. There’s nothing wrong with settling for a job, but my mother fears that this sliding ambition is redolent of Jenny’s life choices. My mom doesn’t want that for Zoe, and neither do I. We both urged her to return to school, but Zoe didn’t agree with us. That Christmas, Zoe stayed with a friend and didn’t see her mother.
Most college kids, including myself, view alcohol as a social lubricant and a means to feel good. It’s a mainstay of many college social activities. What many don’t take into account is the impact of this culture upon students who were raised in alcohol-soaked environments that tainted their relationship with the substance. They often have deep aversions to alcohol, and an environment dominated by a drinking culture — like college — can cause these young men and women terrible discomfort. All of us at Cornell, and other colleges, must be cognizant of these students and respect the fact that alcohol has different significance for different people. I never truly recognized this until I heard Zoe’s story. I hope her tale has a similar effect on the reader, and compels the young men and women of Cornell to revise their alcohol framework, however slightly.
Christian Baran is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Honestly runs every other Friday this semester.