Navigating addiction: Alcohol

Let’s be honest, becoming a student and morphing into a steaming, name-taking booze monster is something of a stereotype. There’s not necessarily anything abnormal here, as UON’s Drug, Alcohol and Other Addictions counsellor, Michelle Lampis explains, “Most people drink a little heavier when they’re younger and reduce their intake as they get older. However, some people don’t”.

While this pissed student archetype has given us countless American college movies, there is a darker, decidedly unglamorous seam running through the core of the hard-partying student image.

The standard perception of what an alcoholic is probably involves sights and smells that aren’t readily associated with a young student dipping their toes in their first freedoms as an adult. However, the reality is, that your life could easily become dictated by alcohol consumption.

How do you know when you’ve dipped those toes in too deep?

Michelle says that for some, “Alcohol becomes something that they are doing, that they are not able to control, even though they’d like to – when drinking becomes a thing that is almost bigger than the person. Another sign is when your drinking begins to affect your responsibilities.”

Your body rapidly develops a tolerance to alcohol as well. “You may find that you need to drink more for the alcohol to have an effect, then needing that alcohol more and more and feeling like you can’t do without it.”

It’s one thing to have a drink to take the edge of a horror day, but are you pouring that drink, not because you had a bad day, but because you just had ‘a’ day?

We’re also hit with mixed messages about the potential health benefits and impacts of alcohol consumption, to the point where I can almost convince myself that my red wine, coffee and chocolate consumption is going to help me live forever. So, how much is too much?

“No more than two standard drinks in one sitting is considered to do the least amount of harm”, explains Michelle. Which is a bit discomforting. I notice the term ‘least harm’ isn’t quite the ‘beneficial’ I was hoping for. “Then for injury, it’s more than four. That’s the general guidelines.”

But that’s not where the adverse impacts of alcohol abuse on student life end.

Drinking gives you a nasty psychological hangover that lasts longer then the physical hangover – one that can’t be fixed with a handful of paracetamol and a bag of hot chips. “When you are drinking, you’re constantly flooding your brain with extra dopamine, so your brain stops producing it,” explains Michelle. Dopamine is like a thoughtful little present your brain gives itself for doing good things. That’s why it feels so good to hand that assignment in or finish that super hard level of Candy Crush. Without it, you’re more susceptible to depression, fatigue, mood swings, and your ability to stay motivated, handle stress and concentrate goes out the window. It takes a while for the brain to reset and start producing dopamine again, so, if you’re drinking regularly to feel better, welcome to a Vicious Cycle. Lack of motivation caused by consistent heavy drinking can double down on the already ever-present threat of procrastination, making it almost impossible for you to perform.

Alcohol also affects your sleep, and lack of sleep is a sure fire way route to becoming an unhinged hot mess. Michelle points out that “while we may feel that a few drinks can help us relax – and a few more might make it easier to crash – the depth and quality of your sleep suffer.” You may feel like those cheeky night-time drinks are helping you make friends with your pillow, but you’re not actually getting any recuperative sleep while you’re drooling on it.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Michelle follows a ‘harm minimisation’ approach to potentially addictive behaviours and substances and has some hints and tips to help mitigate unhealthy alcohol related behaviour.

“Enjoy yourself. Have fun. But put things in place and make decisions that enable you to stay safe.”

“Alternate alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic drinks, with water being the best.”

Set limits on how much you want to drink in a particular session and stick to them, which, as Michelle suggests, “will be different for different people depending on their knowledge of how alcohol impacts their system.”

Importantly, you should have a ‘buddy’. Someone you can “tell your limits to and who will hold you to that.”

On that note, if you’re pre-loading for a night out, be aware of what a standard drink is and how many you’ve decanted into that drink bottle you’re smuggling onto the bus.

Eating well before you bust open that cheap cask of wine can do wonders as well, says Michelle, “a filling and nutritious meal before drinking has a huge impact on the way your body will process and recover from the alcohol.”

Another thing to consider is that not everyone really fancies going large. “Some people just don’t fit into the drinking culture, yet feel social pressure to join in. That really has an impact on your sense of self. It’s important to be mindful of the choices other people make.” If someone at your party isn’t drinking, or has set themselves a limit, don’t be a jerk and pressure them or humiliate them. “Many people have deep-seated reasons why they may not be drinking, including trauma,” says Michelle. Making the choice to not drink can be hard, so be aware that what you see as good-natured encouragement can actually be really damaging to some people.

I asked Michelle if there’s a sure-fire sign that a student has a problematic relationship with alcohol.

“Deep down, most people already know they might have a problem. Just thinking that is a major clue. People will recognise ‘oh, I’m doing that again’. When that happens, ask yourself ‘am I ok with that?’”

If you feel that your relationship with alcohol is becoming problematic, you can contact the Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS) hotline on 1800 422 599 or, seeing as Michelle is UON’s Drug, Alcohol and Other Addictions counsellor, why don’t you come and see her?

As I mentioned, she operates under a harm minimisation approach, so she isn’t going to give you a lecture, or demand a meal of cold turkey.

“Blanket campaigns never work. I’m driven by the individual that’s in front of me and what they want. It’s their problem and their goals. It’s not a case of ‘I’m going to see this person and I’m going to tell them to stop’, it’s all about ‘what’s going on for you and how do we get to your best-case scenario’.”

“I can also refer out to other support services if a student feels more comfortable doing it that way, or if their addictions have reached a more chronic degree. It’s about tailoring help to the individual.”

There’s no need to become a halo brandishing teetotaller when it comes to alcohol, but there’s also no need to suffer in silence if alcohol has become less of a social lubricant and more of a nightmare in your life.

 

For more information on the University of Newcastle’s counselling services, head on over to https://www.newcastle.edu.au/current-students/support/health-counselling-and-wellbeing/your-mental-health/counselling.