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Friday, March 4, 2016

Kindred Spirits

Drinking buddies.
"People contact me all the time and say 'your story is MY story." So said author Sarah Hepola to a riveted crowd in Laurie Auditorium on Thursday (March 3, 2016) at an event sponsored by the Coalition for Respect and Greek Council. Well, I was thinking the same thing. I have revealed my own drinking history to the campus, first in a 2004 Trinitonian column (that time Spurs owner Peter Holt was the catalyst) and in countless welcome and diversity speeches at New Student Orientation.

I like to talk openly about my dysfunctional family history, my drinking, and my social anxiety. I want students to not see me as a bland and condescending bureaucrat. I want my failures to make me approachable and a safe resource for students when they hit their lows. How can I judge given the things I have done? And there are plenty of adults like me around campus that students should and do look to during their most vulnerable moments. So of course I am drawn to Sarah's candid and blunt accounts of her black-out history. Forgive me for gravy-training.

Sarah's talk triggered a flood of liquid gold memories for me. It has been over 30 years after all, so I don't go back there very often any more, back to the spirits and ghosts. The consistencies between our stories - and apparently the stories of many - are both shocking and yet not at all surprising. I will spare the details of my past, except to say I imposed blackouts on my self nearly every weekend for several years running during college. It didn't stop afterwards, and that's when I knew I wanted to forge a different path for my own yet-to-be-created family.

Dinner with the speaker and Trinity people.
Like Sarah, I felt emboldened by my alcohol use and belittled others as amateurs. Most striking in her speech were these incredible nuggets: knowing from the first time that this was a problem; treating non-drinkers as less-worthy "light-weights;" hiding behind one-night stands and cigarettes as adventurous and cool; and building a drinking identity that masked fears, anxieties, and low self-esteem.

Interesting and sad stories we have to tell. But what is the take-away for our students? Sarah was spot on from the start when she told students that she wouldn't tell them not to drink or drink less - because they probably wouldn't listen. At the end of the day students will make their own choices and take their own risks. And there are lots of risks. What I had in common with Sarah was the fun, exhilaration, transformation, and brazenness alcohol created. How dare either of us serve ourselves up as cautionary tales? The best way is to name it: that if students feel the way we did about their relationship with alcohol, then they should take pause. Serious pause. Look at the full arc of our stories to see the almost cataclysmic results that somehow ended in at least some redemption.

Some of my history guides my thinking in leading policy discussions on campus. The Optimal Buzz and B'Low Optimal programs acknowledge that students will drink but gives them incentive to do so moderately. Currently, we are fully reviewing our off-campus alcohol policies and guidelines with the Athletic Council and Greek Council. (That will be another post altogether.) I anticipate revisions that shift responsibility to individuals more than groups and that further strengthen our commitment to student health and safety above policy enforcement.

Sarah described college as that fun time of freedom between adolescence and adulthood. Why wouldn't students have fun with alcohol? By describing her experiences in Black Out, and taking her story to college students Sarah Hepola is offering up an important and very personal story.

Over dinner with a group of students, staff, and faculty at a local restaurant, Sarah answered questions, spoke with passion and humor, and was candid about her story and the culture of drinking. As our waitress, Amber, thanked us for our business, she revealed, tearfully, that she herself was 263 days sober. "You should listen to her," she said of my new kindred spirit, and hers. "She speaks the truth," said Amber. She does indeed.

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