Sometimes Ryan* (E’18) woke up outside. Dust pressing into his palms. Puffs of wind and a sharp crack of sun, the ache of a hangover starting to sprout in his skull. Two months before he started to classify himself as an alcoholic, he passed out against a fence at a darty and had to be carried home; a year and a half before, he woke up on the ground in the middle of Made in America with bruises purpling his back. Two and half years before, he got MERTed when he peed on the side of Allegro; three years before, he went out for the first time at Penn, a rainy Chancellor darty where he cradled a handle and poured vodka shots into the mouths of strangers, one after another. The summer before his freshman year of college, Ryan blacked out for the first time after a dizzy night that started with Four Loko and ended with a blur.
It was around then Ryan first heard the expression: “It’s not alcoholism until you graduate college.”
That saying would follow him to Penn. A joke between his fraternity brothers. A whisper at Smokes’. And there are the tacit reminders, the hints that echo in Snapchat stories and in GroupMes and in the music we close our eyes and chug our Solo cups to at the pregames: “I drink too much and it’s an issue/ but I’m okay.”
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 20% of college students meet the criteria for an Alcohol Use Disorder. And yet despite the statistics, Penn acts as if college alcoholism isn’t real. It’s hard—almost impossible—to draw the line between alcoholism and social drinking at a school where “work hard, play hard” is more of an imperative than a tagline.
Ryan answers the video call shirtless, sprawled on his bed at home in New Jersey. He decided to take this semester off in December, after he realized he had a drinking problem.
“I definitely label myself as an alcoholic now,” he says. “But the way you picture an alcoholic growing up and—I don’t want to say portrayed in the media, or whatever, but the picture you get is like a 40 or 50–year–old person that’s just, like, drunk off their ass every day and just sits in their house and drinks beer and scotch and I dunno, beats their kids or something—like that’s how I picture an alcoholic or someone with an alcohol problem. Not a decently well–functioning college student, especially when you put it in the reference of Penn and what the drinking culture is at Penn.” He pauses, sits up. “So I definitely had to step back before I could accurately label myself as that.”
The label is important, says Noelle Melartin, who has been the Director of the Office of Alcohol and Other Drugs for the past seven years. She emphasizes the difference between alcoholism—“a general, nonclinical term which is used to describe the use of alcohol that is harmful”—and Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), a medical condition diagnosed when problem drinking “becomes severe.” In her office on Locust Walk, she refers to a printed list of eleven criteria to assess whether someone has AUD. In the past year, have you: Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer than you intended? the list includes. Have you spent a lot of time drinking?
“A lot of students may be surprised that they meet at least two of these,” she says. “Many students won’t, but given the type of drinking that can occur on a college campus, many students will find they meet these criteria.”
Ryan’s been meeting these criteria for a while—blacking out more and more until “the crescendo–ing up,” he says. “So then junior fall, by the end of it, I was just a mess. I was all over the place, drinking probably four times a week at least, maybe five. It was a lot. It was for sure a lot.”
Sometimes Ryan feels like he’s swimming. His head crushes under the weight of “an overwhelming sense of hopelessness,” he says, a futility that paralyzes him. He can’t focus on any single thing. There are hours and hours—late nights, mornings—when he lies in bed, doing nothing, feeling useless. And so for him, drinking “does pretty much what it does for everybody else.” It’s a coping mechanism.
“I’m definitely a social drinker,” he says. “But like, I would never just drink alone in my room with a bottle of tequila or something, like I can recognize that that’s sad and weird. But like, Kweder on Tuesday, then Sink or Swim on Wednesday, then Thursday there’s always something to do, then Friday, Saturday’s the weekend. So like, that fills up your week pretty quickly.”
He didn’t think his behavior was unusual. He had a rotating cast of people he went out with; a couple members of his fraternity checked in to see if he was alright, but for the most part, nobody suggested his drinking was problematic.
“My friends at school know what my habits are,” he says. Ryan sighs. “So at that point, it’s up to them to decide what they think.”
At what he calls his “forte”—his peak level of drinking, towards the end of last semester—Ryan’s not sure how many drinks he downed in an average night.
“Fifteen?” he says, counting on his fingers. “Upwards of that? Definitely not thirty, but I dunno, twenty sounds reasonable.”
Ryan still drinks. Ryan thinks he’ll continue to drink throughout his life—maybe twice a week after he graduates, or more if he goes to happy hours. He still goes out, but he’s changed his habits, “which personally, I don’t think is anyone’s business,” he adds. He gives himself an upper limit of eight or ten drinks over a four hour period, “which isn’t crazy,” he says. “Not at all.”
Red Flags & War Stories
Last fall, Ryan opened his eyes, saw the tan cover of his pillowcase and he knew he was okay. He was in his own bed—groggy, not totally sure what he’d done last night, but he was alright. He shook off the hangover: grabbed food from Allegro, went to class. Then his phone blinked with texts from two of his friends: “u okay?”
They’d seen him sprinting down Locust at 1:30 that morning, laughing to himself. Ryan had vague memories from the previous night: the senior society smoker open bar, where he’d ordered two pitchers of Long Islands, the unremarkable half hour at Smokes’, where he says he was “just chilling, not off the wall or anything.” Two weeks later, at a disciplinary hearing, the chief of Penn Police filled in the details that Ryan had blacked out.
He had wandered to the edge of campus, near Drexel, and passed out on a porch. The police came—he’s not sure if it was Penn Police or Philadelphia Police, but he knows they took his wallet, his IDs, and that they insisted he get in an ambulance. Ryan hadn’t wanted to pay the hospital bill and felt fine in his head, but the police kept telling him, get in, get in.
“Alright, alright,” Ryan murmured. “Fair, fair, fair.”
He started walking towards the ambulance, down the porch stairs he didn't recognize. Then he shoved a police officer in the chest and darted through an active intersection—past cars, through the center of campus. Back to Smokes’.
That was a wake up call to him—a moment he can point to as something he never would have done sober, something indicative of a problem.
Alanna* (C’18), an alcoholic who’s eight months sober, has had “so many” of these moments. She calls them red flags.
Like the time she visited an older cousin who went to Penn and, at age fourteen, was MERTed. Her face was marbled black and blue from hitting the toilet seat. Like the family member’s wedding, where she blacked out by midnight —“I treated the night like I’d be drinking at Penn”, she says—and passed out face down in the food. Like the first date with her boyfriend of a year and a half, when she passed out at the bar, asleep with her hand dipped in a drink. He had to carry her home over his shoulder. Like the hundreds of blackouts she’s had at Penn—two to three times a week, every week, for two years. Like any of the “funny, weird, outrageous shit I’d do fucked up,” she says. “And I’d always get texts the next morning like, oh my god, you were so funny last night, and I’d be like, what did I do?”
“I wish there would just be a different narrative about this kind of stuff,” she says. “Instead of you war–storying about doing these kinds of things.”
A few weeks ago, Alanna came home after dinner and walked in on her roommate sitting in a circle with some of her sorority sisters, trading embarrassing drunk stories.
“This didn’t seem weird to anyone else,” Alanna says. “To me, that that was like, why is this a bonding activity? Why are we normalizing these behaviors? That kind of rubbed me the wrong way.”
Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, she says, are the complete inverse. “You flip the narrative on its head,” she says. “Instead of it being the cool thing that you’re proud of, it’s actually something that everyone can relate to and see as a bad thing.”
Alanna wishes there were a student AA group at Penn. She goes to meetings at 41st and Walnut, but says it’s hard being thirty years younger than everyone else in the room.
The Office of Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD) refers students to a number of different services—including Quaker Peer Recovery, a student recovery community launched last year that offers support services to students recovering from “substance use disorders, mental health illness, and other quality of life concerns,” according to the group’s website. The Office also focuses on harm reduction strategies, including a brief intervention called First Step. It’s mandatory for students who have been MERTed, but Melartin stresses that anyone can walk in and receive confidential counseling.
But to Alanna, AOD is “out of touch.” She beats her fist on the table as she talks. “I know two people that are clean right now….I really wish there were more people that I could actually talk to.”
Last fall, Ryan went in for an AOD intervention after calling Student Intervention Services when he was “ feeling particularly suicidal,” he says. “I don’t know how in tune they are—I don’t really think they understand what the drinking culture is at Penn. Like they give you tips that aren’t, I don’t want to say not helpful, but they kind of just don’t get it, like their suggestion for somebody of my height and weight is to go out and have, like, three or four drinks a night. That’s not even a pregame.” He laughs so hard his chest shakes.
“Drinking to get drunk is the point,” Ryan says. “Why else would I drink?”
Both Ryan and Alanna say their drinking would have been different if they didn’t go to Penn.
"I think I still would have had a problem,” Alanna says, “but I really think the environment at Penn was a huge contributor to my problem. Undoubtedly.” She closes her eyes, repeats: “Undoubtedly.”
“I feel like the social scene at Penn, everything you do actually revolves around drinking. So I didn’t really flag any of my behavior because everyone else was doing it as well, and it’s such a thing here that when you actually get out of the Penn bubble, you kinda realize that, like, how people drink at Penn is actually not indicative of the real world. It’s grotesque.”
“Drinking a lot, getting super fucked up—that’s how people know you’re sick,” Ryan says. “Like, that’s kind of a thing. I’m in clubs [on campus] that are pretty much just drinking clubs. The whole point is to get fucked up.”
“I think I would have thrived at a state school,” Ryan laughs. “You can put that quote in there.”
Rehab & Recovery:
Alanna loved rehab.
“In a kind of sick way,” she says. “It was really hard at times but it was, I don’t know, it was like summer camp for drug addicts.”
She voluntarily checked into rehab last summer. Coming back to Penn was “crazy.”
“I was kind of repulsed,” she says. “And I’m trying not to be judgmental about this, I really am, but I really feel like I got an incredibly new perspective coming back, and going to things that I thought I would still enjoy. But when you’re at the late night, and it’s like 3 a.m. and everyone else is plastered around you and you’re sober, you feel like a stranger. You feel like a complete outsider.”
Alanna still goes out—“Fuck yeah, I still go out”, she says—but she’s aware of her limits. Smokes’ is alright, if she orders a club soda and walks around with it for the night; downtowns are a no. She won’t go to Fling this year. Instead, she’ll write, see a show, maybe even head home to New York.
Ryan’s coming back to Penn next semester. But he’s scared. The semester off has helped him to refocus, re–prioritize, he says, but he hasn’t gotten any practice in “not drinking when there’s pressure to drink.”
“Like my mom isn’t going to be passing me a Natty and be like, ‘yo, chug this,’” he says. “So yeah, I’d say I’m a little bit nervous about actually putting this into practice and hitting the ground running, so to speak.” He pauses. “I have to get it right from the first week.”
He’s had a bit of practice, visiting campus a few times this semester—for rush, a frat date night, St. Patty’s.
He's looking forward to Fling, on his terms.
*Names have been changed due to the sensitivity of the piece.