Area Earns High Dishonor

Ellen Hoffman, Editor-in-Chief

Girls disguised as a toddler from TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras and a peacock adorned with colorful feathers prepared for a festive college night. They started the evening toasting with gin and tonics and snapping dozens of iPhone photos, “selfies,” as they’re called, snapshots of each girl’s face taken from her outstretched arm. The group made its way to a party to show off their Halloween transformation and meet up with friends. After dancing around to pop songs like “Call Me Maybe,” they decided they had had enough dancing for the night.

Twenty-one year old Becca Fagnano headed back to the dorms cloaked in her peacock tutu and feathers. Still camouflaged in Halloween gear and allowing herself to forget her true identity for a night, she downed more gin and tonics before setting off to a local bar.

Fagnano mingled around the pub, celebrating with her bright blue and green makeup still intact. Because she, for once, didn’t have the responsibility to serve as designated driver, she thought a few more drinks than her normal limit of two would be fine. The last couple of glasses left her feeling tired and ready to leave. But from that point on everything is a daze.

She blacked out.

Forty-five percent – almost half – of all college students engage in binge drinking. And the numbers get worse: the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area ranks fourth in the nation – fourth – for binge drinking according to the 2010 system data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s more drinking than people do in Lynchburg, Tennessee, the home of Jack Daniels.

The CDC defines binging as men drinking five or more alcoholic drinks and women drinking four or more drinks within a short period of time. Jason Harlen, Treatment Supervisor at Wyoming Valley Alcohol and Drug Services says a misunderstanding about alcohol abuse – or, perhaps, a culturally embraced ambivalence about the drug – could be at least partly to blame for the unreasonably high local drinking statistics.

“I don’t think a lot of people think [alcohol] is a drug when it’s just as harmful as anything else. It alters the mind. [College students] think it is socially acceptable the way society presents it,” he said.

The number of colleges in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area might also play a role in the statistic. Drinking is a college norm, whether it’s legal or not.

Harlen said peer pressure, sorrow, and depression are reasons alcohol and parties attract the college crowd. Students want to forget their problems and they think drinking is the answer. They leave home and think they can survive without their parents’ rules. The majority even think it is a part of the college tradition.

“A lot of them are away from home for the first time so they have that freedom, new, maybe social relationships. Alcohol makes someone feel better, at least initially, so people drink heavily to forget those bad things that they’re going through,” Harlen said.

Drinking in a social setting, either with friends or new classmates, reduces anxiety. That can be with one, two or five drinks, depending on how that person is feeling that night.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says the first six weeks of a student’s time at college is when they are most vulnerable to alcohol. A time when they are initially away from mom and dad and their familiar setting with the familiar faces of high school friends. A time when they experiment and are prone to peer pressure. A time when they can become someone they’re not.

Binging can transform a person – Halloween costume not required. Fagnano ditched her usual two drink limit and became someone she didn’t recognize. She became a binge drinker without even knowing

“I hate being drunk, so I’m not sure why I got that drunk,” she said. “I think I was more absorbed in having fun and didn’t realize how quickly I was drinking what I had in front of me.”

Binge drinking proves most popular in people ages 18 to 20. For some, it’s a phase. Luckily, for Fagnano, she dodged the troubles alcohol could bring.

She dodged a life of unemployment. A life in poverty. A life of family troubles. A life that now haunts some people.

“I was lucky that night that my friends had my back but it’s not something I want to repeat. I felt like I owed everyone an apology because I was such a hassle.”

For others, consumption can turn into a lifestyle or habit that can follow them for parts of their adulthood, or the rest of their lives.

Seventy-five percent of alcohol consumed by adults – meaning those age 21 and older – in the U.S. is in the form of binge drinking. Over 80 percent of college students age 18 to 24 reported drinking alcohol. More than half of those same students admitted to binge drinking in the past two weeks – having at least four or five drinks within the last 14 days.

Harlen says most college students consume an alcoholic drink before they are of the legal age.

“I think alcohol is socially acceptable across the whole United States. I’ll ask my client when the first time they drank was and there are various answers – 13, 14, 16, 18. The legal age is 21. Most people drink before they are 21-years-old. It’s socially acceptable, yet illegal under 21.”

Dr. Aaron White, Health Science Administrator of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says college students are unaware of how much alcohol goes into a standard drink. Teens and young adults who experiment with making their own drinks tend to over-pour or over-estimate the amount of alcohol that should be mixed with soda or juice.

“If you want to enjoy your night, the best thing you can possibly do is drink slowly. Know how much alcohol is in your drink.  In other words, don’t let other people pour it,” he said. “These are just simple steps that can help diminish the amount of alcohol that hit’s your brain and that can make all the difference.”

The standard measure of alcohol 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol – 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, eight ounces of malt liquor, one and a half ounces of spirits or liquors like rum, vodka or gin, like in Fagnano’s gin and tonic.

Fagnano made her cocktails – adding a green lime to her gin and tonic to match her green ensemble – on her own before she ventured to the bar and gave away that responsibility. She felt she became drunk faster when the bartenders concocted her beverage. When she mixes her own, she feels she usually takes it easy just to stay on the safe side. But that’s not how all college kids view mixology.

“I think they focus more on getting drunk than what is going into their cup. I’m guessing that once the alcohol has dulled their senses and taste buds they don’t care what they put in their cup,” Fagnano said.

Popular college games contribute to binge drinking. Beer pong, flip cup, kings cup all encourage large amounts of drinking and are common at parties. White says students find these types of games competitive and seem to forget they aren’t just throwing a pong ball or flipping a cup, they are also chugging a high amount of alcohol, and not always realizing how much is going into their bodies.

“Some students make drinking competitive. That’s what drinking games are, competitive drug use,” he said. “So if something comes along that gets attention, that is a lot of alcohol in a small container, some students are going to try it.”

The notion that drinking and partying are socially acceptable feeds into playing these high tolerance games. Combine drinking during a pong game with taking shots or concocting drinks and that is easily categorized as binging – something college students wouldn’t always think about.

Binging can turn into a lifetime of images – images that may at times be forgotten. Moments of becoming someone else. Moments showing the consequences of reckless drinking. Moments that mom and dad wouldn’t want to see.

Those are lasting images, though – images similar to the haunting ones on Fagnano’s iPhone. The ones that remind her of Halloween night, a night she originally forgot, but one she will always remember.

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