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Tough Call: How to Find the Red Flags in Your College Drinking

Around this time of year in 2011, I was getting ready to graduate college, and I thought that maybe, just maybe, I really was just drinking the way everyone else did. In the months that followed, I saw very clearly that I was not – I was drinking like an alcoholic, even if it was just socially.

Our “campus” was comprised of a bunch of high-rise buildings in New York City’s West Village; but my understanding is that most colleges have football teams, so let’s go with the red flag metaphor.

Since “everyone” is either experimenting with drinking or can already walk their date through the Mezcal list at the local taco joint, it can be tough to figure out whether or not your drinking is normal or not.

There were signs that I saw and signs that I missed, and I know now that the following red flags are impossible to ignore:

  • Red Flag #1  You end up drinking more than you intend to.

    Whether or not you’ve somehow managed to surround yourself with people drink the way you do (a lot) or you’re the only one in your group of friends ordering a third apple martini with your fake ID, you know that you promised yourself you’d stop at one or two and then found a reason to justify a third. After that, who knows how many you’ll have? You may have good intentions, but when someone asks if you want another, or just hands it off to you, and you find you can’t say no, that’s a red flag. Double down on that if, when you do say no, it’s a rare, proud moment. Not to rain on your parade, but normal drinkers don’t even go there. If you’re even setting limits in the first place because you know you’ve had trouble controlling your drinking before, you’re already in the game.

  • Red Flag #2  You become preoccupied thinking about whether there will “be enough.”

    A good host will always make sure your glass is full or order just enough kegs to go around. But if you’re out with people and find yourself having more than just a passing thought about whether there will be ‘enough’ for everyone – aka you, and for that matter, who knows how much is enough – that’s a red flag. If you can’t stay present and just focus on your friends, date, or whomever without worrying about whether the bottles are running on empty, something may be up. If, as everyone else starts to head home, you try to get them to stay out longer, drink more, or you keep the party going yourself by staying out alone and continuing to drink, that’s a personal party foul: when did you become the kid who peer pressures their friends?

  • Red Flag #3  The people who really care about you are worried.

    Parents, close friends, significant others, professors, your doorman, your cat sitter, whoever, is concerned about how drunk you’re getting, how often, and the kind of shape you’re in that night or the next day – or even worse, ‘lately.’ Your fellow party people may find your ‘war stories’ or blackout antics hilarious, but the people who really care about you will not. They may tell you directly, or they may not know exactly what to say, but you can sense their concern. You know deep down if that comment about how many times they’ve seen you hungover meant what you thought it did. It did. They’re worried. Red flag.

  • Red Flag #4  You’re not making the same sexual decisions that you would when you’re sober.

    I’m not going to feed you a cliché about the walk of shame, or that face-palm moment of waking up next to someone and not knowing if you slept together or not. What you do need to chew on is the fact that if you’re sleeping with people you barely know, and you’d never sleep with them while sober, that’s a red flag. If you’re going home drunk with people because you don’t want to go home alone, that’s a red flag. If you can’t even remember if you gave consent or were too woozy to really make a decision, throw in three red flags. If you enjoy having casual safe sex when you’re sober, that’s a choice that nobody has the right to judge you for, but if you’re doing this only when you’re under the influence, that’s a flag, my friend.

  • Red Flag #5  When you’re not drinking (or if you only have one or two) you feel like you’re missing out.

    Social drinkers like to get a little buzzed, maybe drunk on occasion, but they’re not constantly thinking about the next drink or achieving some sort of goal level of inebriation. If you feel like you’re drinking to reach a certain “feeling,” you may feel uncomfortable or annoyed when you limit yourself to one or none. Ask yourself this: Do you feel like it’s pointless if it’s not going to make you feel a certain way, if it won’t give you the tipsy feeling you’re after?  Do you feel like it’s a lot less fun to go out with your friends if you’re not drinking, beyond a simple FOMO, and do you feel anxious without a drink in your hand? If the name of the game is drinking until you’re happy, or calm, or having fun, you’re going to lose.

They’re Called Red Flags for a Reason

The reason these signs are called red flags and not pink, cuddly bunnies is because the preoccupation and the consequences aren’t fun. They’re exhausting. Keep these things in mind next time you’re out, and don’t be afraid to talk to someone you trust, a therapist, or pop into a 12-step meeting to talk to someone there about whether you may be an alcoholic. You don’t have to keep paying the penalty.



Images Courtesy of iStock

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