A sobering struggle
By Megan Hirt
The gray glow of the TV screen is the only light in a room on the second floor of Lawrence’s Holiday Inn Holidome. Katharine, Colorado junior, awakens with the hotel bed hard against her back, her body soaked in sweat beneath a single sheet.
She cannot focus her eyes. She cannot will her legs to stand. Her throat is raw from vomiting, the sting of two weeks’ worth of vodka forcing its way back up. But all she wants is a drink.
One more drink.
Just one more shot of vodka chased with Gatorade, like she had so many times before, alone in her room at her sorority. Surrounded by photos of her family and friends, Katharine always made sure to turn the lights off before she drank. She hated seeing those photos. And herself.
Now, in the semi-darkness of the hotel room, Katharine’s father perches at her bedside. He soaks the hotel’s scratchy washcloths in cold water and lays them across her forehead. He feeds her ice chips because she can’t keep down solid food.
They do not speak, but the same fear hangs in their thoughts: Katharine could die from alcohol detoxification. Her body, grown so dependent on the substance, will simply forget how to live without it.
Katharine’s drinking had increased throughout her time in college. Toward the end of her sophomore year, she began drinking to relax, drinking alone and planning her days around trips to the liquor store. Her grades tumbled and her relationship with her boyfriend fell apart. Still, even after the parties had ended, the bars had closed and all her friends were nursing hangovers, Katharine didn’t want to stop drinking.
In January 2008, she called an ambulance to her sorority house when, after drinking every day for two weeks, her heart began to feel as though it were beating out of her chest. Shortly thereafter, she checked herself in for alcohol treatment at Johnson County Mental Health Center’s Adult Detoxification Unit in Kansas City, Kan., where she shared a room with a 25-year-old woman addicted to OxyContin. There, for the first time, Katharine witnessed the awful, seedy underbelly of alcohol addiction. For so long a close companion to soothe her in social situations, a magic means to escape her loneliness, alcohol was now a hardened foe, its vile, irrevocable effects visible to her in the broken lives of the center’s other residents.
She remembered one resident in particular, a woman whose excessive drinking had left her in need of a liver transplant. Katharine swore to herself she would never be like that. Two days after arriving at the center, Katharine pulled together a shaky sobriety and left of her own choosing.
But then came a Mardi Gras trip to St. Louis with friends and a hotel room full of alcohol, and she couldn’t resist the urge to drink again.
It wasn’t a big deal, she told herself. She’d stop tomorrow.
It was never supposed to be like this: going to work drunk, taking a test drunk, lying to her family and friends, being constantly trailed by a perfume of hard liquor — the aching stench of something unsaid.
By the end of February, the cracks showed once again when, wasted, alone and afraid, Katharine called Cirque Lodge in Sundance, Utah, the rehab destination of addiction-addled celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan and Kirsten Dunst. After receiving Katharine’s desperate phone call, Cirque Lodge staff tracked down her father in Colorado, and he immediately caught a plane to Kansas.
Katharine is among the one in three Americans who battle alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence at some point in their lives, according to a 2007 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). The same study reported that most alcoholics first received treatment at about age 30, despite their dependence on or abuse of alcohol beginning, on average, at age 22.
Drug and alcohol counselor Rick Ostrander, director of Alpha Recovery Center, 1611 St. Andrew’s Drive, said this eight-year gap between the onset of the problem and receiving treatment for the problem likely existed because alcoholism was a progressive disease. In its early stages, it can lie undetected without any obvious toll on the mind or body.
“Young people don’t understand or know that they’re developing a serious disease until it progresses to a point that it causes significant pain in their lives,” Ostrander said. “And it takes a period of time for that to happen.”
According to a September 2008 report by the NIAAA, 83 percent of college students drink alcohol, and 41 percent of students surveyed reported they drank five or more drinks on at least one occasion within a two-week period.
Ostrander said about half the clients at his Lawrence center were college students, and he said young people with alcoholism often did not seek help because they saw their drinking habits — no matter how excessive — as hardly unusual compared with those of other people in their age group.
Alcohol is a sedative-hypnotic drug, so it targets the pleasure center of the brain, inducing calmness and reducing anxiety, Ostrander said. For college students, many of whom are away from home for the first time and struggling to make new friends and establish an identity, Ostrander said the desire to have this alcohol-induced high had an even greater appeal.
David Ambler, emeritus vice chancellor of student affairs, said college students are also drawn to alcohol because of the role it plays in university culture. With slogans such as “Win or lose, we still booze” and a social scene saturated with kegs, jungle juice and beer pong, Ambler said college students can perceive having a social life free of alcohol as difficult or uncool.
The experiences of Katharine and other students like her show the unique difficulties young people face in trying to get sober and remain sober in a college atmosphere.
“It’s definitely harder for young people to get sober,” said Beth Bernasek, a drug and alcohol counselor at Valley Hope Treatment Center in Atchison. “They tend not to have lost as much in their lives as someone who has been drinking for 30 years.”
* * *
When he was a KU student, Joshua, a 2005 graduate, would go to The Wheel after his morning class to unwind with a couple of beers before heading back up the hill for his afternoon classes. Many of his college memories are tied to drinking in the dorms, drinking at Coyote’s Night Club on Thursday nights and drinking at KU sporting events.
But for Joshua, it was never enough to have just one beer at the football game or a glass of wine with dinner. Every time he started drinking, he kept drinking, often waking up back at his apartment the next morning with no knowledge of how he had made it home.
“I enjoyed that out-of-control feeling,” Joshua said. “Most people don’t like that, but that’s what I would always go for. I used to drink whether I was happy or sad, if I was bored or if there was a celebration, in a room full of people or alone. Any reason was a good enough reason to drink.”
Joshua’s reckless behavior led to two DUI convictions. In Kansas, a third DUI charge is a felony.
Although he never received another DUI conviction, Joshua’s record threw a wrench into his plans. After receiving his law degree from KU, he applied to take the bar examination in Kansas. The application required that he disclose his run-ins with the law. At seeing his record, the Board of Law Examiners refused to let Joshua take the exam.
“Kids in college don’t realize that the decisions they make now — the trouble they get in now — will affect them for a while afterward,” Joshua said. “It can prevent you from excelling in your career.”
Joshua remembered drinking for the first time in junior high school, passing a bottle of alcohol back and forth on the playground with friends. He described himself as always being a driven person, and though his drive propelled him to shine in academics, it also never let him be satisfied with just one drink.
“There’s no off switch, and that’s tough to come to grips with, because I don’t want to feel like I’m different from other people,” Joshua said.
Joshua has been sober for 19 months and was allowed to take the bar examination a year after he first applied. He completed an intensive outpatient treatment program through a substance-abuse treatment center in Lawrence, and he began attending alcoholism support meetings, which he still does.
For Joshua, a significant part of learning to live his life sober meant learning to not rely on what he and his friends called “liquid courage,” the fearlessness and lack of inhibition they experienced after having a few drinks.
“A large part of it was I had to get over myself,” Joshua said. “Inhibitions are good to a certain degree, and if I’m a bad dancer, then I’m a bad dancer. Am I really that self-centered?”
When he reflects on his time at the University, Joshua said he feels sadness and emptiness. He doesn’t keep in touch with a single friend he had during his days at the University, as he said no common bond existed that would bring them back together, other than drinking. Joshua said he also wished he had taken advantage of his college years by getting involved in organizations on campus and activities like study abroad.
“I really limited myself. I didn’t try as hard as I could have,” Joshua said. “I don’t regret any of the good times, any of the parties. But to some degree, it’s like I drank all the fun out of it. I feel like I missed the opportunity to really enjoy the experience.”
* * *
For years, Jenny O’Malley relied on a sanctuary of excuses to close herself off from the reality of her alcohol problem.
“My justification was always that I’m young. People my age drink and party and that’s just what we do,” said O’Malley, 24, who lives in Lawrence and is a nursing student at Neosho County Community College in Ottawa. “But then I started seeing that not everyone drank like I did.”
A native of Port Washington, Wis., O’Malley remembered having her first drink at age 14 — gin that she and friends stole from a boat docked on nearby Lake Michigan. From then on, O’Malley’s life was a blur of shot glasses, cheap liquor and driving home with double vision.
“I didn’t realize why it was fun for me — why I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin,” O’Malley said of her early years of drinking. “I realize now that I had really low self-esteem. You can’t feel bad about yourself and be happy.”
O’Malley moved to Lawrence in 2004, gave birth to a daughter and was accepted to nursing school — a goal she had long had for herself. But, drunk or hungover all the time, O’Malley found it difficult to focus on classes or to even attend classes at all.
Even when she made a commitment to herself to make it through a day without a drink, O’Malley always found herself coming back to alcohol for comfort or recreation. She described her craving for alcohol during that time as all-encompassing. It prevented her from thinking logically. Her only concern was how to get her next drink.
According to Rick Ostrander, it often takes an extreme event like a scrape with the law, such as a DUI, for many young people to address or be forced to address their drinking problems. For O’Malley, the change arose from far less dramatic circumstances.
“For me it was how I felt about myself. In my heart, I knew I was better than that,” O’Malley said. “I never went to jail. I never lost my kid. I was never evicted. There’s no external thing that I can point to as the reason I got sober. You don’t have to lose everything to get help.”
O’Malley began attending alcoholism support meetings every day, and she still attends five sessions a week, 17 months after her last drink. In the early stages of sobriety, O’Malley steered clear of anything that would remind her of her old habits. She wouldn’t go downtown, where she had spent so many nights of drunken revelry, and she even avoided driving by her former favorite haunts, such as the Gaslight Tavern.
“Sometimes I miss that level of excitement,” O’Malley said of her days on the bar circuit. “It was fun, but it was always a nervous, manic happy. My life now has a much calmer joy.”
These days, dressed in royal blue scrub pants and a red polo shirt with her wavy brown hair tied back in a ponytail, O’Malley heads to work as a medication aide at a Lawrence retirement home. She now takes great joy in things others take for granted: making it to her nursing classes on time, having hands that do not shake from alcohol withdrawal and being able to cope with the everyday ups and downs of life without reaching for a drink. O’Malley plans to finish nursing school in December 2011.
O’Malley said that since giving up alcohol she had received more positive, respectful responses from peers than she expected, though not everyone in her life was comfortable with the decision. Some people responded defensively, saying her decision to never drink again was severe and self-righteous.
“I definitely learned who my real friends were when I got sober,” O’Malley said. “I realized that a lot of the people I was around, I didn’t like that much. I just hung out with them because we drank together. When you actually try to hang out with people without alcohol, you find out who you have a true connection with and who you just have a superficial connection with because you drink together.”
* * *
After four agonizing days shut away inside the hotel room with her father last March, Katharine emerged sober.
In the months that followed, she battled fear, insecurity and countless temptations, yet she ultimately found strength and joy in a new life without alcohol.
“The longer I’m sober, the harder it gets,” said Katharine, who celebrated nine months of sobriety Tuesday and attends alcoholism support meetings four to six times a week. “It’s hard because I don’t have an excuse for my actions anymore. I can’t say, ‘Oh, that was the alcohol talking.’ But now I value my actions a lot more. I value friendships and people a lot more. Staying at KU couldn’t have been a better decision for me.”
She partied with the masses on Massachusetts Street when the men’s basketball team won the national championship in April. Yet unlike many Jayhawk fans downtown that night, Katharine drank only cranberry soda from a Sonic cup she held in her hand. She has found that, as long as she’s holding a drink, everyone always assumes it’s alcohol and she’s not pressured to have a drink.
Katharine said one of her biggest fears about owning up to her struggles with alcohol and living life sober was how friends would react, especially her friends within the greek community. Although some members of her sorority seemed bothered by her problem at first and didn’t want to acknowledge it, Katharine said the community had grown supportive of her new lifestyle.
Katharine, now 21 and a KU senior, still goes to parties and bars with friends. Though she said most recovering alcoholics avoid such alcohol-infused settings, Katharine finds it better to be engaged in a social scene rather than being alone, when the possibility of drinking is actually greater for her.
“When I’m with my friends, they know I’m not drinking,” Katharine said. “I’m the type of person who needs to be held accountable.”
The day-to-day grind of being a student makes it difficult for Katharine to stay vigilant against her addiction. She remains grounded, however, by the memory of those four days in the dark hotel room — the memory of watching her father crying at her bedside — and the knowledge that going through another round of detoxification would be harder than the one before and, next time, could take her life.
“There really is nothing to describe it,” Katharine said of detoxification. “It’s complete hell.”