Nichols: Our Drug of Choice

by Matthew Nichols | 11/7/12 11:00pm

If you're going to do drugs and let's face it, you probably will at least do the right ones for the right reasons. Let me explain.

If I had to guess the drug of choice at an elite liberal arts college, it would probably be LSD the thinking man's drug, the expander of minds, the fuel of creativity. In fact, though, we all know alcohol is the drug of choice at Dartmouth. That booze is the chief psychoactive substance consumed on this campus says a lot about us, most of it not particularly flattering. And our love of firewater really isn't doing much for us.

With very few exceptions, every college in America has a drinking problem. We're hardly original. But no other campus has ritualized ethanol ingestion to the degree we have. I'm talking about pong, of course.

Drinking to excess is neither new nor necessarily evil, as Kurt Hollander explains in an excellent overview of the history of pulque fermented agave the Aztecs believed to be the nectar of the gods in Guernica Magazine. But drinking at Dartmouth bears little resemblance to the uplifting, communal celebrations of the ancients, or even the rambling prankster antics of the beatniks and hippies, a la Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey.

Instead, Dartmouth is filled with high-functioning alcoholics who intoxicate themselves on a nearly daily basis. The description of alcoholic pilot Whip Whitaker in a recent New York Times review of the movie "Flight" "the switchblade strut and aviator shades ... [hiding] bloodshot eyes" would be equally apropos of many Dartmouth students. We project arrogance not only to make others recognize our talents, but also to hide our defects.

Considering the clear links between depression, suicide and binge drinking, our obsession with alcohol makes as much sense as force-feeding sugar to a diabetic. If you don't agree that your peers are depressed, look no further than the weeks-long waiting list for mental health services at Dick's House, the burgeoning cottage industry of psychologists in the Hanover area and the barely concealed trade in prescription drugs like Xanax.

Our sense of drive is what got us into Dartmouth, but the demands that we place on ourselves and each other often escalate into panic-inducing anxiety. We fear failure, but even more, we fear success. Why? Because we suspect that once we achieve our highest aspirations, not only will it be anticlimactic with no grand sense of accomplishment but also we will be left without a clear sense of where to go next. For young adults seeking a well-trodden path to follow, this can be incredibly disorienting.

Furthermore, with its cult-like insistence on tradition, Dartmouth encourages awe toward upperclassmen. But as we ourselves become campus leaders, we often find that the view from the top is not what we anticipated. The eccentric guru Lyle in David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" wisely advises a junior tennis prodigy that there is no reciprocal feeling to envy: There is no satisfaction in becoming the one who is envied. Thus, in the beginning, we drink to imitate those we envy. In the end, we still drink, but to dull the hard edges of a lackluster reality.

Additionally, we drink because we want to seem grown-up, but we have a poor sense of what being a mature adult is actually like. Ubiquitous "tails" events are a prime example of this confusion. Aside from the investment banking intern who bragged to me last month that he drinks beer at the office while making PowerPoint presentations sick, bro! there is little resemblance between the modern workplace and the TV show "Mad Men." Tails are not preparing you for real life; they're preparing you to consume poorly mixed drinks out of plastic cups.

But this still leaves the most important reason why we drink: We're all nerds. We drink in order to feel less inhibited, less nervous. But this is a self-defeating crutch, as our excessive drinking causes us to act foolishly, and we hide our regret behind bravado. Booze as a social lubricant is only necessary because of the deeply judgmental, divisive social scene we willingly perpetuate.

Like all humans, Dartmouth students want connection with like-minded people, a sense of belonging and purpose and accomplishment in our lives. Our current patterns of alcohol consumption are undeniably destructive, but we have the power to change that if we're honest about why we drink and what we want from our social interactions.

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