ESSAY: Consumption by Elissa Washuta

What can colleges do about binge drinking?

Colleges can hold their students’ hair back. A super nice college can be a pal and keep breath mints on hand. Colleges can take their turns at DD, or better yet, they can let the bars creep up to the edge of campus, bordering hedge and brick with their welcoming perfume of cola, bleach, and on Mondays, putrefaction.

What can colleges do about binge drinking?

They can do shots. Shots. Shots; but not until after the game is complete, the stadium emptied, the students hoarse from shouting as one united family fuck the other team. Win or lose, if the rival is involved, the young ones will take to the streets and, when they really need to let out some steam, they’ll find furniture to burn, glass panes to smash, cars to flip. Excellence is everywhere: in every superhuman lift of private property, in every defiant challenge of a cop on a horse. Colleges would do well to bring a flask or two. These nights burn long. These games will be on the calendar many months in advance for ease of planning.

What can colleges do about binge drinking?

Plan more activities, like bingo. Make human sexuality discussion sections actually involve copulation. Eliminate MLA citation style and eliminate that entrance exam that is notorious for dashing all hopes of having a job and a house and a child that you can dress up like a little rich person.

Our blackout-speckled binges are the Neverland that keeps us from becoming the grown-ups who make memories and stitch futures to our feet. We will vomit every dream into the gutter outside the twenty-four-hour convenience store that sells the cigarettes whose smoke slips through our pink jellyfish lungs, never marking us because we have suspended ourselves in formaldehyde.

What can colleges do about binge drinking?

Colleges can watch their friend’s glass while she goes to check her makeup. Colleges can turn their students onto their sides before turning off the lights so they might not go out like Jimi, or maybe, actually, on second thought, Google “how not to choke on your own vomit” or “is my friend going to die from alcohol poisoning” and if the search results say it’s okay, colleges can leave her droopy body where it slumps, spit the sour night into the dorm sink, and push back out into the dark for more. They can shoot her a text in the morning to see whether she’s all right. If she’s not, colleges can say they did their best. They turned her on her side and everything, Googled “how to wake up a dead girl,” told her via email one time three years ago that consuming more than four drinks in two hours is considered binge drinking for females.

What can colleges do about binge drinking?

Drinking is so central to students’ expectations of college that they might build themselves new rumens to hold the swill they never dreamed they’d be able to put down — the tenth beer, the fifteenth, the pour through the funnel. Their throats widen with new gullets to usher in the upside-down torrent from the keg on the floor. Drinking is so fundamental to student life that a young man or woman may become slitted with gills so she might not drown.

When their campus clinic charges show up with a pancreas inflamed, lungs lubed with blood, or midday liquor breath across the pharmacy counter, colleges can make a big thing of it if they’re really trying to be magnets for drama, or they can tell their students it’s just gas from an oversized burrito, just a cold, or just part of growing up and send everyone away with a selection from a rainbow of Xeroxed pamphlets on escaping college alive.

They can make the student group with the keg of root beer on the lawn pour it out because it suggests problematic drinking behavior.

What can colleges do about binge drinking?

If they’re gonna be all uptight about it, colleges can open every beer can and pour the contents down the drain. They do it every now and then, swearing off the stuff, pretending it’s the piss-light liquid that flunked those classes, that burned the couches, that smashed windows, that said that shitty thing they’ll regret for a decade, that fucked that girl when she was so passed out her legs felt like they were corpse-limbs. They’re going to be so much better. Still, when game day arrives, colleges are back at it, pregaming at ten in the morning with a venti to-go cup of strong Irish coffee in their hand as they stumble through traffic toward the stadium for the tailgate.

They can let it continue because it is all we know: the elixir we pour on our brains after unpacking them from their boxes in our lonely dorms. When we sign up for English 101 and bare our arms for our meningitis vaccines, we learn that this time is about finding ourselves, about freedom, about hard work, about football, about date rape, and about the procurement, concealment, and consumption of alcohol. When resident assistants toss rooms, they can’t be confidants. When one hundred riot cops, armed and shielded, storm the college town center and beat a student with a metal baton, how could we see the police as anything but the student body’s enemy in war?

When our parents open their car doors and release us into these new dominions where our leaders urge us to be hungry and thirsty, what can we do?

I could do shots during mid-class breaks. I puked in the train station alone at night, puked on Pennsylvania Avenue, on Wisconsin Avenue, on Rhode Island Avenue. I consumed more alcohol calories than food calories. Months after graduation, I found myself on a couch with my skirt up, too wasted to do anything but try to talk the near-stranger out of it when he decided to break into me. I folded hangovers into my weekly routine. I went to the ER for excruciating stomach pain and came out with a diagnosis of alcohol-induced gastritis. Before long, an astringent mix of alcohol and prescription psychopharmaceuticals saturated my tissues so fully that I had become allergic to everything, nutrient-deficient, and so chronically dehydrated that even my eyeballs were evaporating. There was no tragic glamour, only slow rot. I turned toxic. I said and did things I regret and things I don’t remember.

College didn’t mold me into the teenager who chased caffeine pills with cherry NyQuil. College didn’t implant me with the terrifying, galloping want that made me suck down non-alcoholic beers at an off-campus bar while my fellow undergrads sipped their microbrews. Inside me somewhere, there was always a wound; outside me somewhere, there was always a party to drown out its weeping. I just had to choose the site of my self-poisoning and break my fast. College didn’t make me sick. College was the place where I learned to sidle up to a keg and call my despair community.

Years after I began failing myself during those early days of chugging Smirnoff Ice and trying to hold my piss so I wouldn’t break the seal, I decided I wanted to hear the full terror of my thoughts: the unbroken spool of dread, back-looping over every misstep, the forward-searching gaze that looks for threats ahead. To not put down ten whiskey-gingers is to practice nonviolence against my own thoughts. I cannot soften the grip on my neck that makes my tongue loll. But I can listen to the whisper and know that it has never been so mean that I should burn every living thing inside my skin.

In college, I did not yet know that my thoughts, even the ugly ones, are worth hearing. I couldn’t see that my future adulthood was worth growing up into.

My instruction taught me that life was hard but it could be worse — I could be pre-med. I learned that adults made the pain safe with a nightcap, an after-work brew or enough screwdrivers to make the ceiling the floor and the floor the pillow. College was snapped in half when a boy brought his riot to my insides. We were both sober that night; I soon learned to douse that long-open lesion with drink. By graduation there had been a sparkler lit and snuffed inside my brain. When psych meds’ long-tail effects failed to soothe me quickly enough, there was always what everyone else reached for first: drink. Drink. Drink.

I asked it to soothe me.

I asked it to unmake me.

I asked it to disembowel me.

When it fell short, I asked it to leave me, but there was no one to ask, because it was only fluid, and I was alone, ready to put my ear to my heart to listen for a beat.

,,, ªµ ªµ ªµ ›‹ Æ ›‹ µª µª µª ,,,


Elissa Washuta, a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, is the author of the memoirs My Body Is a Book of Rules and Starvation Mode. She serves as adviser for the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington and nonfiction faculty for the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts.