Excerpt from Barrett Seaman’s Binge: What Your College Student Won’t Tell You (Chapter 9). Barrett Seaman is a current advisor to Recover Circle and continues to be active in the recovery community.
According to a 2002 report issued by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), alcohol accounts for the deaths of fourteen hundred college students a year. The majority of the deaths calculated by the NIAAA—about eleven hundred annually—still occur on the roadways as they did in my day. But highway deaths have actually fallen well off their heights of a couple of decades ago. What’s different is the number of college students getting too drunk to even climb behind the wheel of a car, let alone crash it.
When people speak of someone drinking himself to death, they usually mean the long, slow way, wherein the liver is overworked and falls prey to cirrhosis. What’s happening to these college students is a far more acute process: After a few drinks, the speech slurs and muscle coordination starts to go, followed by conscious memory. And after many, many more drinks, the central nervous system is overwhelmed. Ultimately, the brain suppresses natural functions such as breathing, and coma ensues. Absent heroic intervention, death follows—death by poison.
That apparently is what happened over the 2004 Labor Day weekend to nineteen-year-old Samantha Spady, a sophomore at Colorado State University. A former honor student, home-coming queen, senior class president, and captain of the cheerleading squad at her high school back in Beatrice, Nebraska, Samantha had told a friend in an IM exchange that she planned on “getting extremely wasted this weekend, not just because it’s Labor Day, but because Colorado State plays Colorado in football tomorrow.”
Colorado State lost the football game; Samantha lost her life. In the company of a few friends throughout Saturday, Spady knocked back enough beer and later vodka—roughly the equivalent of thirty shots—over eleven hours to bring her blood alcohol concentration (BAC) up to 0.43. Early Sunday morning, Samantha was wandering around the Sigma Pi fraternity house, her eyes glazed, her speech slurred. When last seen alive just before dawn, she was unable to stand on her own. Two friends carried her to a second-floor lounge to sleep it off. It was not until Sunday evening that a Sigma Pi brother who was taking his mother on a tour of the house found her body.
Samantha apparently drank of her own accord. Not so for Daniel Reardon, who was allegedly forced to consume a 40-ounce bottle of Hurricane malt liquor, followed by multiple slugs of Jim Beam bourbon, all of which were thrust upon him and his fellow fraternity pledges in a hazing ritual at the University of Maryland. It was not until the following day that Reardon was taken to the hospital with a BAC of 0.579—enough to kill a horse. He died a week later, having never regained consciousness.
Earlier in the same school year in which Reardon died, another Maryland student in another fraternity succumbed to an alcohol overdose. In the case of Alexander Klochkoff, the booze was supplemented by GHB, or gamma hydroxybutyrate, a designer drug often involved in so-called date rape cases. Though a few drops of it in a cocktail will render a woman helplessly pliant, some guys perversely use GHB to get themselves drunker quicker. For Alexander, the quick became the dead, as often happens when drugs and alcohol are mixed.
More often these days, college kids die from drinking’s secondary effects. Drowning in one’s own vomit, for example. According to official records, Duke University junior Raheem Bath died of pneumonia on the Saturday night of Thanksgiving break in 1999. But the root cause of his deadly infection was vomit inhaled after he had puked up a night’s worth of drinks. Owen Smith, a senior at Vermont’s Champlain College, froze to death in a snow-bank on his way home from a party at which he was reported to have had a sizable amount of alcohol. A snowplow driver discovered Smith’s body on a Sunday afternoon in December 2003 along the side of a road outside Burlington, Vermont. Last seen at a party the night before, Owen apparently wandered off, drunk and disoriented, and eventually fell victim to hypothermia. “You get lethargic, you get sleepy, and you start to make bad decisions,” Dr. Steve Leffler, an emergency room physician, told the Associated Press.
Freshman Jeffrey Shank, age eighteen, plunged from a fourth-floor balcony of his Dickinson College dorm in February 2003. Four Dickinson seniors were subsequently charged with providing alcohol to Shank, a minor. The offense carries a $1,000 fine in Pennsylvania. Brett Jensen, age nineteen, fell off the deck of the Pi Kappa Phi house at the University of Washington and cracked his head open after playing a round of Century Club, a drinking game that calls for knocking back a hundred shots of beer in as many minutes. Indiana University sophomore Seth Korona died after performing a “keg-stand.” Korona was suspended over the beer tap at
the Theta Chi house at IU, inhaling as much beer as gravity and air pressure would permit, when he lost his balance, fell, and sustained a fatal concussion. University of Virginia student Leslie Ann Baltz also died from head injuries received in a fall down stairs in 1997 after she drank her fourth-year fifth—allegedly a U-VA tradition in which seniors consume a fifth of a gallon of hard liquor on the day of the last home football game.
Excerpt from Barrett Seaman’s Binge: What Your College Student Won’t Tell You (Chapter 5). Barrett Seaman is a current advisor to iRecover and continues to be active in the recovery community.
The Morphing Drug Scene (Excerpt from Binge: What Your College Student Won’t Tell You by Barrett Seaman)
The drug that scared campus officials in the late nineties was Ecstasy, often referred to as E. Scientifically it is known as the compound MDMA. E has been around for more than a century and was actually patented by Merck in 1914. It made its debut as a club drug in the early 1980s in the Dallas area, and the DEA promptly listed it as a schedule I substance, which ended its legal availability.
By playing with the brain’s neurotransmitters, including serotonin, a major influence on mood, Ecstasy induces a combination of cocaine-like bravado, amphetamine-like stimulation, and pot-like sensuality without any of the perceptual distortions created by hallucinogens. One Berkeley undergraduate told me that she tried it once and felt extremely nauseous for the first half hour, but then she was overwhelmed by a nerve-tingling sensuality and a self-confidence that wiped away all inhibitions. A University of Michigan student recalled his first experience with the drug: “The second the powder entered my nasal cavity, it burned intensely. I reeled back from the dresser, eyes watering. Seconds later, a tingling started up and down my limbs, followed by a warm rush of chemicals surging through me. I remember walking out of the bedroom, floating down the narrow hall with a gigantic smile on my face, feeling so overwhelmingly wonderful, a thousand times better than I had ever felt in my life.”
In the 1990s, E hit the all-night dance club scene like a tsunami and was treated with relative kindness by the mainstream press, including a Time magazine cover story in June 2000. For $20 a pop, users could dance or make love all night, and they did. In 2001, roughly 15 percent of college students reported using Ecstasy—more than a sevenfold increase from a decade earlier.
The bad news, which didn’t get much attention early on, was that Ecstasy occasionally set off psychotic episodes and appeared to have some long-term—perhaps permanent—effect on the body’s serotonin levels, meaning it might lead to chronic depression and permanent personality change. As this word spread, along with a few hairy stories about kids who fried their brains on the stuff, the college Ecstasy scene faded.
But it did not disappear completely. Shortly after I visited Indiana University in 2003, a joint federal / state task force busted a ring of current and former IU students who had been importing large quantities of Ecstasy from Amsterdam by taping strings of tablets to their legs and getting through customs at the Detroit Metro airport. They had been selling the tabs on campus for $15 to $20 apiece. A health official at the Claremont Colleges, which includes Pomona, told me that students would occasionally show up at the clinic with mouth blisters induced by sucking Ecstasy-laced Popsicles. But as one Dartmouth senior told me, “People are beginning to read that it can have serious, lasting impact, which is moving it into the second category of drugs like cocaine and heroin.”
When the rave scene died, the same Michigan student, whom I’ll call Steve, moved from Ecstasy to cocaine, which he said was “a lot more subtle” than E but easier to get in his fraternity. Quick to deny that the Greek system was a haven for Michigan’s cocaine users, he said that the fraternity just happened to be where his friends were. “Drug use, at least, is about the same with fraternity members and nonfraternity members. It’s just a social situation, and we happen to have a big Greek system here.”
“I was addicted to cocaine by the time I realized it,” he recalled. “I suppose it was obvious to everyone outside of my similarly dependent friends, but that is also one of the realities of the drug: the habit hides itself from you until it’s too late.” Steve would spend about $100 a week buying coke but ran in a crowd that was generous with their own supplies. Most of them, he acknowledged, were from well-to-do families. Someone would just throw a batch on a table in the house while a party was going on; they’d divide it up into lines with a razor blade and snort it with a straw or a rolled-up dollar bill. High on coke, and also smoking weed and drinking, the partiers would go through the night, sometimes into midmorning. “I was already seeing the sunrise five days a week—the only daylight I really saw anyway—and I began to hate it. By late morning, all I wanted to do was sleep, but insides twisting, mind racing, nose bleeding, face sweating, my bed offered no comfort, and even a blanket nailed over the window did not keep out the sun.”
When he crossed the line from recreational use to addiction isn’t clear, but by the spring of that year, he had shed 30 pounds from his six-foot frame, dropping to an emaciated 130 pounds. His relationship with a girlfriend deteriorated and finally collapsed. He stopped answering or returning phone calls from his parents. When he finally returned home to face them, it was after a coke binge that kept him up all night and all day. At some point he collapsed, and his mom and dad were standing over him when he awoke, shaking him and yelling in his ear. It had taken them twenty minutes to revive him. It was only after his subsequent confession to them that Steve tried to break the habit.
He stayed clean for a month, but he fell back into it when school started up again in the fall. Finally recognizing that he had a problem he couldn’t deal with alone, Steve dropped out of Michigan and went into rehab. With help, he kicked the coke habit. But back in college, he continued to drink and smoke weed—in moderation, he maintained. “I know people who can do coke and not get addicted,” Steve told me as he approached midyear graduation from Michigan. “But I also know a certain type of person with an addictive personality who can’t do it. I feel like I have managed my drinking very well.”
Such horror stories notwithstanding, hard drug use has stayed at relatively manageable levels in recent years. What’s new about the college drug scene is the propensity to mix substances like GHB, roofies, crystal meth, and ketamine (known as Special K) with alcohol. Some students have been known to mix in antidepressants, which typically come to college along with a psychiatrist’s prescription. For guidance on what works and what kills, they go to Web sites such as Columbia’s Go Ask Alice (www.goaskalice.columbia.edu) and check out the startling permutations other site users have questions about—Ecstasy and alcohol, crystal meth and Paxil, nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and marijuana. They are seeking to avoid the fate of people like Josh Duroff, a senior at Connecticut’s Trinity College who died from sniffing a concoction of ground-down Valium and Xanax, a double dose of downers, having already had alcohol and heroin. A woman at Rollins College apparently thought it would be interesting to mix Inderall, a prescription heart drug often used to treat migraines, with an extra dose of her antidepressants before going to a fraternity party. She went to the morgue instead.
An ER doc in Madison regaled me one afternoon with stories from a hospital near the UW campus. “We get a lot of poly-drug stuff,” he said. “Paxil and Welbutrin [antidepressants] mixed with alcohol—mostly college kids but not necessarily UW—marijuana, heroin . . . that’s how people die. Five or six years ago, we had a nineteen-year-old fall off a window ledge at a party. When she got here, she was a quadriplegic—and pregnant. Three years ago, we had a kid on PCP who was out swimming in Lake Menona in November. Another kid on coke went psychotic and ran around the ER naked and screaming. When Ozzie Osborne played at the Dane County Coliseum a few years ago, every bed in the ER was filled.”
In one of the several lawsuits filed against MIT, the family of Richard Guy Jr., a student who in 1999 suffocated inside a plastic bag while inhaling laughing gas, claimed that the nitrous oxide canister their son used was kept in a fifth-floor room painted black with pink and purple lightbulbs. Residents referred to it as the “dorm bottle.” Subsequent to his death, two students, including the woman in whose room Guy had died, were charged with possession and intent to distribute not only nitrous oxide but also hallucinogenic mushrooms, amphetamines, and marijuana.
Excerpt from Barrett Seaman’s Binge: What Your College Student Won’t Tell You (Chapter 9). Barrett Seaman is a current advisor to iRecover and continues to be active in the recovery community.