Drinking, Play & Identity

I have written in an earlier post about how depriving human beings of opportunities and spaces for play leads to increased stress, anxiety and depression.

According to Ashton Katherine Carrick, a senior at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, stress that begins in high school, with the imperative to spend all available time preparing a college resume, follows young adults right into college. In a New York Times op-ed piece , reflecting on her experience as a college student, Carrick observes that stress is the cause of drinking to blackout. Of stress, she says,

It permeates everything we do as college students. Many small, elite colleges are insanely competitive to get into in the first place and they remain competitive as students try to outdo one another with grades, scholarships, extracurricular activities and internships. Having been one of those hypercompetitive students, I can tell you that it never feels like enough.

Alcohol is an effective stress-reliever in that it reduces one’s inhibitions and calms the distressing thoughts that often accompany anxiety. However, Carrick suggests that there is more to the drinking culture in college.

…fraternity houses become the focal point of partying and social interaction [and] Drinking on campus is by far the most convenient way to have fun.

Going to a party suggests getting together with friends, talking, and deepening relationships and bonds. While partying is often associated with eating and drinking, college students (as well as many high school students) increasingly define partying as an opportunity to drink, and, in particular, to drink a lot. Drinking games are central to the party, and drinking to blackout is often the aim.


What happens to the quality of relationships when the primary common experience is drinking?

In my clinical work with adolescent girls, I have heard many times about their involvement in sexual experiences for which they absolve themselves of responsibility or even choice. They are not claiming that they have been assaulted (though the research shows that drinking increases the chance of sexual assault) but rather that their being drunk allowed them to do something that they wouldn’t have done while sober. Carrick observes “a tacit understanding that blacking out works as a kind of ‘get out of jail free card.'” In classical psychoanalytic terms, one might say that these girls had a conflict between id drives or sexual impulses and superego prohibitions, their conscience or morals, a conflict they resolved by drinking to the point where their superegos ceased to function.

This strategy for absolving themselves of responsibility for their sexual desires gives me pause. What messages are they getting about their normal impulses and how to manage them? And what effect does consenting while under the influence have on the quality of their relationships?

How about drinking and identity?

Adolescents and adults alike have reported to me that drinking makes them more themselves. Every time I hear that, I am taken aback. How can blanking out your identity make you feel more yourself, I wonder. At the same time, as they elaborate on their feelings about this, I have to admit that I understand. They explain that when they are sober, self-consciousness interferes with their ability to be spontaneous. Worried about what others are thinking about them, they cannot even engage in conversation. After a few drinks, however, the critical voice (superego) disappears and they can be more present in the moment. They experience this ability to be present as being more themselves. The sad reality, though, is that once they are sober again, the self-critical voice returns. Alcohol has had only a temporary soothing effect, and after a drinking binge, one’s identity remains functionally unchanged. Moreover, these individuals have been deprived of an opportunity to struggle with their awkward social feelings, a struggle that might have promoted growth.

Play requires the spontaneity that individuals who drink say they are seeking. Unlike drinking, though, which forecloses possibilities for the enhancement of identity, play opens up such opportunities. It allows for the exploration of one’s harsh superego and therein the possibility that one could soften its voice. Moreover, play allows for interactions with others that can support the growth of self-esteem, thereby strengthening one’s healthy narcissism.

So while many partyers would probably argue that drinking is a form of play, I would disagree. While drinking anesthetizes and mimics the dissociated experiences that students under stress often describe having, experiences that literally black out identity, play opens up a space for the exploration and enrichment of identity. It is risky, therefore, to accept the equivalence of drinking and play, and, moreover, it behooves us to pay attention to the growing equivalence between drinking and partying. Carrick’s piece raises serious concerns about the impact of such drinking on the consolidation and transformation of identity that one would expect and hope for during this late adolescent phase of development.

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