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For College Students: Drinking, Smoking, and Relationships

This is a conversation that no one had with me before I went to college, and would have made some experiences clearer, more quickly. This is a conversation I've already had with my own high school girls. And this is a topic I include every time I give a dorm talk to college girls.

If you’re in college, and even before, you will likely have the chance to drink and smoke, and many people choose to experience one or both of those. As with anything, moderation is key. There’s plenty to be said about the health aspects, but you may not be aware of the full implications of these habits on your social development.

Feelings are not the ultimate guide to behavior, but they are very important signals about our lives. Both drinking and smoking alter feelings and perceptions of the people and situations around you. They allow us to ignore some feelings, such as awkwardness, boredom and sadness, and enhance others, like camaraderie. There are situations where this is just the thing, such as drinking to fallen comrades after battle, or offering wine to guests you may not know well. But there are other situations where covering the feelings lets us miss important things we’re supposed to notice about ourselves and others.

If there are people whom you regularly drink and/or smoke with, ask yourself why the relationship works this way. Are you both unhappy with your lives? Do you need their friendship but need to ignore certain aspects of their behavior that you don’t like, and drinking provides common ground? Do you believe drinking is essential to having a good time? Do you not have true hobbies or interests that you can share with others? If this is a romantic relationship, do you rely on the euphoria of alcohol to "feel the love"? Can you only be affectionate when you’ve had a couple of drinks?

It may be that you don't drink while others around you do. Perhaps alcohol doesn't really call your name but you still want to spend time with certain friends as they drink. When one person drinks and another doesn’t, their interactions take on a level of unreality. The non-drinker is more themselves, and will likely feel that everything happening is “real”, while the drinker may not really be invested in that person; they may just want a companion for the moment to ease their loneliness and keep the party rolling. The non-drinker may like the drinking atmosphere and watching others relax, while remaining aloof and not acknowledging her own true feelings.

The marriages I saw from my college years that started or developed along with regular drinking have generally failed, much more than the average for the demographic (college educated, both practicing Catholic, generally abstinent before marriage). One could say that the real problems were depression, a poor fit between partners, or any number of other things, and that would be true. But they didn’t notice these concerns - or in most cases, ignored other people pointing them out - because the drinking allowed them to gloss over so many emotional cues that would have ended the relationship at an early point. Even in the case where one person drinks and the other doesn’t, and perhaps the relationship can limp along, they find themselves with wildly different views of their personal history, because over time, drinking stunts emotional development. The non-drinker tends to adapt themselves to the demands of life and grow up, while the drinker remains permanently adolescent or young adult, and tends to develop an increasingly negative and victimized backstory for his or her life. When the same people are asked the same questions about the family and growing up, the answer change over time in those who drink, such that someone who initially described a calm, happy childhood with good parents can come to describe only the shortcomings of his early life 20 years later.

Smoking dampens emotions, so it's no wonder that people often smoke heavily during wars, personal sadness, and in jail. It's useful in the sense that it can lower the intensity of feelings on an as-needed basis, unlike medications which have to be carefully dosed and professionally managed. Some people start smoking in high school or college and are able to keep it an occasional habit for years or decades. In this case it's more of a ritual than a dependency, but there are still much better ways to unwind at the end of the day, or cope with intense feelings, such as reaching out to a friend, having a hot cup of tea, exercise, or prayer. With more than occasional smoking, the health effects add up, and dampening emotions means that joy is dampened, too. I have seen smokers reach for their packs when something good happens, just as readily as for something bad. It becomes their filter through which to experience all significant feelings, and it's a shame to lose the sharp edge of joy or excitement.

There's so much more that can be said, but I think not enough is generally said about the creeping effects of even well-managed dependencies. A behavior "too minor" to be called an addiction still changes how you relate to others and view the world, and it may become an addiction down the road. I could see that people drank in different ways, but I didn't have enough experience to guess who would keep drinking long after college. It's heartening how many colleges are striving to provide a range of activities so that drinking does not become the default way for students to enjoy time together.

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