Recovery 101: Some Observations From Student AA

For most college students, the consequences of heavy drinking are limited to killer hangovers. In extreme cases, students may find themselves dealing with medical or police personnel from driving under the influence, alcohol poisoning, or sexual or other violent assault. (For more information on the last point, see Michelle McClellan’s astute post from earlier this week.) But some become addicted to alcohol, increasing the likelihood of all these problems and exacerbated by the ubiquity of drinking in much of college life.

The night is young (Image: Wikipedia)

I had the chance to undertake ethnographic work for an anthropology course this semester. I began observing conventional community-based AA meetings, but my network of contacts eventually pointed me to an on-campus student chapter. The group was utterly fascinating, not least because of young adults’ relative under-representation in the national organization; just over half (51%) of AA members are between the ages of 41 and 60, while the average age in the student group was no higher than 25 (only 13% of overall members are under 30).

I was intrigued by the contrasting conversation topics at conventional and student meetings. Groups of older alcoholics predictably shared how, even after hitting rock bottom, they worked to salvage their already-established professional, personal, and familial lives. Students, on the other hand, were less invested in their current station and not always preoccupied with reconciling newfound abstinence with their former identities. They also seemed less troubled by the prospect of altering or severing former relationships.

The textbook is required (Image: AA.org)

The two demographics were in agreement on a few key points, particularly gratitude for coming to terms with their problem and finding a supportive community. It’s worth noting that members in both settings voiced complaints about the negative implications of sobriety: fewer hangouts with old friends, anxiety in even familiar social situations, and general fears of being a “buzzkill.” Still, many student AA members viewed finding sobriety as one more aspect of finding themselves. They internalized AA wisdom much like the knowledge gleaned from their formal education, romantic relationships, and financial decisions.

Before proceeding, I should disclose my methods (which were approved by my professor beforehand and reviewed afterward). Meetings are open to anyone, so I began by simply sitting in. (Incidentally, the “student” group welcomed some university staff and faculty, but they were a fractional minority.) Each meeting begins with introductions (“Hi, I’m Bob, I’m an alcoholic”). I limited myself to an inconspicuous, “Hi, I’m Kyle,” which is a verbal strategy sometimes employed by people still coming to terms with problem drinking. If someone followed up with me after a meeting, my go-to response was, “I’m curious about the program.” Anyone I engaged—or who engaged me—more thoroughly was informed of my research agenda.

One goal of the ethnography was exploring how students coped with their addiction. The day-to-day efforts of student AA members were similar to their conventional AA counterparts: they communicated with a support group, found purposeful activities, and, most of all, avoided situations which formerly triggered compulsive drinking. However, the college environment poses unique difficulties for students in recovery. In response, they find creative ways to remain social without alcohol. Many often agree to be the designated driver for their non-abstaining friends during a night out. Some dedicate their individual attention to creative outlets like painting or writing. Others may find new intoxication through a “runner’s high” in the gym.

Playing cornhole (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

But one of the most interesting activities was a weekly, group-run sober tailgate held for each home football game. Uninformed passers-by might not notice anything peculiar about the revelry, given the tailgating staples of excessive food, coolers, and the ubiquitous cornhole game. (Of course, the coolers contain only water, soda, and energy drinks.) But outsiders might notice an apparent sex-segregation. Very few men talk to women, and vise-versa. I wondered if there was a general anxiety about approaching the opposite gender without alcohol in hand (and brain), but my naiveté was soon rectified. “The group discourages dating,” one member informed me. This is for many reasons. Sober people can find solidary together, and may keep one another from using. Still, one person’s relapse could devastate their partner, encourage distrust, or foster resentment. In the worst case, as a member told me, “they’ll drag you down with them.” Physical, emotional, but especially substance-dependent relationships can be perilous in the recovery process.

Romantic fraternization can also lead to unhealthy dynamics in AA groups, and is discouraged for that reason. Popularly called “13th Stepping,” AA members who have completed the 12 Steps sometimes take sexual advantage of the emotional and mental vulnerability of newcomers. Members I spoke with informed me that the phenomenon was relatively rare in the core student group. This may be due to increased attention and education regarding sexual violence and victimization on college campuses nationwide (in which, perhaps not incidentally, alcohol plays a prominent role). On a few occasions, however, someone did assure me that some student members relished the exploitative relationship opportunities provided by AA.

This post has focused on sober recreation and relationships, but my research considered many other topics. A central question was how student members understood “addiction,” both personally and diagnostically. I also inquired, without much conclusive success, whether the majority of student members remain sober once removed from the college environment. Current members assured me they could never again drink moderately. As this is an ongoing project, I intend to follow up with some contacts as the semesters creep by.

In any case, the attitudes of student AA members are no doubt influenced by the temporary arrangements created at large state schools. But, considering their age, they are still developing emotionally, neurologically, and physiologically. It is no surprise their identities are also still forming.