April is Alcohol Awareness Month. The implication is to elucidate the stigma and shame surrounding the misuse of alcohol and also the denial often associated with drinking too much due to social expectations and mores in America. Alcohol is unique among the drugs of abuse as it is a socially acceptable substance and it is legal to consume for adults over 21 years of age. It’s in the middle of our celebrations like birthdays, weddings and promotions. It’s a rite of passage to get a drink on your 21st birthday just like getting your license is at age 16 or 17. Also, it’s even present at our saddest moments; when we bury our dead. 

With this acceptance comes its promotion and encouragement. People say things like “give the boy a drink! It’ll make him a man and put some hair on his chest.” A high tolerance for alcohol is celebrated: “she can really put them beers down.” The opposite is used for shaming or emasculating a person, “What are you a little baby, it’s just a shot!”

Now before you stop reading because you think this will turn into a promotion for the good old days of prohibition or a rant about how this drug is legal while others remain illegal, that’s not what this is. What we are saying is that alcohol misuse, abuse, dependence and addiction is unique because of its general acceptance in society. This translates into special implications for those dealing with alcohol dependence and their allies. It creates a false dichotomy and allows people who are suffering with alcohol dependence or the clinical diagnosis of alcohol use disorder (AUD) to assimilate into a socially acceptable pattern of behavior with their dangerous mental health disorder going unnoticed by peers, family, and often even by professionals. 

Unlike cocaine, heroin, meth, oxy, ecstasy and other drugs, the person suffering from AUD doesn’t have to go into a dark alley in the middle of the night to meet a dealer to get their illegal drug. They also don’t have to hide their drug with a fear of getting a charge of possession. This stated, they may still hide it. Some people are private drinkers due to denial or shame, but procuring alcohol is still simple. Liquor stores abound. Currently, many supermarkets have an alcoholic beverage section and many restaurants have bars. During the pandemic, restaurants with curbside ordering have added six-pack beer takeaway to their menu to remain financially solvent and attractive to clients. 

Any talk of substance use disorders (SUDs), alcohol or otherwise, cannot be had during this time without addressing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic which has hit those living with SUDs hard. Millions of individuals have been helped by 12-step fellowship programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and many others. The key word here is “fellowship,” community, comradery, connection. The current pandemic put a stop to all of this, for everyone, including people in these fellowships. For many such individuals this isolation was not only devastating to their recovery efforts but sadly for some, deadly. Additionally, COVID-19 has had a disproportionate negative impact on women and communities of color.

Studies have shown an alarming surge in alcoholic liver disease in young women during the pandemic. This disease is normally associated with middle-aged men closer to 50 or 60 years of age. Women in the middle of their 20s and early 30s are now showing spiking numbers because this disease is partly due to consumption of alcohol, but also mitigated by other mental health concerns and dietary functioning. Add the combination of overworking, pressures of childcare, food insecurity, financial hardship, and the aggressive marketing of alcohol as a “solution” to stress and a “glass of wine to unwind” or some “Mommy Juice” becomes a bottle and half just to function.

It is incumbent on our community to ask people we know in these circumstances if they need help or need to talk. Maybe they just need an hour or two where we offer to take their children to the park so they can nap or maybe get to their therapist or a virtual 12-step meeting. We can be part of the solution. Asking questions with empathy and kindness is essential. Being willing to be present and of service to those in need is essential. Part of the recovery mantra is “Recovery. Unity. Service.” For allies of people in active use or people in recovery, we can provide service which summarily creates unity and supports recovery

At Northampton Community College, the central point is already in the name: Community. In order to create awareness about alcohol misuse and the nefarious marketing to youth and the underwhelming response to AUD and dependence, we need to communicate with each other. Call a friend, use social media, call a professional. The counseling department here has multicultural/multilingual clinical experts who can support students in need of help with AUD or temporary dependence on alcohol during this stressful and traumatic environment. We can refer you to community resources, many of which are free, to help connect you to peers who can also help. The importance is regaining agency over your choices, and knowing that people care about you. There is no single solution for all people, but together we can find one for you or the person about whom you are concerned, together, as a community. Please, reach out for help. There is no need to worry about stigma or shame. We are in this fight together.

Further reading:

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/03/16/973684753/sharp-off-the-charts-rise-in-alcoholic-liver-disease-among-young-women

Authors:

Eric Scott Klein, MSS, LSW is a proud Northampton County resident and former Northampton Community College student. He is a person in long-term recovery from alcohol use disorder. Eric is the co-designer and is the former Coordinator of the NCC Collegiate Recovery Program. Additionally, he co-designed and co-taught the NCC Certified Recovery Specialist certificate course and has been an adjunct professor here in Psychology. He is working on his Doctorate in Community College Leadership at New Jersey City University researching why students in recovery have higher dropout rates through an intersectional lens. Eric prefers the pronouns he, him and his. Email: esklein@northampton.edu

Beatriz S. Messina, MSW, LSW has worked in the counseling department of NCC for the past eight years. Prior to joining the NCC family, the bulk of her professional experience was in substance abuse counseling. She considers herself an ally to those in recovery. Beatriz is the co-designer and Director of the NCC Collegiate Recovery Program, which has been providing a safe space for NCC students in long-term recovery since 2015. She co-designed and co-taught the NCC Certified Recovery Specialist certificate course and currently teaches the new 78-hour version of the course. Email: bmessina@northampton.edu