There has been little discussion about the problem of alcohol abuse here, despite the existence of a culture in Cambridge which normalises and even romanticises a self-destructive relationship with alcohol.Alisa Santikarn

It’s common knowledge that Britain has an alcohol problem. Among young people, binge drinking is all too often the primary form of drinking. Despite progress being made with the NHS reporting a decrease in levels of binge drinking, this does not mean that the problem is solved, and Cambridge is not immune to the dark sides of Britain’s drinking culture.

Ever since last year’s revelations about drinking society culture, Cambridge has seen a steady stream of discussion about ‘lad culture’, toxic masculinity and alcohol, and writings from non-drinkers about the ubiquity of alcohol in social situations throughout the University. However, there has been little discussion about the problem of alcohol abuse here, despite the existence of a culture in Cambridge which normalises and even romanticises a self-destructive relationship with alcohol.

“Self-destructive tendencies are the norm here, and just as it is seen as normal to engage in harmful study practices and lifestyles, unhealthy behaviour such as binge drinking is also accepted”

University is accepted as a time in our lives to get drunk and go on late-night adventures which, of course, can be done safely, but this often hides real problems. If you bring these problems with you to university, they can be exacerbated by not only the easy access to alcohol, but by the undeniable existence of a constant pressure to drink here. Vomiting on each night out, having to be carried home, losing three sets of keys in three weeks – these are often accepted as the actions of the ‘liability’ or the ‘wild one’ of the group. And, sure, a lot of people have done one or more of these things before. But not every week. Not enough to become a habit. If someone is getting black-out drunk on every night out, multiple times a week, it is no longer a laughing matter. By trivialising such actions, the normalisation of such harmful and self-destructive behaviour can stop people from seeking help.

It is hard to reconcile the image of drunken messiness at formal with the mainstream perception of alcoholism. Alcoholics seem to be somehow ‘outside’ of society – this could never be you, a Cambridge student, a member of one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

This, of course, comes down to outdated notions of class: Alcoholism is stereotyped and stigmatised as belonging to the poor as a means of dealing with their situation or, worse, a moral failing which results in being perennially unemployed and devoid of prospects. Such people, apparently, do not exist at Cambridge. Not only are these stereotypes inaccurate, classist, and harmful to those implicated by them, but they harmfully contribute to the acceptance of ‘middle and upper-class drinking’ so prevalent at Cambridge.

Harmless as we may be conditioned to think it, what proliferates at Cambridge is ‘high-functioning alcoholism’. The classic ‘high-functioning alcoholic’ is tied to class; someone who maintains a ‘normal life’, but just has a few charming eccentricities. They are often someone who has a ‘cultured’ knowledge of ‘classy’ alcoholic drinks, which tends to help people overlook the fact that they are still black-out drunk on a regular basis.

“Self-destruction is not beautiful or compelling, it is sad, it is a waste and it is boring”

On top of harmful stereotypes, the conditions of a Cambridge term are equally dangerous when it comes to how we relate to alcohol. When the pressure is so high and the work so tough, the release has to be equally extreme. When you go out, there is an expectation that you go hard. Binge drinking alcoholism is particularly common in young people, and it is this form of alcoholism to which we, with an eight week term, are vulnerable, as this creates an expectation that living at Cambridge is living life in the fast lane.

However, this relationship between Cambridge culture and alcoholism is hardly surprising. Self-destructive tendencies are the norm here, and just as it is seen as normal to engage in harmful study practices and lifestyles – pulling all-nighters, depriving yourself of sleep, confining yourself to your room – unhealthy behaviour such as binge drinking is also accepted. This kind of self-destruction - self-destruction as a way to cope with ‘excelling’ and working yourself to the bone to be the best - is also romanticised here in a way that is a fusion of the ‘high functioning alcoholic’ and Cambridge’s veneration of the past.

The portrait of the ‘genius eccentric alcoholic’, is the extreme form of this dangerous romanticisation of high-functioning alcoholism, venerated in art and literature in figures such as Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Pollock, Byron - figures who in reality lived short, miserable lives. It isn’t living an ‘interesting’ life to be standing on top of a hill at 4:30am watching the sunrise when in reality it is your third all nighter in a week and you have no plans to stop drinking that night. Self-destruction is not beautiful or compelling, it is sad, it is a waste and it is boring. It is boring because it follows the same script every time, and always ends up in the same place, no matter how exciting or unique it may seem at first.


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Mountain View

Teetotal truths

Alcoholism is not black and white, and affects all kinds of people. What’s more, one’s life doesn’t have to be falling apart to make you an alcoholic. It could be your friend that drinks alone when they’re sad, your friend that has to drink to ‘loosen up’ before entering social situations, your friend that’s smashed four nights a week a week and sleeps through their classes.

To be clear, this is not the ‘fun police’ - it is perfectly possible to enjoy getting drunk and nights out with no harm at all, and the majority of people do have a healthy relationship with alcohol. But equally, alcoholism is far more pervasive than we would like to admit. Paying attention and looking out for your friends will never be a bad thing.

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