Campus Ghetto's are breeding grounds for disaster

The dangers of excessive drinking and how it can destroy lives and fracture families were evident to me from childhood. My best friend's father was a compulsive drinker. I remember his entrance into the dining room while we were having dinner. He was drunk and screaming profanities at his cowering wife. I sat in my chair mute and terrified, not knowing what to do. Although obviously suffering from her husband's alcohol-driven mood swings, my friend's mother was determined to hold the marriage together. Sadly, she never lived to see her beloved children grow up. She died from a sudden heart attack before my friend graduated from high school.

Two years ago at reunion, I saw my friend for the first time in many years. She finally felt the freedom to vent her anger at the harm her father's drinking caused the family. To that day, she harbored deep resentment towards her father, whose unabated drinking and violent temper she blames for her mother's death. During my freshman year in high school, I was invited to a friend's house for a sleepover. Late that night, this friend's mother stumbled into bed drunk and began to beat me, thinking I was her daughter.

No matter how horrible this experience was for me, I could only imagine what my friend was going through. She could not wait to leave home and eventually dropped out of school and became pregnant. Throughout high school, I worked at a professional theater some distance from my home. After the final curtain, one of the actors volunteered to drive me back home. We adjourned to the bar next door to the theater until the 4 a.m. closing time.

Everyone was totally drunk, and I would sit there listening as the verbal crescendo reached its peak. That we did not have an accident was a miracle. Then there was the star-crossed Diana Barrymore, who played Blanche Dubois in "A Streetcar Named Desire," the Tennessee Williams play, at our theater. She had just written a best-selling novel, "Too Much Too Soon," revealing her family's descent into alcoholism. Diana wanted so badly to overcome her drinking problem and make a name for herself as an actress. Tennessee Williams often came to her performances and was a friend and drinking buddy. Neither of these sensitive souls was able to shake their addiction.

In short, if one notes a touch of sanctimony in my attitude towards binge drinking and/or excessive drinking, it stems from these experiences and my love for those who could not break their habit as well as those affected by it. It also goes without saying millions of alcoholics has put aside their addiction through 12-step programs and/or other therapeutic modalities. These individuals have successfully changed their lives and will be among the first to attest to how significantly their lives have changed. What, then, can concerned parents and prospective students look for when choosing a college? Do not be seduced by public relations and look beyond the hallowed hills to the surroundings and to where the Greek life is ensconced. The neighborhoods surrounding a college campus are one of the major sources of alcohol. Snidely referred to as "campus ghettos," these streets are filled with bars and liquor stores, catering to students by offering low-priced drinks. Underage drinking is often tolerated, and laws are not strictly enforced.

This problem has not gone unnoticed. Henry Wechsler and Bernice Wechsler, the authors of "Dying to Drink," (Rodale/St. Martin's Press, 2002) a seminal study of college drinking, proposes these suggestions: raising the price of alcohol; limiting the number of bars around campuses; and enforcing underage drinking laws. College sports, endorsements and the hype surrounding them feed into excessive and binge drinking. Celebrations after the big game often have led to binges, sometimes resulting even in death. In this regard, zoning ordinances have been tightened at several colleges-especially when bars were encircling sports arenas. Several colleges have forced local liquor stores to limit and register the number of beer kegs available to students.

However, it is an uphill fight since the so-called beer and alcohol industry provides endorsements for college sports, invests in stadiums and is one of the major advertisers of events. Ms. Wexler suggests, "Big alcohol pay its fair share of society's cost of policing, treating and cleaning up after binge drinking." Students themselves need to shoulder responsibility for the direction their lives are taking. College is the time in their lives when they define their adulthood.

At last, after years of parental supervision, they can make decisions, set goals and plan for the future. Clouding that time with excessive and/or binge drinking puts a definite a hold on what could be the most precious time in a young life. My heart breaks for those that will be lost along the way.