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How Much Is Too Much?


Suzanne Clarke, LCSW, CASAC

The whole area of psychoactive substances and intoxication is so fraught with opinion, politics, and subjectivity that we can get to a point where landmarks such as "normal" and "too much" are not clear. Parents and college administrators who want students to drink less or not at all, are seen as humorless old folks, who had their fun and now want to deprive others. On the other hand college drinkers are sometimes seen as ill informed, irresponsible, carefree and on a rush of omnipotence and invulnerability. Contrary to media portrayal, consuming alcohol is not a prerequisite for attending college. At this college, 20% of our students report no alcohol consumption, while another 70% report consuming alcohol once a week or less (2012 CORE data).

If you decide to drink, where do you "set the dial"? That is, what level of consumption do you decide is acceptable in terms of it's consequences for you.

First of all, alcohol is a depressant, meaning from the first drink it depresses or slows down virtually all your body systems and functions. For each drink it just keeps doing more of that. Most deaths from "alcohol poisoning" are due to your breathing stopping, or vomit lodging in your airway, and your being too much in coma and too weak to clear it. So that is definitely too much. We know that a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of about .40 will be fatal about 50% of the time. A 160 pound male would reach a BAC of about .40, after drinking about 18 beers over 4 hours. For a 120 pound female, 11 beers in 4 hours would come pretty close to producing a BAC of .40. If you want to calculate your blood alcohol content anonymously, on-line, you can go to: Interactive BAC calculator

If you decide that you are going to use alcohol, you should know approximately what BAC levels you are reaching during your drinking. That way you will have at least an idea of whether you are getting legally intoxicated (.08), extremely drunk (.20), near coma (.30), or near the lethal dose (.40). Try this: When you use alcohol, what time do you usually have your first drink? How many drinks do you usually have over the course of the night? What time would you usually have your last drink? Now go to the web site above and enter that data, along with your gender and weight. See what BAC you reach on a typical drinking occasion.

The most common way to end up in trouble from alcohol, however, is from accidents: Falling down stairs, out windows, off roofs and porches, and of course car crashes. This is true because alcohol affects your ability to balance, your hand-eye coordination, and reaction time, as well as your judgment and ability to process information. This effect on judgment and processing also contributes to the high correlation between alcohol consumption and sexual assault.

When people consume alcohol regularly over a long period of time, the incidence of problems in their lives increases. Alcohol related consequences in life are things like: Bad grades, problems in romances, friendships and family relationships, loss of jobs, fights, arrests, health problems, money problems, trouble with memory and using your cognitive ability. Sometimes people get to the point where they feel that their lives have become an unmanageable mess. At a certain level of alcohol consumption, the likelihood of these problems really starts to rise. What is that level? Well, if you crudely average out the findings from several different studies, problems in life start to increase substantially when men drink more than 14 drinks per week and more than 4 on any day, and for women who drink more than 9 drinks in any week and more than three drinks on any day.

But there are other ways of looking at this as well. Some people should probably not drink at all. For example, if one of your parents or some of your relatives have problems with alcohol or are "alcoholic", you are at greater risk for developing problems. So much so, that many professionals believe that these people should avoid alcohol altogether.

Some interesting research sheds some light on how this works for men. About 8 to 9% of all men will, at some time in their lives, meet criteria for being alcohol dependent or "alcoholic". For sons of alcoholic fathers, 42% will meet criteria for alcohol dependence at some time in their lives. If you have an alcoholic father, and are a "low responder" to alcohol, your chances of becoming "alcoholic" yourself are about 60%. "Low responders" are people who seem to be able to drink more than others, with fewer effects, even from their first drinking experience.

Another way for you to assess your own drinking, privately, is to go to here: Online Alcohol Screening Tests

There you will find access to two different screenings tests that are widely used to screen for alcohol problems. These tests are online and interactive, so you will get a score immediately. A real advantage to doing this online is that you never have to disclose your identity, or give information about your actual alcohol consumption to another person. You do it all by yourself by computer.

If you are drinking too much...

If you decide that you are drinking too much, there are several things you can do. One thing you might consider is talking to one of the Counselors at the Counseling Center or to a health practitioner at the Health Center. These are objective people outside your self, and they will give you honest feedback or assistance based upon their experience with lots of college students.

Another strategy to try is cutting down or changing your drinking habits on your own. Most people who have ever had problems related to their drinking, stop drinking or cut down on their own and without formal help. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has a brochure that might help get you started. Take a look at "How To Cut Down On Your Drinking" here.

There are books to help you do this too, like: How to control your drinking, by William Miller and Ricardo Munoz, and there are several others as well. Check out our recommended reading webpage, our  links page or a good bookstore's "self help" section.

Another option for consideration is to attend a meeting of a self help group, like Alcoholics Anonymous. They welcome newcomers to "open" meetings. Meetings are listed each day in the local newspaper, The Daily Star.

More formal treatment is available too and that includes out-patient counseling and in-patient rehabilitation at clinics which specialize in treating chemically dependent people. To find a listing of some of the local Oneonta counseling and treatment resources, check out our community resources page.

If you are getting concerned about your drinking, or a friend's drinking, try talking with one of the counselors at the Counseling Center. We can help you figure out the best way to begin.