Lash, Gash and Banter: A University Chant or a Motto for Life?
Libby Galvin investigates whether behaviours and habits taken up during these formative years are fleeting phases, or defining moments.
“I could stop… I just don’t want to yet.” The same immortal words uttered by so many students, whether in reference to smoking weed or having one night stands. What’s odd about the claim is that it’s rarely a response to someone challenging their behaviour; yet they feel compelled to point out that whether drinking to excess or playing the field is their vice of choice, it’s not a permanent one. “We’re at uni, it’s only for these 3/4/5 years.” The common consensus appears to hold that anything can be excused in this constructed hiatus between adolescence and adulthood, that we inhabit a moral hinterland where anything goes because once we graduate, we shall mysteriously emerge from this period unscathed and unaffected by our choices, as fully matured adults set on a pathway to happiness and success. Whilst this is the case for plenty, it is romantic and shortsighted to think that it is the same for all. For most, these years are a defining period: the first time many have complete autonomy in their lifestyle choices. Released from the restrictions of the parental abode, our personalities and preferences have free reign from the moment we move away from home: why kid ourselves that patterns of behaviour and preferences set into motion now won’t become ingrained for years to come?
Drugs and alcohol are often integral aspects of student life, yet harbour undeniable potential to cause life-long problems. The question is, where does one draw the line? When does a heavy night become a habit, and when does a social spliff become an all-consuming addiction? The use of recreational drugs amongst professionals and in the city is steadily rising, fuelled in part by the stream of graduates entering these careers who find that with an income even more disposable than their student loans, it’s all too tempting to simply continue the recreational activities of years past. Enabled by a higher income and keen to make the most of more limited leisure time, substances can become a crutch where before they were only a plaything.
At a meeting of a local Alcoholics Anonymous group, Miriam shared her experience of addiction: “At university, I knew I drank too much, but then everybody drank too much. My father was an alcoholic, but to me this only increased my ability to deny my own problem – I wasn’t as bad as him, so I couldn’t have one. The realization only hit me a few more years later, when I finally recognized that I couldn’t face life on its own terms without drink to lean on.” The most startling thing I found at the meeting wasn’t the problems these people had, or the shocking things they’d done in the course of their addictions, but the resolute normality of each person. Diverse in age, every one was only separated from any heavy drinker or recreational user by their admission of addiction. As one member of the group put it: “I sometimes wonder whether I can really call myself an alcoholic. I don’t want to. But it’s better to be in here sober, pretending to be an alcoholic, than to be out there drinking pretending not to be.”
People seek to belittle the significance of their drug use even more so than their drinking habits, the illegality of the practice naturally adding to student’s insistence that their university ‘dabbling’ is just that. One graduate in his forties described the fate of a friend from a university in Oxford: “I shared a house with Jon in 2nd and 3rd year. He was the son of a bank manager, and was studying geology. I’m not sure when he started taking drugs, but clearly he indulged much more when he came to university. He and the other 2 lads in our house would regularly smoke dope, and would take speed and LSD. His drug use gradually increased as time went on. He finished his degree on a third… The next time I saw him was around 4 or 5 years after we all finished our degrees, and it was on the television! The programme was part of a series in which people would ‘swap lives’ for a week or so – specifically people who disagreed with each other. In this case it was a landlord and a squatter – sadly the squatter was Jon. I had heard that he had been squatting after finishing his degree, but had no idea it had become a permanent situation…” The same graduate also told how a fellow student and part-time dealer at the same university had amassed in his first year an overdraft of more than £2000 as a result of his drug habit. “Given that this was the early 80s, and students had the grant system in those days, this means that he had spent at least £4000 or so in the first year. This was actually the equivalent of a full year’s wages for lower paid workers at the time.” Listening to stories like these, I wondered how many of those who insist they’re not addicted and can stop anytime will find it, if and when they do attempt to quit, a much bigger challenge than they might have expected.
The mention of sex addiction usually conjures up unpleasant images of perverts and paedophiles, or at best a comical vision of an irascibly horny individual who’ll willingly ingratiate themselves with anything that moves – American Pie’s Stifler, perhaps, but a bit more unbalanced. However, emotional and sexual problems are more easily developed and far more prevalent than such extremist definitions would allow. Unlike physical dependencies such as drugs and alcohol, psychological dependencies or damaging emotional patterns can develop more insidiously. The literature at a Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meeting describes two main themes in the problems which arise: firstly, an addiction to relationships/sex/love, which usually presents itself in serial monogamy: the inability to be whole without another half. Secondly, instances of ‘emotional anorexia’ where despite sleeping with multiple people, the individual finds themselves unable to form an emotional attachment – what we might call the commitment-phobe. Their symptoms list is so broad however that almost anyone could diagnose themselves as dysfunctional, provided their ‘problematic’ behaviour had any regularity. And perhaps rightly so: Ella, a 20 year old student, spoke very frankly of her sexual experiences at University: “I’ve not really had a boyfriend since I moved to Nottingham, but have had casual sex with a few men over the last two years; I’ve slept with friends, and those friend’s friends, but it hasn’t really caused a problem, although of course I’d prefer to find someone worth having a relationship with.” When asked if she would consider her behaviour destructive or problematic, she was quick to say no, but when asked if she’d think it was an issue if she was still repeating this pattern in 10 years time, she responded “Yes, definitely… But I won’t be.” Yet the members of the SLAA meeting were testament to the fact that you cannot be so confident: all the member’s issues had originated in their late teens and early twenties, usually when they left home for the first time.
The concern with sexual practices is not just about setting up damaging emotional patterns, however, but about safety. How many people, girls in particular, put themselves in extremely risky situations in the comfort zone of University that they presumably wouldn’t imagine doing in ‘real life’? The main issue is in bringing people home. Lizzie, a third year, recounted that a non-promiscuous friend had slept with a stranger whilst extremely drunk, when she didn’t really want to. Her friend felt her experience was tantamount to having been raped, and was similarly emotionally affected by it. Yet to Lizzie, it threw her own actions into sharp relief. “The way she reacted to it made me realise how blasé I was about my own sexual behaviour. There have been times when I’d put myself in exactly the same situation as her, but laughed about it as a stupid mistake the next day. I think a lot of girls have sex when they don’t really want to just because you think, ‘Well I’m at his house now, don’t remember agreeing to come here, but he clearly expects something’. I know it sounds ridiculous… I know I’ll stop drinking this much eventually, and it’s only alcohol that makes me act like that.”
Many girls are inviting strangers back to their houses after nights out, sometimes to sleep together, but sometimes just to sleep with – and I do mean just sleep. Perhaps out of loneliness, these girls are putting themselves at as much risk as those who have unprotected sexual encounters with the men they go home with, if not more: in the bubble of university, we hear very few accounts of rape or sexual assault. However, to do the same in a big city without the false environment of a student night to pre-select relatively safe partners could prove disastrous, as one recovering SLAA member told: “I used to go out clubbing with an overnight bag packed, because I knew I wouldn’t be coming home til the morning – I put myself in some terrifying situations with people I didn’t know, and took enormous risks, for no rational reason.”
Aside from safety, the ways in which such behaviour can affect future relationships are the same for male and female students. If you condition yourself through 3 or more years of practice into believing that going out involves getting drunk, pulling a stranger, and the next day laughing about your either desirable or undesirable conquests it becomes a reinforced habit. The idea that you can slip seamlessly from this kind of regular practice into a life of blissful grown-up monogamy in your late twenties is misguided; reconditioning your attitudes to socializing and partying, particularly when ‘pulling’ is so often crucial to the student ego, may not be easy even with the incentive of a fulfilling relationship and family in the background.
Sex, drugs and alcohol aren’t the only things that people define their relationships with in these years, of course. University is also a breeding ground for debt, with most students graduating owing around £18,000 to the Student Loans Company. This debt seems unreal somehow, what with the way it is automatically taken out of your wage, and tiered according to salary. It’s easy debt, essentially, and a debt almost every student in the country takes on. Unfortunately, the relationship we develop with money now is crucial, and too many people are seduced by the ease of the Student Loan into getting themselves into other, more serious debt.
We all know the students who went a little crazy when ‘given’ a loan installment and overdraft: the girl in halls who spent her £1250 overdraft on a designer bag, the guy who spent his on a trip to New York. The thing about many students who are plunging themselves into this debt is that it is totally unnecessary: many are having their rent and immediate living expenses paid for by parents, and thus the loan constitutes little more than spending money. How can one justify spending a loan and an overdraft on luxuries? In the real world, this would lead to debt collectors knocking on the door. In fact, one student, beginning his degree for the third time, has already set up a lifetimes worth of ‘real’ debt: having taken out multiple loans in addition to his student loan, Harry has spent the last 2 years dodging calls from bailiffs and amassed £30,000 worth of debt. The attitude to money management developed now will, inevitably, inform attitudes throughout one’s adult life, and even if a person who spent unwisely during his university career suddenly turns spendthrift on graduation, he will nonetheless be left with the legacy of those debts to pay back. One male graduate realized the error of his spending as, post degree, he is now living on the generous sum of £50 a week from the dole office, his savings and student overdraft spent in the previous 3 years despite parental contributions.
These days it seems it’s seen as socially acceptable to sponge off your parents whilst you’re at university – and now, of course, many people move back to their parent’s home when they graduate, rather than attempt to support themselves. In the current atmosphere of economic tension, and facing a shortage of graduate employment, the consequences of mismanaging finances will come to haunt some graduates even earlier in their adult life than they might normally have done.
So is it inevitable that a normal guy who gets drunk, cheats on his girlfriend, and dips a bit too far into his overdraft every term has begun carving out a life as an alcoholic, insolvent love rat? Or that a girl who pops pills at a festival, has a one night stand or spends unwisely on a Topshop store card is to go on to become a crack whore with a shopping addiction? Far from it. In fact, they’ll probably both become working professionals, have a normal middle-class marriage and eventually find themselves worrying about nothing more than the state of their lawn and Mrs Next-Doors overenthusiastic pruning of the boundary hedge. But for every hundred graduates who leave the indiscretions of their youth behind, to recall occasionally at reunions or as amusing anecdotes, there will be a few who find it a great deal harder to adjust to ‘real life’ as they expect to know it.
Image by Bruno Albutt
The names in this article have been changed to protect contributor’s privacy.