The word “escapism,” at least to me, evokes scenes of men with long faces drinking Jack Daniel’s in basement bars, crying into bar stools. And while the word no doubt holds certain pejorative connotations, substance use is, at least to some degree, escapism; It is acting on the desire, as Aldous Huxley put it in his 1954 book The Doors of Perception, to “transcend self-conscious selfhood.”
But when questioned about their drinking, most students point to less transcendental motives like stress relief, socializing or just simply wanting a good time. The last thing they would admit is that they drink to “escape,” though oftentimes on college campuses, this is probably the most accurate account of their behavior. At Williams, where one’s alcohol tolerance is seen as an ability second only to intellectual prowess, stress is perhaps the strongest motivator toward alcohol and other drugs.
Recognizing the yearning to escape as fundamental to the human condition, Huxley, by way of compromise, sought to introduce other chemical gateways to induce men and women to “exchange their old bad habits for new and less harmful ones.”
But this is where I get off the Huxley train. While the desire to escape selfhood is, I think, a basic and even healthy tenet of human life, young people’s use of substances for stress-relief, socializing or “having fun” are but symptoms of another ailment, burning deeper under the surface. Alcohol and drugs are but a palliative, a band-aid for these secondary symptoms.
The word “growth” is a college catalogue kind of catchword, one used by institutions to emphasize its amiability to the prospective, mature-adultish lad or lady. While it may be trite, college is, at least normatively, one of the biggest times for growth in a young person’s life. It is therefore not surprising that drug and alcohol use balloons among college-aged students. In that particular purgatory between adolescence and adulthood, the pressure of realizing an adult identity is placated by familiar, chemical coping.
But the true pressure and restlessness among college students – the thing necessitating coping in the first place – is the same issue that plagues all men and women at some point in their lives: the desire for self-realization. It is a desire to close the gap between self as potential and self as presented, to close the chasm between what we know we can be and what we are. This is what the catalogues mean by “growth.” It is the reason we are in college in the first place.
Much of my freshman year at Williams was spent mourning what could have been. I was studying to be a banker or a writer – I couldn’t decide – and the stark polarity of these interests was a reflection of my polar self. I was simply stuck, and so I coped in familiar ways. Looking back now, over a year and a half since my last drink or toke, I am no longer regretting lost opportunities. I am looking forward to what the next three and a half years at the College might bring. I was, in a paradoxical sense, blessed to have my coping bring me to a point of desperation that necessitated change. Suffering is a powerful motivator.
But not everyone is so lucky. Not everyone crosses that precarious line into alcoholism from merely drinking alcoholically. Most normal people (whatever that means) stop their chemical coping after college, when society no longer deems such use to be acceptable. But one doesn’t have to fall off a bridge to get off the handrail.
My concern with substance use in college isn’t so much that I think everyone who drinks and drugs is doomed to a life of basement bars and back-alley needles. But even for those who don’t hit rock bottom, substance use isn’t inconsequential. At the very least, it has a very real potential to distort the suppressed, almost-bursting voice telling us to seize the opportunity of our youth to live, to grow, to love and to realize our ideal natures. And after a week of overlooking the present for the future, this voice, this “principle appetite of the soul,” as Huxley put it, translates into “let’s get hammered.” In its distortion, the infinite potential that is Williams College and pre-professional life gets overlooked. We look back on our time and wonder what could have been.
College is one of life’s few opportunities for genuine exploration. There will rarely be another time when men and women will be free to establish unforgettable relationships, stretch their minds to the limits of their fancy and simply grow, in the truest sense of the word. But at Williams, like many other top-tier schools in the U.S., it is also a time of intense pressure, often self-imposed, to live up to one’s future ideal. College is a time of preparation, but it is also a time for growth, an opportunity to start to be what we hope to become.
For most college students, the decision to use substances is not so much a question of life or death. Rather, it is a question of life or a different, and possibly fuller, life. It may seem like a subtle difference, yet in an environment thick with possibility, experience, brave beginnings and transformations, it is a question worth asking.
Collin Peck-Gray ’15 is from Greenwich, Conn. He lives in Wood.