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John Shabb: Binge drinking in Grand Forks takes terrible personal toll

GRAND FORKS -- Carrie Sandstrom and Bill Vasicek's columns on binge drinking highlight a problem in Grand Forks that should not be minimized ("Help students decide to have fun AND stay safe" and "High-risk drinking needs communitywide response," Page F1, Jan. 18).

The stakes are very high. We are talking about the health -- and the lives -- of our children.

At age 20, my daughter is a recovering alcoholic. She learned to binge drink in high school right here in Grand Forks. By the end of her freshman year at UND she was consuming a half gallon of Ron Diaz spiced rum a week to tide her over between party buses, pre-game activities and general socializing.

It affected her performance on the track team. It wreaked havoc on her academics. It made her a surly and combative person. She would drink to the point of blacking out -- not because she wanted to, but because she could not stop herself.

She was in total chemical and behavioral thrall to alcohol.

My wife and I, both nondrinkers, looked on helplessly as we watched our daughter drift into a place that we could not understand. We felt defenseless in a community where underage drinking is epidemic.

In the end, our daughter's recovery hinged on a growing self-awareness that her relationship with alcohol was very different from that of many of her binge-drinking friends. She began to realize that her life would not have a happy ending unless she dealt with her drinking problem.

After several failed attempts at trying to deal with it on her own, our daughter chose to seek professional help.

We are proud of our daughter's strong will to retake control of her life. She has been in recovery for more than six months.

We are grateful to the outstanding addiction counseling that has been available to her through UND's Counseling Center and Drake Counseling Services. With their expertise and our daughter's personal commitment, they found the right intervention strategies that brought our daughter back from the brink.

We as parents were fortunate to have participated in our daughter's recovery. Through the process, we were privileged to hear the stories of others who were finding their way to recovery, too. Several of them, like our daughter, were in their twenties.

The journey has given us insight into the depth of the underage drinking problem in Grand Forks. It is incredible that we in our community allow our children so much uncontrolled access to alcohol. This is a temptation that they are ill-equipped to resist.

In his column, Vasicek pointed out some statistics that bear repeating. More than half of college students in North Dakota binge drink regularly. More disturbing is that college students perceive binge drinking as harmless because most are not alcohol-dependent.

But the key word in that last statistic is "most." What Vasicek did not say -- and what addiction counselors will testify -- is that 7 percent of all college students who abuse alcohol become alcohol-dependent.

Do the numbers: UND has an enrollment of 14,000 students. More than 7,000 participated in binge drinking in the past two weeks.

This means that every year, about 500 UND students are probably alcoholics.

It is no wonder UND is overwhelmed by students needing addiction counseling.

This "harmless" pastime has life-long consequences for the students who can't stop drinking. The personal and societal costs of untreated alcoholism are huge. Relationships are lost, earning power is reduced, mental and physical health problems become chronic and progressive.

The reason why alcoholics sometimes refer to themselves as "recovering" is because there is no cure. Only constant vigilance saves those who are recovering. Most relapse and must begin the recovery process all over. This is a disease that does not go away.

Dialog is good, and I commend the Community and Campus Committee on High-Risk Alcohol use for their efforts; but we need more than talk.

We need action now to stop the carnage wrought by alcohol upon our sons and daughters.

Shabb is associate professor of biochemistry at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences at UND.