The Most Important Thing I Learned from College

Shot Glasses & Basketball Swag from My Four Years in CollegeThe moment my daughter was born, my life changed dramatically. Not because I had to bathe her, change her diapers or because of the sleepless nights everyone warns first-time parents about. Rather, my top priority changed from a focus on career and financial success to helping my daughter navigate her young life. When each of my three boys was born, that sense of singular purpose to nurture well-balanced, joyful kids intensified. I wanted my four kids to be happy.


Naturally, I wanted my children to eventually enjoy a similar experience to what I long considered the best time of my life – my four years at Indiana University. College meant freedom. College fostered friendships. College was staying-up late and sleeping-through morning classes. College involved sports and parties and music and girls. I wanted my kids to have the same big-school lack-of-personal-accountability period I recognized as the very best of times.


I remember leading a charity fundraising effort to host a mud volleyball tournament at my fraternity, Theta Chi. We covered our perfectly functional sand volleyball court with tons of dirt, watered it for days and charged student teams an entrance fee to participate in our tournament. After deducting our dirt and water expenses, we donated a minimal about of money to a charity I no longer recall. What I do remember is the anger of my fraternity brothers that I permanently destroyed a popular summer afternoon activity. Resurrecting the sand court from under that mud proved much more impossible than I anticipated. With the tournament over and the sand court destroyed, what could we do with the mud pit in our backyard?


I had an idea. We could get very drunk and drive Eric’s wood-paneled station wagon through the mud over and over again while blaring music and flinging mass quantities of mud in every direction – which is exactly what we did until, on about the thirtieth pass through the mud pit, the wheels were spinning and the station wagon was stuck. About a half-dozen of us offered to pitch-in for a tow truck in the morning. Eric was a little concerned through his drunken haze about where the money would come from since the same guys could barely scrape together enough cash for beer and vodka a few hours before.


We had booze, music, great friends and destructive behavior under the cover of darkness. That night was about as much fun as I had with my clothes on in college.


On another occasion, we hosted a “barn dance” in the courtyard of my fraternity. We bought hundreds of bales of hay and hundreds of cases of beer, and rented farm animals from a local southern Indiana farmer. Very sadly, I had to work at Kilroy’s Bar and Grill until five o-clock in the morning the night of the party. I returned home just before dawn to find all of my friends passed-out and a baby pig roaming the courtyard unattended. With the piglet under one arm and a bunch of beers under the other, I climbed a tower of hay bales to watch the sunrise. I shared some beer with my thirsty and snorting companion, and enjoyed my own solitary version of “barn dance.” No girls. No music. No one to talk to (I didn’t speak swine). I didn’t care about any of that. Nor did I care about missing a night of sleep. My own personal “barn dance” raged on.


Arriving late to the party was so inevitable for me and my fraternity brothers in college, that my friend, Jason, had a theory about it. If a guy showed up late after a test or a class, his feeling of missing-out on drinking fun would be so intense that the guy would prove Jason’s sling-shot theory. In an effort to “catch-up,” the guy would do shots and pound beers and, within the hour, surpass the intoxication levels of all other revelers and be the drunkest guy at the party. It happened a lot. Alcohol was so central to our existence that the fear of consuming less than others drove an undeniable urge to drink with reckless abandon.


The summer between my freshman and sophomore year, my long-time girlfriend cheated on me while she was away on an internship, and we ended the relationship. I was crushed. I swore off girls, and held to that commitment (for the most part – except occasionally at the end of a long night of drinking when everyone’s standards dropped substantially) for the better part of my second year in college. I walked around in elastic-waist soccer shorts, a T-shirt covered by a plaid vest with a pocket for my cigarettes and a girl’s hair scrunchy on my wrist. I was usually unshaven and often unshowered. The highlight of my motif was a pair of huge, foam slippers in the shape of Budweiser cans that I wore everywhere, as long as it wasn’t raining.


I eliminated the potential for heartbreak, and I didn’t give a shit about appearance or personal hygiene. It was a euphoric time. I did the minimum in class to squeak by, and my friends still loved me for who I was – a big drinker who provided no competition for the affections of the fairer gender. Not only was I not trying romantically, I was always prepared in case one of my friends got a girl too drunk and I needed my scrunchy to hold back her hair while she puked. It was glorious. I basically quit at life for a while. I quit almost everything except my compulsion to drink. Alcohol would never break my heart. It was fast becoming my one true love.


Add to these booze-soaked stories about a thousand more just like them, and you have a catalog of my college experiences. Until recently, I could not imagine anything better, and I wanted that fullness of friendship and exploration of freedom for each of my four kids. What I couldn’t see until a few months ago was that the filter of alcohol was like a pair of rose-colored glasses. I was not just enjoying booze in college. I was turning my life over to alcohol. I was surrendering to a poison that would grow to be so intertwined a part of my life that life without it would eventually become unimaginable.


I am permanently sober now, and the rose-colored glasses are slowly clearing. Was that really the best way I could have spent all that time and tuition money? I graduated with a 3.0 GPA (it was really a 2.99, but I learned to round in finance class). I owned books I never opened. I had to, on more than one occasion, introduce myself to my professor when I showed-up to take the final exam. How would my life be different today if I had tried back then? What if my health, self-esteem and education had been the center of my universe rather than the brain-warping 80 proof elixir that I majored in?


Sobriety takes a long time. It is not as simple as abstaining from alcohol, although that is the painful first step. Permanent sobriety meant overcoming the shame of being the only one at the party who didn’t drink. It meant taking pride in living free of dependence. The process of healing my thinking – changing my perceptions – was like reversing the course of a huge ocean-going vessel. It took a lot of time and patience, and an amazing amount of effort. Now, my sense of reality, of importance and of priorities is forever different. This means my perception of college, long considered the best time of my life, is forever different, too.


What I remembered as a wildly enjoyable college experience for decades now seems like time wasted and opportunity lost. My booze-corrupted memories deceived me. I conveniently forgot the regret-filled mornings after nights when my friends and I drank too much and went too far. I blocked-out memories of stumbling aimlessly in the rain because I couldn’t remember how to get home. I shoved to the back of my mind disgusting recollections of sorting recycling and picking-up garbage from the side of the road as my sentence for peeing on the front of a bar and running from the cops.


I blocked-out terrifying knowledge that on a few rare occasions, I drank so much and made such bad decisions that I quite literally deserved to die.


I have escaped the hold alcohol had on my life and the distortion of my memories. Now I pray with all my heart that my kids are not subjected to anything like the four years that, until recently, I longed for them to experience. I will do my best to educate them about alcoholism. I now know they are genetically predisposed to addiction. I hope to help they avoid an environment that ignites their fuse of alcoholic tendency.


My top life priority remains helping my kids find happiness in life. I expect them to drink. I just hope to help them with perspective so years and decades of misery don’t masquerade as the best years of their lives. It will be hard for them to reach their potential if they drown their abilities in the drink. I have to break the cycle.


My alcoholism was tragic. Now, my mission is unique and clear. I pray for the strength and guidance to succeed at steering my kids down a different young-adult path. Four special little lives depend on it, and I know my heart will not survive the alcoholism of my precious children.

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  • Reply
    Natasha Drew
    March 17, 2018 at 1:51 pm

    That is truly something that will always weigh on all of our minds. Will our children go down this same path? It frightens me all of the time and the navigating of that seems much more difficult than any of this ever will be.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      March 17, 2018 at 3:48 pm

      I agree. There isn’t much that scares me more than that.

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