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Alcoholism's effects last longer than a few drinks

Oct. 7, 2005

Editor's note: This is part two in a six-part series on addiction. Part 1 addressed illegal drugs. Part 2 addresses alcohol. Part 3 addresses prescription drugs. Part 4 addresses nicotine. Part 5 addresses caffeine. Part 6 addresses study drugs.

By SARAH GORDON, staff writer

John Randall Martin's trouble with alcohol began in the seventh grade when his older friends convinced him to join them in drinking. Before long, he was stealing from his parents' liquor cabinet to satisfy his cravings.

"Everyone else was doing it," Martin said. "It was the cool thing to do, so I did it."

According to research studies conducted in Baylor's psychology and neuroscience laboratories, the age a person begins drinking has an effect on their risk level of becoming an alcoholic.

Those who begin drinking between the ages of 12 and 16 are at risk of conditioning their brain to the effects of alcohol according to the study.

"If you have a young brain that abuses alcohol, it's going to change the way that brain develops. It's going to develop a drug-friendly brain. If drinking doesn't begin until later on in development when the brain is more mature, which is about the early 20s, there doesn't seem to be that effect," said Dr. Jaime Diaz-Granados, associate professor and associate chairman of the psychology and neuroscience department.

Alcohol became more prevalent in Martin's life the older he became. When he came to Baylor, he was known among his friends as the guy who could out drink and out party everyone else.

It was not uncommon for Martin to spend as much as $50 a night on alcohol, and most of his paychecks found their way to the bars.

"Sometimes I would wake up and have a beer, but I only drank liquor when I was around my friends," he said.

Alcohol is part of the college experience for many students. Adjusting to a new culture that involves school, peer pressure and newfound freedoms are all factors that turn first-year students to drinking.

"College is a time of experimentation for many students, and drinking is a part of that. The mixed messages our society sends about alcohol also leads students to try it," Diaz-Granados said.

According to Facts on Tap Web site, an average college student spends $900 a year on alcohol compared to $450 on books.

Baylor does not have the high number of alcohol consumption by students that some other Big 12 schools do. According to Baylor Police Chief Jim Doak, this has to do with Baylor's Baptist heritage and zero tolerance of alcohol.

"Baylor takes a harder line on alcohol than other schools. We do not condone the possession or consumption of alcohol. At other schools, it is not a big deal," Doak said.

But, alcohol is still a part of Baylor. Last year, almost half of all of the violations the judicial affairs department dealt with were alcohol offenses, according to Bethany J. McCraw, associate dean for judicial and legal student services.

Baylor Department of Public Safety arrested 252 people for alcohol-related charges last year. There were 173 charges of alcohol consumed by minors, and 35 public intoxication arrests made. Although these incidents occurred on and off campus, most of the people involved were Baylor students.

In any case, breaking a state law, such as drinking under the legal age, could result in anything from a verbal warning to expulsion by Baylor.

For Martin, things turned deadly in August 2004. After a summer of binge drinking and partying with friends, his alcohol abuse spiraled out of control and sent him to the emergency room, where doctors gave the 23-year-old a 2 percent chance to live.

Two and a half months later, Martin awoke from a drug-induced coma to find his family at his side.

"They were torn apart. They had no idea I had a problem with alcohol before the accident," Martin said.

Martin was in the hospital for five months. With two-thirds of his pancreas destroyed, he was diagnosed with acute pancreaitis. Thirteen surgeries later, he is still at risk for developing diabetes.

Withdrawal symptoms from alcohol depend on the severity of the abuse. Hangovers, which are part of the withdrawal process, can include headaches, nausea, dehydration and the shakes.

Motor coordination and speech ability can be impaired by alcohol. One night of heavy drinking can impair a person's ability to think abstractly for 30 days according to Facts on Tap.

More serious problems related to long-term, heavy abuse and alcoholism include cancer of the liver, esophagus, throat and larynx, liver cirrhosis, immune system problems, brain damage and memory loss.

"Alcohol has a toxic effect on the brain and can damage brain cells," Diaz-Granados said.

Alcohol abuse is linked to other disorders, such as depression, social phobia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In many cases, alcohol abuse is the cause or effect of another condition.

Depending on the severity of the problem, there are many centers for alcohol and substance abuse where one can go to get help.

The DePaul Center in Waco offers a three-day inpatient detoxification program for those with a severe problem. There is an outpatient program that involves individual and group counseling for patients. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are part of the program and are open to everyone.

Jane Harmon, a psychiatric nurse practitioner and registered nurse at the DePaul Center, said it is important to recognize the signs of alcohol abuse and seek help.

"Confront it early, especially if you have a family history of alcoholism because it is a disease that kills people," Harmon said.

DAREBear, an organization founded at Baylor in 2002, is a program affiliated with the national DARE program aimed at educating 5th-graders on the importance of leading a drug-free life.

Natalie Cook, a senior from Katy, founded the organization and was its first president. She feels it is important for children to be educated on the dangers of alcohol and drug addiction.

"Some of the students we go and speak to are not as fortunate as we are. They grow up with alcohol and drugs as a part of their lives. When college students speak to these children, it is very effective because they see us reaching for our goals and careers and how not doing drugs and not drinking has helped," Cook said.

Alcohol is no longer a consideration in Martin's life. One more drink could kill him because his body cannot handle the toxic substance as it once did.

"I am the permanent designated driver for my friends now," Martin said.

Martin's experience brought him closer to God and taught him that he can be happy without alcohol in his life.

"I haven't had a drink in one year and one month. I didn't know before I could have a good time without drinking. Now I know," Martin said.