This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
I've lost count of the number of times I've stood in front of a spit-flecked mirror in the dingy washroom of a shitty dive bar, stared at my swaying reflection, and thought, "I should probably drink less." I've also lost count of the number of times I then marched straight to the bar to drown out that voice of reason with another pitcher of beer or round of shots, because fuck it dog, life's a risk, and being drunk is really fun.
The friends who I drink with down about the same amount as I do, and we usually have a great time, so when I saw that the Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey defines low-risk drinking as no more than two drinks a day and three a week for women, and no more than three drinks a day and 15 a week for men, my first thought was, That seems kind of low. Apparently, a lot of people think the same, because according to the 2012 survey, the most recent year for which data is available, one in four Canadians between ages 15 and 24 exceed the guidelines for low-risk drinking. I mean, when my friends and I drink, it's not a daily thing, no one's been injured, no one's ended up in jail, and no one's had alcohol poisoning, so how risky could it be?
Dr. Corine Carlisle, an expert in youth and alcohol use at the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, sympathized with the drinking culture that a lot of university-aged kids get involved in.
"I think it's hard for young people to find that balance," she said, "and how to sort of navigate the guidelines versus your realities, seeing what happens on college campuses." From about 14 to 24, people go through an intense period of brain development that makes them more prone to feeling invincibility. It's a good thing because it lets us establish ourselves as independent adults, but it also makes us vulnerable to risk-taking—including excessive alcohol use.
"It's like we get the ability as people to put our foot on the gas before we have the ability to put it fully on the brakes," she explained.
But being young and dumb doesn't mean I get a free pass for blowing past the guidelines, which turns out actually serve a purpose that isn't just the government trying to kill my buzz—they're based on population statistics and on the impacts of alcohol on the body, and are also set to limit the chance of alcohol use becoming misuse becoming a problem becoming dependence.
So, as someone who can down the weekly recommended limit in a night, does this mean I have a drinking problem?
Well, "drinking problem" is a little tricky to pin down.
"If somebody drinks once in their life, they get heavily intoxicated, they get in a car, they crash their car, they kill somebody, that's a problem, right? Is that problem drinking? Well, it was, that one time they drank, it was a problem. So I think it's so hard to say what constitutes problem drinking," Carlisle said.
Susan Bondy, a researcher who studies alcohol use and health effects at the University Toronto, said it's hard to say when someone goes from being a drinker to a problem drinker (it's a spectrum, not black and white), but once alcohol starts to become a crutch or affects your day-to-day ability to function, you should probably start thinking about cutting back. But just because you don't have issues now doesn't mean you won't be making your life worse later.
We've all heard about liver cirrhosis and stomach cancer, but I've always associated those with people who've been drowning their sorrows for decades. I figured my body could take a couple more years before I'd have to worry about any health problems (young bodies bounce back from everything, right?), but turns out there are a bunch of more immediate consequences that come with 26-ers being your best friend.
Impaired mood regulation and the ability to experience joy, poorer memory, a greater risk of feeling depressed, and an increased risk of stomach and breast cancer are all effects I can experience in my very near future (or am already experiencing) if I don't cut back a bit, Bondy said. There are also all the well-known side effects of doing dumb shit when you're drunk, like having unprotected sex, driving, getting into fights, and spending all your money on booze, that can come back to bite you in the ass.
"You [may] not experience any problems this week or this day with the amount that you drink, but if you keep it up over a period of time, you're putting yourself at risk of health consequences down the line," Bondy said.
It's not just the frequent drinkers who have to deal with this stuff—even the occasional weekend warriors are at risk.
"Binge drinking, each and every time, has an impact on the brain," Carlisle said.
You don't even need to feel wasted or drunk to get all the bad stuff because tolerance means nothing—as long as there's an excess of booze running through your veins, your chances of screwing yourself with some crappy disease or mental affliction is there.
This should all seem like common sense, but as someone still going through the invincibility stage of life, having it laid out bare helped make it painfully obvious. Knowing I've possibly already screwed myself by downing one (or two or five) too many pints every couple of days is a bit of a bummer. I knew I drank a lot, but minus the occasional bout of queasiness the morning after, I always felt fine and told myself that as long as I taper off once I'm older, I'd be alright. And if I'm lucky, that may end up being true, but statistically, I've opened the door to a whole bunch of shit future me would probably really rather not deal with.
Which is a bit sobering, I guess.
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