Warning about ‘slippery slope’ of student life

Alcohol and university life can go hand in hand, but one Dunedin woman calls the lifestyle a "slippery slope" and is calling for students to recognise the signs of alcoholism.

Hayley McDonald moved to Dunedin in 2016 from Wellington to study at the University of Otago.

Two years later, she dropped out after only passing four papers she took at the university and had lost the majority of her friends.

"I hope some students studying at the moment, who have had more bad nights than good nights, can learn something from my experience and how I ended up and reach out for help."

New Zealand Drug Foundation deputy executive director Ben Birks Ang said if students reflecting on their drinking are not liking what they’re seeing, talking to your friend group, a one-off counselling session, or finding a space to be different and make their own mind up, can all be helpful.

"The threshold for drug and alcohol counselling services is really low. Sometimes it can help to have a one-off chat, or more appointments if needed, if you’re even just a little bit worried.

"Just having a sit down with your flat or friend group about how the last few weekends have gone can make all the difference, and I feel like those conversations aren’t too difficult to have this day and age."

Ms McDonald said she would attend about half her classes per week, but that soon turned into her not going at all.

"I mentally checked out of university and handing in my assignments by my second semester. By the end, I was just attending university for the social aspect of it all."

She said she was not a good drinker and would always go well past what she could handle, but found her tolerance growing until she could "easily" drink two bottles of wine before starting to feel tipsy.

"Starting drinking at 18 when by myself for the first time, it was a slippery slope. I didn’t have the guidance or knowledge how to start safely, and I think that just led to me drinking unsafely."

Drugs were the same, after her first semester she was spending a big portion of her weekly allowance on MDMA.

"It soon became a destructive cycle, every night out would end in tears, either from me, or someone else I would randomly start arguing with.

"The night would often turn into me blacking out and having to figure out who I p..... off the next day."

Ms McDonald said she started to lose friends due to her "black-out rages" and being too hungover to do anything during the day.

Her flatmates in second year would hang out together, do supermarket runs, cook flat meals and watch movies, all while Ms McDonald was in her room nursing a hangover surrounded by takeaway food.

"I didn’t know I was in a bad way, I honestly thought by behaviour was normal — people started to not want to drink ... or hang out with me at all really.

"By the time I dropped out, I was really lonely."

Dropping out sent Ms McDonald into a deeper spiral. She did not return to Wellington, but hid the truth from her parents and stayed in Dunedin, moving in with flatmates who were "bad influences".

"It was with them that I started to really deteriorate, I drank almost 24/7, my hangover cure was to start drinking again.

"It got me through the day, it kept me standing up, but I also totalled my car and got in some very dangerous situations."

About six years later, Ms McDonald has gone through multiple programmes, had extensive counselling, and has a stable job and living situation.

"It’s been a struggle to pull myself out of the hole I dug for myself, but I did — it all would have been so much easier if I recognised the signs and asked for help before I reached my lowest point."

Mr Birks Ang said university students attending Otago come from an environment where the message is to not drink or do drugs.

"Students then go into a new environment, trying to pick up on the norms and way life, and suddenly the rules have completely changed and the message is now ‘drink responsibly’ while being aggressively marketed to by companies and massive drinking events.

"Suddenly you're expected to know how to do all of that stuff — its a kind of peer pressure where you just want to do what everyone else is doing."