Koren Zailckas doesn’t regale close friends with tales of drinking in college — she tells her stories to the whole world in her new book and is touring college campuses across the nation to share her story.
Now 24, Zailckas will speak tonight at 8 in Campbell Hall, where she will read excerpts from her new book, Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood. Published this month, Smashed is Zailckas’ first published book and is a compilation of her memoirs chronicling her experience as a young binge drinker. The book is intended for young people, especially women, Zailckas said.
“I’d also think that parents have something to gain by reading Smashed, even if it’s just a better understanding of their daughters,” Zailckas said.
She also said the book is intended to be a cautionary tale for high school girls who might not drink as heavily as she did.
“I also wanted to talk to college-age girls,” Zailckas said. “I wanted to open up a conversation because I think it is still a taboo subject and a shameful subject. And it’s hard to admit that you’re a woman who has had problems with alcohol.”
In college, excessive drinking is more widely accepted and actually becomes expected in social situations, unlike in high school, she said. The environment fosters and encourages drinking.
“I never learned through my own alcohol education or elsewhere any message except, “Don’t drink and drive,” and I really thought that I was safe if I wasn’t behind the wheel of a car,” Zailckas said.
Alcohol comes with a separate set of dangers for women, she said.
“I had no idea that I was at a greater risk for alcohol poisoning than men were, and I had no idea that drinking was linked to depression,” she said.
Zailckas grew up in the suburbs of Boston and attended Syracuse University, where she graduated with a degree in journalism. In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Zailckas said she began thinking about documenting her story as a binge drinker after an encounter with Time magazine reporters who were doing research for a story at her university about the growing phenomenon of female binge drinking.
Soon afterward, she wrote a short story about her traumatic experience, at the age of 16, when her dad took her to the hospital to get her stomach pumped because of alcohol poisoning.
“It’s so easy to push this stuff down and put it in a box and bury it in your subconscious and never think about it, but I want college women to know it is safe to talk about these things,” Zailckas said. “The things in Smashed are really personal, and when I sat down to write it, I did just write it as if no one was going to read it.”
She had her first drink at the age of 14. Then came the trip to the hospital at 16, a sexual experience that happened while she was blacked out at 19 and a confused morning in a strange New York City apartment after her college graduation.
“It’s impossible to know who you are at 14,” Zailckas said. “You don’t have a personality yet, and you’re trying on a different role every week. Alcohol just became ingrained in who I was and the ideas I had about myself. I wish I’d been a little older.”
Zailckas said the link between self-acceptance and drinking was profound for her at that age.
“To me, drinking — even at 14 years old — didn’t seem that much different than cosmetics,” she said. “It was a way to go from ugly duckling to swan and to make myself the person that I wanted to be.” Drinking was a social event with friends once or twice a month. Homes without parents became places to booze without getting caught.
“Drinking in high school was still a special event,” Zailckas said. “It was something we were always looking forward to, and scheming broke up the boredom. There was an element of secrecy and deceptiveness around it.”
But in college, Zailckas said, she had more opportunities to drink.
“When I went to college, I felt all of the sudden it was open season, and I felt like I was expected to drink underage and drink to excess — to drink to get drunk.”
For the duration of her college experience, she said she drank on a regular basis and soon developed a serious abuse of alcohol. Her sorority house became a haven for alcohol, Zailckas said, and her sorority experience contributed greatly to her excessive drinking lifestyle.
“It’s the same thing with sports teams; when you’re hanging around the same people and those people like to do the same things that you do, which in my case is drinking, there is sort of a groupthink, almost, that goes on,” Zailckas said. “It’s hard for any one person to be the whistle-blower and say, ‘Maybe something about this isn’t right.'”
Hazing fueled persistent substance abuse, she said. Girls felt the need to have authority over others, forcing them to eat pot brownies off the floor to prove their loyalty. She said 60 percent of sorority members are binge drinkers and the percentage is higher for girls living in the actual sorority house. She attributes much of the abuse to the “air of secrecy” involved in sorority life.
“It’s hard to know what actually goes on inside those walls,” she said.
The defining moment for Zailckas followed a drunken senior year of college. Soon after graduation, she woke up, after a long night of partying with a friend, in a strange New York City apartment.
“We could have been on the moon,” she said. “I had no idea who we were with, couldn’t remember their names, had no idea where we were – and that really scared me. It really took me getting off the college campus to give me the perspective I needed. The dangers felt more real in a strange city and among adults instead of students. I really needed that shift in time and space.” Zailckas said that she needed to realize her problem before seeking help.
“No one could have helped me; I wasn’t ready to accept help,” she said. “I don’t think it’s my place to convince anyone they have a problem if they’re convinced that drinking isn’t a problem for them. I’m certainly not out to single-handedly rid college campuses of alcohol.” After more than a year without a drink, Zailckas said she wants to establish more authentic friendships without a dependence on alcohol.
“I really wanted to stand on my own two feet and stop using alcohol as a way to feel comfortable in social settings and figure out what to do with my hands at a party besides holding a bottle,” she said.