SAN DIEGO — For Judy Mahanna, the problem with booze started in college.
During her undergraduate years at Smith College, drinking was a way of life. Later at the University of Michigan, hard drinking--a fifth of bourbon a night, shared with a lover--accompanied the high-stress world of graduate school.
By the time she had earned her degree, Mahanna was a "master" at more than just social work. She was one hell of a drinker.
"I didn't think that was strange at all," she said. "Then I started getting increasingly unhappy and didn't know why."
Mahanna moved to San Diego after her marriage broke up. Later, she was hospitalized for alcoholism. Now she heads the drug and alcohol rehabilitation program at Vista Hill Hospital in Chula Vista, where she was admitted on "a long night" in 1978.
Mahanna says she owes it all to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and a group called SPAN, which gave her the education and the confidence to warn others of the dangers of booze. SPAN started in 1977 as a "human services certificate program," a non-degree training program at San Diego State University. SPAN students are, for the most part, in their 30s and 40s and are studying to become counselors, therapists and experts in drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
They're all experts in the sense of having traveled the low road to misery and pain. Many, in college before, simply drank themselves out of degrees. Undergraduate years, normally a time of romance and fun, are a distant blur. Being back in college is "a little bit scary," said Lana Ante, a SPAN graduate. Fellow students are younger, and don't yet bear the burden of lost innocence. But SPAN students may have an edge. They are, Ante said, motivated by the "taint of experience."
The taint of experience would seem a likely focal point of National Collegiate Alcohol Awareness Week, being observed this week on area campuses. The focus of the week isn't, as it would seem to be, alcoholism. The week is sponsored by the Beer Wholesalers of San Diego, which one spokesman says is most concerned with "responsible drinking."
Others, such as Ante and Fran Lambert, the founder of SPAN, are critical of such a sponsor while praising such a week.
"Awareness about the evils of drink is a good thing," said Ante, 37, whose habit finally locked her in a prison cell. "But responsible drinking to an alcoholic means, I'm afraid, no drinking at all."
Judy Mahanna refused comment on the sponsorship by Beer Wholesalers. She echoed others, however, in saying that such a move is part of a trend--formula companies promoting breast feeding, casinos funding efforts to avert compulsive gambling. She speaks from experience in saying college students are no match for the dangers of drink.
"That's when the disease starts to strike," she said. "It sneaks up at times. And you thought you were just having fun? Most college students don't even know there's a problem. Why? Because the atmosphere is so permissive. They're not discouraged to stop drinking. They're encouraged to start, or at least to keep going. It's tied to the whole sense of fun and experience in the college years."
Megan Delane is an 18-year-old sophomore from Palos Verdes, a student at the University of San Diego. She is neither an alcoholic nor a drinker. She, like many students these days, has had several friends killed by drunk drivers.
"I don't drink," she said slowly, in carefully measured tones. "The social life is so big here. (Fraternity and sorority) life, too. Drinking is a major part of that. I had one friend who was riding his motorcycle and got hit by a drunk driver. Drugs are not as serious a problem, unless I'm completely cut off. . . . But alcohol is , one that doesn't go away, it just gets worse. When you know a couple, as I did, who were killed by a drunk driver, robbed of life in their early 20s, you start to think about this. It is really, really bad."
Not Spreading Fear
Tim Purpura is one of the first people to credit the contribution of SPAN. But Purpura, assistant residential dean at Revelle College, UC San Diego, said the purpose of Alcohol Awareness Week is hardly to spread fear.
"We're trying to educate students about more, unique ways of having a good time," he said. "And, I think it's working. People are partying but not having the big beer blasts they used to have."
Each of the three major campuses has brought in a series of guest speakers, the most prominent being Robert Anastas, who founded Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD). Anastas has spoken about SADD's Contract for Life program, in which students write out a contract with a friend. The two-way commitment makes each person promise that if one is drunk and needs a ride home, the other will drive. (Assuming, of course, that the other person is sober.)
Each campus has its own activities, and some are coordinated among all three. Much of the week involves question-and-answer sessions with experts, as well as music, a crafts fair and skits. The common link is alcohol.