My College Son Got so Drunk He was Taken to the ER

We, as parents, were not naïve to the issue of alcohol among college students or to the fact that our son drank before he even set foot on campus.  I had a vague awareness of a possible fake ID but never saw it or confirmed. We had all the important discussions, stressed safety and responsible drinking and really thought we had covered our bases.

What happened when a college student got so drunk he had to go to the ER

Yet, none of those fireside chats prepared me for getting the phone call that my child was being transported to the hospital after he had gotten drunk to the point of alcohol intoxication.   I guess technically, at 18, he was not a child but he was my baby and he had gotten himself into a very dangerous situation.

[Read Next: Now That You Are 21, Here are 6 Things To Remember About Drinking]

In hindsight, I’m not even sure what made us answer the phone that Monday evening. We rarely look at the landline caller ID when it rings in the evenings, so sure that it is a telemarketing call.  Maybe it was intuition or fate but something made my husband glance over.

His face fell as he mouthed to me the fact that the caller was the venue hosting the concert my son was attending. My heart pounded as he listened , rubbed his temples and nodded his head.  He should be asking questions, I thought as I paced.  I had so many questions.

As we suspected, my son had been “found” alone and drunk. He needed assistance walking and was vomiting. That is all we knew. We didn’t know how he had lost his friends, who discovered him, where he was discovered or what shape he was in.

We were simply told that they were transporting him to the hospital closest to the arena and we should meet him there.   Because my husband is not calm in these situations, he stayed home with our younger children and I gathered keys, insurance card and some sense of stability enough to drive. Before pulling out of the garage, I texted the roommate I knew was at the concert to tell him my son was on the way to the hospital.

But, concerts are loud and he didn’t hear his phone right away. When he called me back about 30 minutes later, he was genuinely confused. He had left my son with other friends and he seemed fine—not sober mind you—but fine. Their seats were separate so not seeing my son didn’t raise any alarm bells in his head.  And, he genuinely felt awful.

Fortunately, he was able to confirm that my son’s car was safely parked at someone’s house, this friend had the keys and he would get it back to us the next day. Cross a stolen car off the list of worries.

Walking through the ER entrance, I steeled myself for his condition whatever it might be. I have read all the articles and seen pictures of kids on ventilators from alcohol poisoning; all I could do was pray that we were not going to be the next cautionary tale with a disastrous ending.

What I hadn’t expected was that my son was not there. At all. This threw me into a panic. Was he so bad off that they had taken him to a more acute facility?  This hospital had no information for me, so I took a chance and called my son’s phone.

I will never forget the blackness that enveloped me when a gentleman answered the phone and said, “Is this mom?”   Was this the police officer or doctor that was set to deliver the worst news of my life? Was this how it felt to have your world ripped to shreds?  I stopped breathing entirely ; suspended in the purgatory of not knowing.

[Read Next: The Letter I Wrote to My Teenage Son About Drinking]

The orderly explained that my son had been diverted to another hospital only a few minutes away for no other reason than sometimes ambulances do that.  I cried so fiercely and gutturally that the orderly asked that I not drive until I had regained my composure. My son was stable but needed me to be coherent when I got there.

I sat in my car for a few minutes, texted an update to my husband and set off for the second hospital.  There he was, finally, in the ER cubicle looking like a stinkier, disheveled version of himself.  On the chair was his wallet, his phone and all of his belongings perfectly intact.

According to the doctor, he was able to converse with them enough to give his insurance card, tell them his name and other basic info. Then he passed out.

They monitored him but mostly they let him sleep it off. His blood alcohol level was 2.7 which is more than twice the legal limit but he had stopped vomiting and had urinated when he arrived at the hospital which were good signs. They decided not to give him fluids, which was fine by me. I wanted his hangover from being so drunk to be real and lasting. As long as he was hydrated and not in danger, I had no desire to make him comfortable.

[Read Next: Binge Drinking: The Unique Danger to Teenage Brains]

We got that first call at 8pm and I left the hospital with him at 5am. I sat in a chair and watched him sleep for 7 hours. I alternated between anger and primal love over the course of his stay. But I couldn’t stop wondering how my responsible, never-been-in-trouble child ended up here?

It turned out he had no idea either. He retraced the evening as far as he could through pics on his phone and conversations. But there was no memory of being drunk and alone, covered in vomit and in true peril. My stomach still churns and flips every time I think of how truly alone he was despite knowing at least 50 people at the same event.

My husband and I had to think long and hard about how to approach this. Of course, we grounded him. He needed to have a short leash for a while, if not for any other reason than to make up for the upheaval to our family.  He would be responsible for bills. We made him read an article in Sports Illustrated about a football fan who was beat to death in the parking lot of a game because he was incapacitated by alcohol, alone and rooting for the rival team.

I could not let it die, which of course is the greatest punishment of all.  I could not shake the panic and pain of that night. I made him answer tough questions about his drinking habits and the way he was managing–or not managing– his life.

We, as parents, had some reflecting to do as well. There were red flags that we ignored because he had always been such a good kid; handling everything with aplomb.

The sheer amount of credit card charges at bars should have tipped us off early in that first freshman semester. He was clearly going out nearly every night but since he was making it to class—even the 8:30 one—we did not act. Surely, if he was trashed every night, he could not keep up.

Wrong. He could.

[Read Next: In Defense of Tolerating Teen Drinking]

Also, on Parent’s Weekend my son invited us to a mosh pit of a tailgate with sloppy drunks and vodka shots instead of one of the many hosted by school organizations and designed for families. We left to head into the game (and because it was muddy and horrible) but we told him to stay. There was not enough time to go anywhere else  before the game began.  He texted when he got to his seat to ask where our seats were. We did not see him for the rest of the day although he kept texting us and in our minds, was trying to catch up with us. The next morning at breakfast, he looked horrible but apologized profusely.  We let it slide because he was texting so much and had been with us and sober all Friday night and just seemed caught up in the new environment with one of the first big events at the school.

Instinctively, we probably knew his life was out of balance yet we incorrectly assumed he had it under control. But realistically, how could he?  Eventually, the partying and long nights take a toll and you run out of luck.

And that is when he landed in the ER.

To his credit, he thought long and hard about his drinking patterns and realized that he ran into trouble when he didn’t plan meals around going out. The mosh pit tailgate of Parent’s Weekend had no food, the night at the concert he had planned on eating while pre-gaming in the parking lot but no one had anything. His roommate confirmed his last meal was about 1pm some 7 hours before he was picked up by security.

He also figured out that he was perfectly fine when he had a finite amount of alcohol. If he took a water bottle with vodka and water, he would finish it and be done for the night. But when he had an entire bottle of vodka that he needed to off before entering an event, bar or party he got into trouble because he and his friends would chug it in the Uber or wherever.  Ditto with shots. Shots were not an option for him.

Armed with this enlightenment, he returned to school in January much more self-aware. He had seen his limits first hand and being drunk scared him almost as much as it scared me. He went out much less, studied more and made Dean’s List.

[Read Next: The Letter I Wrote to My Teenage Son About Drinking]

The sad part? Hospital staff was non-pulsed by this event because they admit hundreds of  teens every year from concerts and games. Good kids, just like mine, who made bad choices one day.

I had expected to be greeted at the hospital by a police officer with citations and court dates, but this venue just gets you the heck out of there. Their security personnel acted swiftly to remove my son from the premises. All signs indicate that he never even made it inside so perhaps that had something to do with it.

We will never know.

But I do know that we have all learned, and that includes my other children. I will be much more proactive when I see what could be a pattern of irresponsibility and recklessness. My children, no matter how many talks we have or how wonderful they are, are still just that–children.  Prone to bad judgment and mistakes that can have dire consequences.

We dodged a bullet for sure. I share this only so other parents, who may be apt to shake off that nagging feeling, act on it instead. Do not let people who chatter about helicopter parenting stop you from following your gut even if your kid has always been responsible and level-headed.

We should have, instead of thinking it was a phase or rite of passage for college kids. We were lucky and although you can’t prevent everything, our kids will always know going forward that we are aware and watching what is happening in their lives

This can happen to anyone’s kid on any campus or at any gathering of young people regardless of what we parents want to believe.


Freshman Year Down: I Learned More Than He Did

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About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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