21 Shots 7/16/22

Thoughts with Richard Bleil

As of the writing of this post, my friend just celebrated her twenty-first birthday. When I taught chemistry, every year I would give a warning about this, but I don’t teach anymore, so you have to read about it.

The fact is that alcohol is a poison. Everybody today knows the usual alcohol warnings; don’t drink and drive, for women, don’t drink anything that doesn’t come directly from the bartender and so forth. But it’s far less common for people to have really had alcohol poisoning explained to them.

It seems as if every few years, there is another story of somebody killing themselves, unintentionally, playing that stupid game “21 shots for 21 years”. At their twenty-first birthday, it’s (finally) legal to drink alcohol, so it’s common for people to push their limits on alcohol consumption before they’re ready.

My former wife, an alcoholic, would drink about three-quarters of a large bottle of vodka in one sitting. I doubt that she weighted a hundred pounds soaking wet, but she would routinely do this (leading to the end of our marriage). With experience, it’s entirely possible to gain a tolerance that will allow for consuming massive amounts of hard liquor, but it doesn’t happen overnight. For the novice, it can be a deadly experiment.

The fact is that it takes time for alcohol to soak into the blood stream. The liver tries to process it as soon as it comes through but has a limited rate for doing so. Once the alcohol amount becomes too much for the liver, the symptoms of intoxication kick in. For me, this is about a beer and a half because I just don’t drink. For others, well, half a bottle of vodka.

The stomach has a valve that, some believe, can become “stunned”, closing during heavy drinking. But even closed, alcohol can leak through, and it can even soak through the lining of the stomach. It is absorbed into the system through the stomach and intestinal lining, one of only two liquids that can do this with water being the other.

When the levels of alcohol in the system becomes dangerously high, the body responds in an attempt to protect the body from reckless behavior. The feeling of being drunk (which I don’t personally enjoy) is the first symptom, perhaps nausea to the point of regurgitation, and if that doesn’t stop the drinker, then unconsciousness.

If the drinker is having beer, this is usually good enough. There is a lot of water in beer, so passing out will prevent the intake of more alcohol, and the content of beer left in the stomach is of a low enough concentration that there’s not much danger of alcohol poisoning.

When drinking hard liquor, there is far less water. When the drinker passes out, the amount of alcohol still in the stomach is of a high enough concentration that, as it continues to be absorbed into the blood stream, it can result in serious medical consequences including death. We had that happen to a friend of mind that lived down the hall in my dorm. Drinking with his girlfriend, he began vomiting blood. Her screams summoned the resident adviser, who called for a hospital. It was the last time I ever saw or heard from him, so to this day I do not know if he survived or not. Yes, it does happen.

If you are preparing to celebrate your twenty-first birthday with alcohol, here are a few things to keep in mind. First, go with a friend, especially if you are a female, somebody that you trust, somebody that will look out for you and who cares about you. You should have a designated driver anyway, so that should take care of it, but keep in mind that as you become increasingly intoxicated, you’ll simultaneously become more vulnerable, so bring somebody who you know will pick you up and drive you home when the time comes.

Second, don’t drink twenty-one straight shots. It will probably be too much for you, but if you want to try it, drink either a beer chaser or a glass of water between each shot. The water in the beer will help protect you and dilute out the alcohol, but here’s a pro-tip for you. If you drink water instead of beer, your hangover the next day won’t be so bad.

Whatever you do, be wise, and be careful. You have loved ones who would prefer not to identify your corpse at the morgue. Remember, you are loved, so be kind to your loved ones and, for their sake if not your own, take care of yourself.


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