Girls Keeping Up With the Boys at Bars

March 10, 2006 — -- Drinking to excess has always been a tradition and a problem among college men. But now college women are a growing concern. They're binge drinking in alarming numbers -- and not just on spring break. They're out in public, staggering in the streets, falling down drunk, and becoming easy targets for sexual assault.

"They are not only drinking more than their male peers, but they are now more likely to drink more heavily than their male peers," said David Jernigan, executive director at the Center for Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University.

Of particular worry are the drinking patterns of women under the age of 21. "There has been a huge amount of effort to stop underage drinking in this country in the last 10 years. It's made some impact with the boys. We are not getting anywhere with the girls," said Jernigan.

Koren Zailckas was one of the many girls who didn't get the message about the dangers of drinking. A bright, happy child born into a stable, affluent family outside Boston, she was a star student at the local high school, but she lost much of her girlhood to the foggy haze of alcohol abuse.

"My friends were all drinking at that time. I was afraid of being excluded from them. ... I think that is where peer pressure is. I think we are drawn to alcohol because there is a problem of inclusion there, that we'll be part of the gang, part of the group," said Zailckas.

Getting 'Smashed'

Zailckas, now 25, describes her childhood experiences with alcohol in a best-selling book, "Smashed," a powerful chronicle of her own dark experiences that has struck a nerve with young woman across the country.

In her book, she reveals she took her first drink at 15. She was 16 when she passed out for the first time and ended up in the hospital having her stomach pumped.

"I didn't wake up until the next morning in my house in my childhood bed in the hospital gown sort of wondering what had happened the night before," she recalled.

The episode rocked her parents, Bob and Sharon Zailckas, who had no idea their bright, academically successful daughter was drinking alcohol.

Her father said he had "no clue" about the parties and heavy drinking his daughter described in her book.

Her mother still asks herself why she didn't see any signs of her daughter's drinking. "I should have known more, and I didn't. ... And I prided myself on always being aware, or feeling that I was trying to really be in touch with my children and what they were doing," she said.

But her hospitalization and her parents' concern did little to counter what Zailckas felt when she was among her friends. "Six months down the line, I was at a party and my friends were drinking. They were having fun and laughing, and I didn't want to be left out," she said.

Zailckas' drinking increased when she moved on to college. At New York's Syracuse University, her life was increasingly filled with boozy nights, blackouts and waking up naked not knowing what happened the night before.

Despite the fact that drinking made her more vulnerable, Zailckas said she felt stronger when she drank. "It was the only time that I could feel empowered, when I was drinking or was drunk, and feel like I could have the upper hand with the man I was talking to, chat him up," she told "20/20."

Yet even as she was battling a serious alcohol problem, Zailckas was able to maintain straight As in her classes. "I think it's a myth that you have to be dropping out of school or failing in order to have problems with alcohol," she said.

And Zailckas' story is a cautionary tale for thousands of parents whose daughters may be damaging their health and even putting their lives in danger by binge drinking on campus.

Because of differences in physiology, it takes less alcohol and less time for women to become intoxicated than it does men. And there are consequences. The drinking and driving warnings ring loud and clear. The increased risks of sexual assault or unprotected sexual activity are well documented. But a surprising number of young drinkers don't know one important fact: If you drink too much -- too fast -- you can die.

One weekend last fall at the University of Colorado at Boulder, nine women were hospitalized for alcohol poisoning.

Perhaps most shocking about that incident, is that it isn't shocking at all to area health workers and officials. "I'm not really too shocked anymore about alcohol ingestion and coming to the ER, and nine doesn't particularly shock me. The kids we're seeing tend to be drinking liquor as opposed to beer," said Dr. Mark Moeller at Boulder Community Hospital.

When Drinking Is Deadly

And just 60 miles north of Boulder, in Fort Collins, Colo., another story grabbed headlines on Labor Day 2004. Samantha Spadey, a 19-year-old about to start her sophmore year at Colorado State died from alcohol poisoning.

Like Zailckas, Spadey was a bright, active, successful student -- a cheerleader, her high school homecoming queen and a member of the National Honor Society.

"She did have it together. And I guess that's [an] even bigger part of the tragedy, because somebody that has so much going for them -- to end up dying from something so senseless and preventable is what we want to make sure doesn't happen in the future to anybody else," said her mother, Pat Spadey.

And Spadey's death began with what is a fairly common experience for many college coeds -- hopping around campus with friends and drinking. She ended up at the Sigma Pi fraternity house and that is where her night took a disastrous turn. A bottle of vanilla-flavored vodka was passed around. Spadey drank and drank the vanilla vodka -- until she couldn't walk or talk. She was then taken to a room to sleep it off. But that was a tragic mistake. She died of alcohol poisoning and was found the next day.

Spadey's parents now speak out about what happened to their daughter and have launched a Web site and foundation to educate other parents and students about the dangers of binge drinking. They're also hoping to bring attention to the dangerous lure of flavored alcohol.

"I truly believe that if alcohol tasted like the poison that it actually is rather than candy ... I don't think you'd have young people as intrigued by it, or it wouldn't go down as easy," Pat Spadey said.

It's been over a year since Samantha Spadey died. In Fort Collins, students said the shock of Spadey's death has now worn off, and students drink just as hard as before.

Sadly, Jernigan said, the situation in Fort Collins is duplicated on campuses across the country. "For every Samantha Spadey, there are literally 1,399 other deaths on college campuses per year as a result of alcohol use. I wish it were just that isolated instance. But it's not," he said.

At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, named the country's No. 1 party school, school officials work hard to curb excessive student drinking. Police regularly sweep local hangouts and check IDs, but the drinking continues -- and it often begins before students ever hit the bars.

Students call it pre-gaming, drinking at home as a way to kick off the night and save money. Several female college students spoke candidly with "20/20" about their drinking habits. The common denominator: They drink to get drunk -- they binge drink.

"I feel like almost every time I drink I binge drink because I feel if I'm going to drink then I want to get drunk. I don't want to drink just to have like one or two drinks," said Jen, a 21-year-old student.

The girls said they play drinking games with shots of alcohol and often lose count of how many shots they drink.

"You probably end up drinking like double-digit amounts of drinks, and you don't even know," Jen said.

The girls said they had all gotten sick from drinking and had hangovers. The girls' behaviors seemed similar to those detailed in Zailckas' "Smashed."

Finding a Better Life Through Writing

But Zailckas' alcohol abuse led to more than hangovers and blackouts. It led to sexual abuse, and it continued after college. Here's how she described her post-college drinking in her book:

"I vomit most mornings but sometimes I also spit up black specks that remind me of coffee grounds, and I don't know that they're symptomatic of stomach bleeding. Sometimes my feet are muddy and I catch them poking out of the covers and I realize I walked down Third Avenue with my shoes in my hand," she writes.

She said she's not surprised by what's happening on campuses but she's saddened by it. "I read the statistics and I knew just how many girls were going to the hospitals around universities to have their stomachs pumped, and how many were sexually assaulted, and how many were feeling depressed," she said.

After waking up in another stranger's apartment, Zailckas scared herself straight. She stopped drinking.

But the fix might not have stuck, she said, if she hadn't turned to writing.

"I do think that reading and writing replaced drinking in a lot of ways. It helped me fill my time, but more than that it gave me a sense of pride and self-confidence outside of going out and getting drunk," she said.

In the year since her book was published, she has traveled the country speaking to students and parents about the risks of abusive drinking, sharing her own painful story as a way to alarm and alert. And women of all ages are responding

"A lot of college girls have written to me to say, 'You wrote my life story. You wrote this exactly how I felt growing up. These are the reasons that I was drinking. I went to rehab after reading the book. I'm not sure I would have otherwise,'" she said.

As saddened as Zailckas' parents are over their daughter's painful struggle with alcohol, they say they're proud that she's using her own experiences to help other girls and young women.

In her book, Zailckas writes, "Since I've quit drinking, I'm not sure I've found the good life, but I've certainly uncovered a better one."