CW: This piece contains discusson of substance abuse, suicide and sexual assault.
Chances are the worst thing you’ve ever done was on the piss, and the worst you’ve ever felt about life was on a dusty Sunday morning.
“We always talk about ‘we have a drinking culture,’ ‘there’s a drinking culture’,” says Dr Liz Gordon of Communities Against Alcohol Harm. “No one speaks about what it actually means in the lives of those who engage with it.”
Not everyone takes part. But for many that do, this is what that looks like. Below, through a series of personal stories, Critic Te Ārohi explores the underbelly of Dunedin’s drinking culture.
It started out a better Saturday than most for Riley*. She slept in, the sun was out and the whole city was looking forward to a big concert in the stadium that afternoon. She’d planned on staying home but, as luck would have it, a free ticket for this “once in a lifetime” bucket list event wound up in her hands just an hour before it started.
The gig was exciting for the city, but also a concern to local police, who urged fans to eat, drink responsibly, and use public transport. An alcohol ban was imposed on nearby streets, but the threat of a $250 fine didn’t stop Riley’s plans for the night ahead. After the event, she skipped dinner in order to make it to her friend’s party.
“I was in such a good mood,” Riley says. “When I showed up at the party, I thought I was going to have so much fun.”
The party was fun — from what Riley remembers. “I blacked out,” she says, and a great day became “one of the worst nights” of her life.
The party was a bit of a blur. She remembers crying on the phone to her brother, though she has no idea what triggered it. Someone later showed her photos of her sprawled on the floor vomiting. At one point, she curled up underneath a desk, wailing hysterically and calling 111.
“The dispatcher picked up, ‘Police, fire or ambulance?’ And I’m just crying,” Riley remembers. “They transferred me to the psych service.”
A 45-minute phone call ensued. Finally, a guy she knew from the party came in to look after her. Riley remembers opening up about a story from her past, one in which an older man had been forceful with her while under the influence. It was a moment of vulnerability. Then, she says, after she was done with the story, the boy pinned her down and started kissing her.
“I was freaking out. It was making me panic. But I didn’t say anything, I was just bawling.”
Desperate and not thinking straight, Riley wanted to escape. So, she drunk drove to her friend’s house on the other side of town. “Half the drive I don’t remember,” she admits.
“It [was] selfish and dangerous. But in my head, it was life or death. I was going to hurt myself or do something stupid.”
Though she made it safely to her friend's house and soon fell asleep, “you can only imagine” the hangxiety and shame she felt the next morning, she says, cringing. “It was so scary. I lost total control over my mind and body.”
None of this would have happened, says Riley, without alcohol.
“I’ve been used and abused. I’ve lost all motivation [for study]. I do health science and destroy my health. I know internally what goes on and I still fucking do it,” she says.
This weekend Riley’s flatmate has pulled her red card, and per the rules, Riley ‘has’ to go. “I don’t want to drink. I don’t want to be associated with it anymore,” she sighs. “But it’s such a big part of my social life [in Dunedin].”
What constitutes an alcoholic is a confusing question for Dunedin students, fraught with misinformation. It’s a phenomenon to laugh off text messages from Student Health suggesting a drinking problem, but after a hospital visit earlier this year, fifth-year dentistry student Kim* realised it was no longer a laughing matter.
Kim lied when the doctor asked her how much she drank a week. Two bottles of wine over a couple of nights out was the usual. Embarrassed, she told the doctor she only drank one bottle (7.5 standards), albeit in one sitting. That’s when she learned even half of what she consumed on a weekly basis was, by definition, disordered drinking.
“The doctor said, ‘Look, I know a lot of people who are alcoholics. They’re high-functioning, so they think they’re able to cope. But they’re doing the same physical damage as someone who's ruining their life, and sometimes they come close [to ruining theirs] too.’”
Kim knows all about coming close. Weeks after her visit, she began experiencing pain in her upper right abdomen, only to realise that’s where her liver is. “I thought I had irreversible liver damage from my five years of living here.”
Physical health isn’t the only close call Kim’s had, claiming Dunedin’s culture of alcohol abuse has negatively harmed every facet of her life. Kim says she’s not handed in “entire assignments”, prioritised going out over what she pays “thousands of dollars to be here for” and says that “90% of the stuff” she’s embarrassed about “never would have happened if I wasn’t so pissed.”
“I’ve done horrible things drunk that I would never do sober. I’ve slept with people I shouldn’t have; pissed myself in the front seat of a guy's car. I’ve gotten ragingly drunk and gone off at flatmates and friends, just been totally inappropriate,” she admits.
“I irreversibly damaged my knee because I fucked it when I was drunk, and I’ll never have a stable knee again. I try to brush that off…” she says, tearing up, “but it's actually terrifying to me to think I’ll have to have surgery on my knee one day just ‘cause I was so fucking drunk I couldn’t walk.”
In her lowest moments Kim would find herself going out and “doing crazy stuff… Because I had such low self-esteem, I didn’t care what happened to me.” But Kim always found herself caring in the morning, rattled with hangxiety. “I’d feel so much worse about myself. Poring over what I said, how I acted, what people thought of me, over analysing everything, ashamed for taking it too far again.”
Although hangxiety induces irrational thoughts, she acknowledges she’s suffered real reputational damage as a result of drunk behaviour.
“You’re free to do what you want, but you’re not free from the consequences of your actions. Sometimes I wonder: is that who I am? Is that what I’m really like? It’s said drunk actions are sober thoughts, but I don't think that's true. I think for some people alcohol brings out the worst.”
North Face-wearing, house gig-loving, and five years into a prestigious degree, on the surface Kim appears like any other student you’d see studying at the library, and she wants you to know: she is.
“It’s not just a ‘me’ problem, because there’s so many ‘me’s’ out there. I think a culture of behaviour has been normalised within this city that I haven’t been able to shake yet.”
Antisocial behaviour is rampant across Dunedin, Kim claims. At the Hyde Street party, she saw one girl (eyes “soulless” from intoxication) pull off her skirt and squat in broad daylight, while crowds of people walked past “like it was nothing,” their shoes sloshing into her urine. The other day, Kim overheard two breathas in an elevator discussing a friend who pushed another friend through a window during a fight (resulting in a $400 bond loss), only to laugh it off as he did it “on the piss.”
“I hear that phrase all the time,” Kim says. “‘He’s such a menace on the piss’, ‘She’s so dusty on the piss.’ That’s somehow become so normalised, that kind of straight violence. Dunedin could be a social experiment, it's so bizarre.”
In the heart of studentville, it’s normal to wake to screams and yelling, cars revving, and bottles being smashed. Though the state of our streets may be untenable to the average person, some students pay upwards of $200 a week for “the experience”. Though there’ll be brawlers, bottlers, pissers, and litterers in every population, the worst side of people isn’t forced out of everyone like it is here, claims Kim.
“If you test every single person and their limits, you’re gonna have a very high percentage of people with alcohol problems,” says Kim. “I think there’s a misconception here that to stop drinking you have to hit rock bottom. But that's not true. There’s always a rock below the bottom rock. The definition of a drinking problem is if your drinking is causing you problems. By that definition, 80% of people in Dunedin have a drinking problem. But we’re not willing to admit that because then we’d have to stop. It’s social suicide.”
If she quit, “I would feel healthier. I would be less depressed. I would just generally be a better person. But for some reason I just can’t stop doing it."
Sometimes in the depths of rumination, Kim wishes she never came to Otago, and fantasises how her university experience could have been different if she studied somewhere else.
“I guess some can get away with it and be well functioning after coming here, and some can’t. You just have to hope you’re one of those people who can.”
Lucas* never intended to come to Otago, or even New Zealand for that matter. Although he’s a Kiwi, Lucas grew up overseas due to his parents' careers in foreign aid. In early 2020, he flew to Dunedin to visit his extended family for two weeks. But the day before he was scheduled to fly back, his home went into an emergency lockdown. “I never got to say goodbye to anyone or anything. Covid sprang out of nowhere.” Unbeknownst to him, the cancellation of his flight that day would go on to change the course of his life.
Stuck in New Zealand, the logical choice was to enrol at the University of Otago. “I was basically an alien. I didn’t know anything about my country’s culture,” says Lucas. But he’d soon learn how heavily drinking featured in it. “I did drink [overseas]. It was good fun, but we drank responsibly.”
Lucas’ introduction to Dunedin’s binge drinking culture didn’t come in his first year through the halls, as he flatted in a complex with international students.
“One of them reported me for being an alcoholic,” Lucas laughs. “The university called me in for a chat and asked how much I drank. It was a bottle of wine [over] a fortnight. I told the man, ‘I’m experimenting with my reds, very into my fantastic Malbec Merlot.’” He goes, ‘Oh, great! I drink more than you’.”
In his second year, however, Lucas moved to the heart of North Dunedin, with BCom bros “who drink like fish” for flatmates. It was then Lucas got thrown into the deep end of Dunedin’s “insane” binge drinking culture: “It’s drink until you drop.”
The two extremes around alcohol he experienced during his time at Otago created a crisis of identity. “I don’t know who I am. A New Zealander is someone who’s chill as fuck, drinks a lot; the breatha personality. I’m not like the international students I knew, but I’m not like that either.” This feeling of alienation, Lucas says, bled into his struggles with friendships.
“Socialising feels artificial here. Drinking feels good chemically, but drinking as an activity… It feels like I’m doing it because everyone else is doing it. It's difficult to make friendships [of substance] here.”
In order to fit in, Lucas began partying like those around him, eating porridge every meal for two weeks straight so he could buy enough booze to keep up with his flatmates. His study suffered, he says, when he found himself sitting at the library “delirious,” in too much physical pain to finish an assignment due the next day. Like clockwork, the dopamine deficit would hit him hard the next morning.
“I felt like a failure. I’m such a privileged person. I’ve grown up having to see people eat out of rubbish bins. The same amount I spend on a box would feed a family for a month where I come from. I was like, ‘Look at you, here you are wasting your life.’”
Lucas experienced a scare during a Re-O host. He remembers entering through the front door, sun overhead. Next thing he knew, “like the flicker of a light switch,” it was suddenly dark. He was standing, on his own, in the middle of the street. “I was… like ‘Where did everyone go?’ It’s deserted. There’s rubbish everywhere. I was alone.”
Lucas has attempted suicide twice as a result of “post-drinking thoughts of delusion,” and fears he will hurt himself when he blacks out. This suicidal ideation “never” would have occurred, he says, had it not been for binge drinking.
Boys face an unspoken pressure to adhere to the stoic, “get on with it” ideal of Kiwi masculinity, Lucas claims, causing many to turn to alcohol abuse instead of addressing their problems. He reckons this issue is hidden in Dunedin, where ‘breathaism,’ our model of masculinity, revolves around drinking.
After all, no one knew about Lucas’ period of struggle. Although his relationship with alcohol would have been a glaring red flag to people back home, here his people couldn’t tell the difference between a suicidal substance abuser and the average student.
Sometimes they’re the same person.
Although drinking’s harm is often shrouded in shame, for many students, the secrecy is lifted on the couches of Student Health, where clinicians Richard Mooney and David Jaggard see firsthand the impact alcohol has on the lives of the students who sit across from them. Whatever your story, Richard and David have likely heard a version of it before.
“Most of the harm for students is binge drinking and the problems that unfold with that,” says David. “[Especially] lower-level harms around loss of relationships, because people are in high emotional states and say and do things they normally wouldn't.”
Richard adds, “I think people can become a bit of a liability, or that’s how their friends see them. ‘You always go too far, you always take it too far.’ They end up becoming [socially] disconnected.”
According to the two, Student Health “hardly ever” sees instances of sexual harm or serious injuries where alcohol was not involved. Suicidal thinking and behaviours, too, can be exacerbated by alcohol intoxication.
“Our frontal lobe suppresses the urge to do stupid things. When we drink, the frontal lobe becomes disconnected,” David explains. “We go, ‘Oh, I feel so free! I feel so happy!’ But you no longer have [the front lobe] suppressing you, which includes not making a dick of yourself, assaulting someone, jumping off the roof. All things that are quite good to be suppressed.”
Richard says Dunedin’s binge drinking culture also impacts international and sober students who counsellors “often” see struggle to fare socially. “It can be quite hard [for them] to make connections because the culture here is so revolved around alcohol use.”
While they emphasise Student Health isn’t here to tell people they “mustn't do stuff” (“we want to be helpful, we don’t want to lecture students''), they feel it's important to highlight that ‘mandatory’ traditions, such as red card parties and hazing initiations, are “in a way, sort of abusive.”
”We like to think that we have free will, we can make our own choices about our bodies, what we put into it, and then there's other people saying, ‘It's not your choice.’ That’s quite manipulative,” says David. “For us it's frustrating, it's hard to battle against that,” Richard adds. “We do see quite a few people traumatised from those types of events. It's that feeling you can’t say no.”
Not everyone wants to say no, however. Sean (‘DJ Skips’ on SoundCloud) is one of these students who “wouldn’t change a thing.” His most streamed DnB mix ‘Breatha on a Benda’ is art true to life, with Sean being somewhat of a legacy breatha himself. Born in Dunedin to two Otago students, Sean moved to the North Island as a child, but says he always knew it was in his future to return when he turned eighteen.
“Mum flatted on Castle Street and said it was probably the best year of her life because of the culture… late teens, early twenties, that's the time, if any, to go a bit crazy. Dunedin encourages that… It sounds like an absolute alcoholic perspective, but there's no stigma. If you’re hanging with your mates, you should be getting on the piss with them as well. Everyone’s [of] the same mindset. It’s heaps and heaps of fun.”
Like most students, Sean’s first year was “nuts… [I] lost all my money to alcohol, gained like 10kg, my liver probably halved its life span,” he laughs. Though he's since toned it down, Sean still goes through a box and a nitro every time he’s out, consuming around 30 to 40 standards a week. The recommended maximum for men is 15.
“Oh sure, by definition I’m an alcoholic,” he acknowledges. But for Sean and his circle, the sacrifices of the Dunedin party lifestyle are worth the memories.
Apart from a few “mud” nights out (which mostly revolved around long lines in town) and minor drunk regrets (“everyone has them, it's inevitable at some point”) Sean hasn’t noticed the harms of binge drinking that Riley, Kim, and Lucas have experienced, acknowledging their stories as “deep stuff.”
“I totally understand how some people can lose themselves in this place. I feel very privileged.”
Sean reckons he’s “lucked out.” While his interests and lifestyle overlap perfectly with the ethos of the culture, he also has the “self-confidence” to pull back when he needs to in spite of peer pressure, traits that make him “on the dot” for what it takes to thrive (or in some student’s eyes, survive) the infamous Otago student experience.
But Otago University is far more than its student’s reputation for partying, he insists. “It's an incredible academic institution.” The sciences are what attracted Sean here the most, insisting that the extremities of our drinking culture shouldn’t deter those seeking world-class education. The only education that needs improving at Otago, Sean reckons, is around drinking itself.
“I wouldn’t change anything about [the culture], but I’d want people to know what they’re coming into. Obviously the uni doesn’t wanna say, ‘You might not want to come here, because everyone’s a pisshead!’ That's not in their interest, but if they truly want their students to feel comfortable, then they should educate their students about the kind of things they might encounter down here and prepare them for it.”
Binge drinking is beloved by students like Sean, whose positive experiences dominate the outside perception many incoming freshers aspire to. David from Student Health, who used to run a substance abuse support group in a separate practice, says one of the few rules they had was “no war stories”: no selectively glamorising something that is “potentially not glamorous… You can always select the best bits, [even] literally about a war! ‘Oh I got to travel, I flew a plane. I had a really amazing time.” He goes on to say that “It’s not helpful when authorities like student media and senior students share half-truths [about the realities of binge-drinking].”
“There is real power in storytelling,” agrees Richard. “For those students who are willing to be vulnerable, I think people can really identify with [their experiences].”
Richard and David encourage those who are concerned about their drinking to book a same-day appointment with Student Health, where support is free (with the exception of $10 counselling sessions) and there’s no diagnostic criteria required to seek help. “Just chat to us about your concerns. We're not going to say you have to stop or cut back on drinking,” says David. “We’re not here to tell you off. It’s a collaboration, really.”
And for those suffering in the immediate aftermath of a bad night out, or haunted by past-drinking, “basic self-care” such as eating nutritious food, drinking water, sleeping and reaching out to mates and family “if you feel like shit” is important.
“We all make mistakes. They don’t define us,” Richard says. "We tend to be quite harsh on ourselves. Our inner narrative tends to be a lot meaner than what other people might think. You can just learn from that [mistake] and move forwards.”
“[Our self-hood] is really big,” adds David, gesturing a space between his hands. “When sometimes we think we’re smaller [than we are]: ‘I’m a failure at university, I’m a dickhead who gets drunk and alienates his or her friends.’” In his therapeutic work, David helps students recover their sense of self-worth after alcohol harm. “[I ask them] what else do you do? What other relationships do you have? Who were you before you came to university?”
“It's about finding: ‘This isn’t all there is to me.’”
*Names and some identifying features have been changed.
WHERE TO GET HELP
Student Health – 0800 479 821
Call to book a free same-day appointment with Student Health Mental Health and Well-Being Services.
Alcohol and Drug Helpline – 0800 787 797
Lifeline Aotearoa – 0800 543 354 or text 4357
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
National Sexual Harm Helpline – 0800 044 334 or text 4334
Mental Health Crisis Services – 0800 467 846 and press 2 for Otago (emergencies only)
In a life-threatening situation, call 111.