Home » Doing Drugs with Paul Dillon » How do you sober up a drunk person? Talk to your teen about ‘sobering-up’ mythology

How do you sober up a drunk person? Talk to your teen about ‘sobering-up’ mythology

The mythology that exists around ‘sobering-up’ techniques is quite amazing. I’ve collected countless stories about young people finding themselves or their friends in trouble after trying to speed up the sobering-up process. Generation after generation has tried to find a way of recovering from the negative effects of alcohol as quickly as possible but put simply there’s only one thing that will help you sober up and that’s time.

Many of the methods utilized by teenagers were previously used by their parents (and possibly even their parents’ parents). For a very long time the two most popular ‘sobering-up’ methods were undoubtedly ‘drinking a strong cup of coffee’ and ‘putting someone under a cold shower’. Fuelled by popular culture these strategies have been reinforced over and over again. How many times have you seen someone in a movie or TV show being given a black coffee to sober them up after a big night out? Neither of them are effective and one of them has proven to be extremely dangerous on occasions.

If you take a moment to think about taking a drunk person (who is likely to have little co-ordination and be unable to stand properly) into a bathroom (one of the most dangerous rooms in the house – hard floors, sharp edges and a sheet of glass), the potential dangers become all too clear. I have been telling the following story for almost 18 years as part of my Year 10 presentation … it still gets exactly the same response today as it did the first time I shared it with students:

Hillary was a Year 11 girl who approached me after my talk. She’d gone to a party with a group of her friends and all was going well until they decided to play shot games. After sculling a large number of drinks the world began to spin and she remembers little else about the evening. According to the other partygoers, Hillary started to lose consciousness and although her friends were drunk as well, they swung into action and decided that the best way to fix the problem was to put her under a cold shower to sober her up a little.
They took the unconscious girl into the bathroom and stripped her down to her bra and pants and turned the shower on. The shower was built into a bath and so they had to lift Hillary into the bath to get her under the water. Not only heavy and extremely difficult to hold onto, the girls also had the added disadvantage of being quite drunk themselves and it wasn’t long until they lost their grip of their friend. Hillary fell backwards, straight through the glass shower screen. The glass shattered, shredding her back and arms. When she came to the next morning she was in an emergency room of a hospital. 
That day she wanted to show me some of the scars across the top of her back and her arms that I guarantee she still has today, all these years later. Even so, she said that she felt no anger towards her friends, admitting that she would have done the same thing to them if she had been in the same situation.

I often wonder where that young woman is today – she’d be about 34 or 35 years of age now and is likely to have children of her own. Putting someone into a shower to sober them up is something that many of us have seen time and time again in movies and TV shows, with it often being used as a ‘punchline’ after someone has drunk too much. Laughs are maximized because they’re usually still wearing clothes from the night before and they come around, coughing and spluttering as the cold water hits their face … It’s true that the cold water may wake a drunk person up if they’re asleep (usually for a brief time at best) but it certainly won’t sober them. As I say to young people, when you put a drunk person under a cold shower all you get is a cold, wet, drunk person!

Drinking a strong cup of coffee to battle alcohol’s effects is another popular ‘old wives’ tale’. The theory behind it is that strong coffee will contain a high dose of caffeine and that drug’s stimulant properties will counteract the alcohol’s depressant effect. To a point this may have some limited impact, particularly if you haven’t drunk that much, but in reality all that will happen is that for a short time you will be a more wide awake and alert drunk. You will not sober up!

Another classic is the practice of forcing someone to drink water to help them sober up. Now, you may think that this sounds fairly sensible, particularly around ensuring that the drinker is well hydrated, and I would agree with you if that is what these young people were doing. Unfortunately, it is not. Many young people I speak are ‘force-feeding’ their drunk friends water, some of them pouring huge amounts of water down their throats. When asked why they are doing this, teenagers give two reasons, one of which is based in fact and the other, totally ludicrous.

The first is hydration and this makes sense if it is done correctly, i.e., having a glass of water before your first drink of alcohol and then using it regularly during the night can prevent dehydration and reduce the risk of a hangover. This does not work as effectively, however, when all of the water is used at the end of a big drinking session and you are feeling unwell. It cannot sober a person up and, in fact, can be potentially life-threatening. The other reason young people give is that they believe that drinking water ‘dilutes the alcohol’. Now, I’m not too sure where these guys think alcohol goes when we drink it, but we’ve got to start telling our children that our bodies are not cordial bottles! It’s not like the alcohol is sitting at the bottom of our stomachs and then we pour water over the top at the end of the night. When someone is drunk one part of the body has been well and truly affected – the brain. No amount of water you drink at the end of the night is going to reduce the effect that the alcohol you drank earlier has had on your brain, no matter how hard you try.

Once again, I need to reiterate that a small amount of water is not going to be problematic but the reports from young people about the amount of water they are giving to their friends is deeply disturbing. It would appear that when they don’t get the effect they expect from a small amount they begin to panic. The principle of ‘if a little bit doesn’t work, a lot might’ comes into play. The reason we should worry about this is a condition known as ‘water intoxication’. This is also known as ‘water poisoning’ or ‘internal drowning’ and can be fatal. It is caused by the normal balance of electrolytes in the body being pushed outside safe limits by too much water. Most water intoxication-related deaths have resulted either from water drinking contests, in which individuals attempt to drink huge amounts in a very short time, after taking ecstasy, or long bouts of hard exercise. Tragically, it would seem that some young people could be putting their friends at risk of this condition due to the large amounts of water they are using to try and sober them up.

One other particularly concerning belief is that feeding bread to drunk people (in the hope of ‘soaking up the alcohol’) will sober them up. This is an incredibly dangerous thing to do … Bread is a difficult food to eat when you’re sober, with bits getting stuck between your mouth and gums, no matter how well you chew and swallow. It can be almost impossible when you’re drunk! Over the years I have been involved with three deaths of young men (all Year 10s) who all choked to death as a result of being force-fed bread. The scariest thing here is that I have actually been told by a number of young people that they have attended parties where parents have left bread out for partygoers just in case … unbelievable!!

Other methods that young people have suggested to me include exercise (a real favourite among young men who pick up their drunk friends and jog them around the block!); fresh air and taking deep breaths; vomiting; chewing on mints (with one particular brand being favoured); drinking energy drinks (along the same lines as a black coffee); smoking a cigarette; taking a multi-vitamin (a popular route for older drinkers); having your feet massaged (I just think this one was wishful thinking!); and, along with bread, eating a range of different foods, such as particular fast-food brands, fatty foods (e.g., fried eggs), crackers and my all-time favourite – asparagus!

You may wonder where these ideas come from but with just a little thought you can see that teenagers didn’t just make these up, most (but certainly not all) developed from a seed of truth, i.e., making them drink water comes from messages around keeping well hydrated when you are drinking alcohol; forcing friends to eat bread (or any other food) comes from the recommendation to ‘eat before you drink’. Unfortunately, the messages became twisted while they were searching for ways to look after each other and no-one provided them with useful and accurate strategies.

The most amazing thing, however, is that, over the years, there have been so many people who have put friends (or acquaintances) under a shower when they were drunk, forced them to drink water or fed them bread and nothing went wrong – they survived! They didn’t necessarily experience negative results because of what their friends did to them (and it didn’t sober them up) but nothing bad happened. As a result, these potentially dangerous myths persist and get passed down from person to person. The trouble is, if things do go wrong, they are likely to go terribly wrong!

It is imperative that you talk to your child, whether they drink or not, about alcohol and its effects. It is also important that you make them aware that there are no ways of helping someone sober up apart from time, and that many of the old wives tales that exist are potentially dangerous.

Published: October 2018

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