Yesterday, I read a post by a prolific blogger/writer that got me thinking about how and why young people begin to drink alcohol to excess. He became an alcoholic right after high school. His story, How the Bottle Drank Me, can be found here–maybe, and if you are a WordPress user (his blogs can be found at aopinionatedman.com, if the link does not work for you. He is not the first young person to have fallen into the sensory deprivation vat; neither is he the youngest to become an alcoholic. His reasons for drinking may be valid or not, depending on how one thinks. That he even had a reason–or discovered it at a later time–says a lot about how we justify what we do with our lives as we become older. Few youth who become alcoholics tell you the why of their alcoholism; most can tell you the how. It takes a lot of introspection to get to a why; not so much to explain the how.
The point is, I have never fully understood alcoholism. My father was a “weekend alcoholic.” At least, he was so as far as we knew. How he was able to control his drinking during the week while drinking himself into stupor on weekends still amazes me. I wonder if he drank during the week, but with a good deal of control. I’ll never know, as he died more than 20 years ago of an unrelated illness. Both my children ended up as very heavy drinkers for a while; each now is able to drink in moderation, so I guess alcoholism is not the worry for them that it was for me when I was in college and afterwards. Many kids drink before they are of age, and a sizable proportion of them become alcoholics at an early age–both in greater proportions than we would like to admit, and at very tender ages (as young as middle school). For me, I just stayed away from binge drinking or from situations where drinking alcoholic beverages was the only common denominator of a gathering. Because of my father, I was truly afraid that I would become dependent on alcohol; and that was definitely something I did not want to be.
From articles I’ve read on youth drinking, most young alcoholics do not have much more “reason” for drinking than that it is a social activity of their peer group. Just as with any addiction, some kids get addicted to alcohol much sooner and with much less exposure than others. For these kids, the ability to control or even quit their drinking becomes almost insurmountable. Vigilant educators–whether those teaching K-12 or in higher education–might spot the problem of a bright child or young adult who is suddenly adrift. But with classrooms at all levels out of proportion to good grounded education, it is almost impossible for an educator to get to know a student well enough–or get physically close enough to a student–to begin to suspect alcohol usage.
Although I do not understand alcoholism, I do understand dependency. I am addicted to nicotine and have tried unsuccessfully to quit. Yet, it is impossible for me to get addicted to drugs–especially prescription drugs (which I forget to take)–yet nicotine was almost immediately addictive to me, just as alcohol or other drugs are very quickly addictive to many youth and adults. Why only nicotine is a question that seems unanswerable. Yet, physicians are reluctant to write a prescription for Xanax because of my addiction to nicotine. “You must have an addiction disorder,” they say, “or you wouldn’t be so addicted to nicotine.” But that is not at all the case. If it were, I would be an alcoholic and an abuser of tranquilizers.
The real problem with youth drinking is that too many people think a young person’s drinking is just a phase that everyone goes through. Most of these people went through such a stage during their youth and have not become alcoholics. Alcoholism, in their minds, is something that older people become. There appears to be a belief that it takes years of heavy drinking to become an alcoholic. Yet that is not true–any dependency can sneak up on a youth as quickly and easily as an activity that is tried a few times that becomes a driving force in one’s life. My own nicotine experience did not start until I was almost 20. I had my first cigarette at 18, but didn’t really like it, and only smoked on occasion with friends at parties. When I was 20, I was cramming for a final exam. No amount of coffee was keeping me awake. My college roommate–who did not smoke–went down to the vending machine of our dorm, purchased a pack of cigarettes, and placed it on my desk; then got into bed and fell asleep. I smoked that pack, and it actually did keep me awake enough to pass my final exam. And that was it. All of a sudden, it was difficult to function–especially to study–without a cigarette. I became addicted to nicotine very quickly, as college is all about exams and papers and studying.
Young people who become dependent on alcohol may have gone through similar experiences–drinking under a particular situation, with the situation recurring time and again in quick succession. During my youth, smoking was socially acceptable. Today, drinking is socially acceptable. In both cases, it is or was acceptable within certain social limitations. But a youth who drinks to calm her nerves before school because she has seen adults use alcohol for the same reason may suddenly find that she can no longer function at all without that shot of alcohol to get her through the day.
Again, the whys are missing. Clearly, far too many youth have a problem with drinking. The blogger I follow feels he has a why. I feel I have one for my nicotine dependency. But perhaps the whys we have assigned are not really the causal factors. Even Alcoholics Anonymous, Alateen, and Al-anon do not seek out the whys. Perhaps the whys are simply unhelpful in losing the dependency. Perhaps it is only the practical, behavioral applications that can be used to cure dependency. I do not have the answer. However, if you know a youth who has a dependency–especially an alcohol dependency–help them find a counselor who can help them recover before they lose their future.