Beyond Experimentation: Teens and Alcoholism

Teen alcohol abuse is a very real problem.
Teen alcohol abuse is a very real problem.
George Doyle/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

Teen alcohol abuse is a tough challenge for many teens and parents to face. Whether you link alcohol abuse and teens together or not, teen alcohol abuse is a very real problem. In this article, we talk to teens who have had trouble with teen alcohol abuse in the past and hope to offer you some insight on the relationship between alcohol abuse and teens.

At age 16, Caitie C. was pulled over by the Laguna Beach Police and spent a night in jail as a result of her first DWI (driving while intoxicated). "I pulled into a little market to use the pay phone, and there were cops sitting in the parking lot as I drove my car into a pole," she said. "They did a Breathalyzer and took me in, handcuffed."

Two years earlier, while living in Westchester, N.Y., Caitie began using alcohol. Having little interest in school and a "wandering mind," she soon found herself hanging out with older kids, drinking heavily at parties, and trying other substances, such as marijuana.

When she was 16, her family moved to Southern California. "I was able to buy booze in California with my fake New York license," she said. "I was able to hide my substance abuse from my parents." Due to her professed lack of interest in school, she was able to start an independent study program, allowing her to do most of her schoolwork from home.

With lots of time on her hands, Caitie was able to party and drink more. She lied to her parents, while struggling to extract money from them to support her habit. Caitie was one of approximately 2-3 million students who abuse substances. Currently, it is estimated by the American Psychological Association that only about 8 percent of these students receive any kind of treatment for their substance abuse problems.

With her family's consent and support, Caitie managed to spend 28 days in rehab at the Hazelden Center for Youth and Families (HCYF) in Minneapolis, Minn. Now 24, Caitie has been sober for over seven years.

Preteen Drinking and Drug Use

At the age of 12, Alexis Chavez loved nothing more than to drink whiskey and soda. Traveling from place to place with her family, Alexis had trouble making lasting friendships. Soon, her drinking gave way to marijuana and methamphetamines. "I drank with other people but once I got onto the drugs, I was always on something," she said. "I didn't care if anyone was around, I was always using."

According to the National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine, underage drinking and drug use cost the U.S. in excess of $62 billion annually. Auto accidents account for $13.7 billion, and violence, including rapes and assaults, costsing $34.7 billion, according to the International Institute for Alcohol Awareness (IIAA).

Attending high school in Tokyo, after having lived in Washington, California, Virginia, and Massachusetts, Alexis stepped up her intake of alcohol and meth. According to Alexis, it was easier to drink in Japan, and the police were never much of a concern.

One night, Alexis returned home intoxicated and dismissed the babysitter who was watching her 11-year-old sister and 6-year-old brother. She thought that she could handle watching her siblings for a couple of hours until her parents returned. Soon, however, she was sick on the floor of the bathroom. Lying naked and moaning that she was going to die, Alexis frightened her sister, before slamming the door shut. She climbed into the bathtub, where she sat vomiting and unable to move.

"I wanted to commit suicide, but I was too chicken to act on it," she recalls.

Intervening

The Turning Point

Alexis was, at this point, one of many students whose drinking is tolerated, or at the least, overlooked by their parents. The turning point was when her father noticed sores on her legs, mistakenly identified by a Tokyo physician, unfamiliar with telltale signs of drug use, as gangrene. Through research, her parents discovered that the scars were associated with meth users, who tend to scratch at themselves while high. "Meth users hallucinate, and [when I did] I would scratch a lot," Alexis said. On a separate occasion, Alexis's father found her in the bathroom, scratching her face bloody.

Soon after, Alexis's parents constructed a ruse to get her compliance for rehab. Utilizing the help of a family friend, who specialized in interventions, they arranged to have Alexis tested for tuberculosis (TB), and informed her that she had tested positive and needed to return to the states for treatment. This overwhelmed Alexis, and she did not think to ask many questions before the flight back.

"I got on the plane thinking I was dying of TB and they told me about two minutes from the door what was really going on," she said.

Alexis recalls that, a couple of weeks before being forced into rehab, she still could not mentally associate her severe depression with her substance abuse.

What Causes Underage Drinking?

While elaborate scenarios like the one Alexis's parents used are not commonplace, it is often harder to convince a young substance abuser to seek treatment.

"Underage drinking often starts with alienation at home," according to Wayne Rothwell, who has spent over 30 years as a youth alcoholism counselor, currently working at South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, N.Y. He says a sense of isolation sets in and a breakdown of communication develops between the parent and the child.

"Many young people are influenced by their environment. Adolescents who live in a family of drinkers are more likely to drink at an early age," Rothwell said. "Not everybody can win the science fair, or become an athlete, but anyone can become a drug dealer, or the person who is drunk every Friday night, causing some sort of an incident. For most adolescent addicts, this is a period of unhappiness and despair."

He added, "Drugs and alcohol are easily available and a way for them to escape from uncomfortable feelings."

In cases like Caitie's and Alexis's, a sense of displacement, which came from moving around, and the rapid adjustment to having new liberties, also factored into their development of substance addictions. Adolescents who move around often can come to feel that "the world is not a friendly place," according to Rothwell.

Additionally, the long hours that these children's parents are away from home can contribute to a sense of lawlessness.

"What is needed is for these kids to have a very clear, very sane message, from the adults in their lives," says Rothwell.

After spending seven years in AA recovery, Caitie was able to restore broken relationships with both her family and her friends.

"I was lying and hiding so much before," she said. "After getting sober, I was able to repair my relationships and restore trust with my entire family. Now, being sober, I'm able to be present for life-that's a huge thing."

Additional reporting by James Embry