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Beyond Experimentation: Teens and Alcoholism


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