This post was originally published on May 25, 2015.
Alcohol was on my mind before I ever took my first drink. I was raised Irish Catholic so at age 12, I took the sacrament of confirmation. Standing up in church and making a promise that you won’t drink until you are 18 (the legal age to consume alcohol in Ireland) is part of that ceremony. But as I stood beside the rest of my class, I already knew that I wasn’t going to make any such promise. It seemed ridiculous to me that you would be asked to make a decision at such a young age and besides, I wasn’t going to miss out on what I believed all teenagers did. So before I ever put alcohol to my lips, it was already starting to control my life. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, my thinking and behavior patterns were already that of an alcoholic.
I took my first drink the next year, at the age of 13, and got drunk for the first time on the same day. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me at the time; I mean, I knew it was wrong and that if I were caught there would be major shit but it was a pretty normal pastime for some of my other family members.
I still remember everything about it vividly. Standing in the late evening sunshine in the middle of a local park with my cousin, I drank down my first mouthful of this sweet fizzy wine called Ritz that came in a can. It had an instant positive reaction on me—in fact, it was as if the Lord himself had come down and magically removed all the self-hatred, awkwardness and discomfort that I’d been swimming in since I was born. From that moment on, I believed that alcohol was magic lifesaving nectar that I could not live without.
And so began my love affair and subsequent addiction to the chemical compound CnH2n+1OH—or, in simpler terms, ethanol alcohol. At 15, I was admitted to the hospital for the first time for alcohol use after having been carried out of an alcohol-free teenage disco and put in an ambulance after drinking four liters of cider. There were more trips to the emergency room for me throughout my life and yet no number of hospital stays or sickness deterred me from drinking. The thought of alcohol being removed from my life was preposterous.
Of course, I wasn’t the first and won’t be the last teenager to be fascinated with the prospect of getting drunk. To bring attention to the fact that underage drinking rises in the summer (with July 4th being the leading U.S. holiday for excessive drinking), Caron recently conducted a survey which showed that 78% of adults tried alcohol for the first time when they were underage; of those, 36% had their first experience with alcohol before the age of 16.
Not every teen that drinks will become alcoholic or will even continue to drink but trying to convince an adolescent that what they’re doing could be dangerous—explaining that their brains aren’t fully formed so they’re doing literal brain damage—is pointless. I took every warning I heard at that age as information being exaggerated by adults who were trying to control teenagers and stop us from having fun. I had examples of adults all around me who had been drinking for years and were still hanging in there with no seeming ill effects and having a damn good time swigging out of a bottle. I had no way of knowing then that my first sip of alcohol would lead me into full-blown addiction or that I would continue to drink whenever and wherever I could regardless of the consequences for a further 22 years.
So how can we prevent our teens from ever picking up that first drink? I’m not so sure we can but I do believe there are ways of warning them about what can happen. A Caron alumni quoted about the study said that “It’s really important for teens and young adults to have sober role models to emulate and understand that there’s a community of young people who live amazing lives without alcohol or drugs.” I’d like to add that I think being as open and honest about alcoholism as possible can help. I’m honest with my own children as much as I can be because I believe that creating a taboo about my disease by keeping it a secret and giving off the idea that it’s something to be ashamed of would only add to the fuel to an already negatively stigmatized fire. My children are fully aware of my issues with alcohol. After all, they were present for a lot of it. Their views on alcohol are very different than mine were when I was a kid; thankfully, they don’t see drinking as cool or something they want to do, though of course this may change as they reach their teenage years. The best I can hope for is that they’ll—at least at times—be as honest with me about it as I’ve been with them.