Straight Talk Advice

Sep 28, 2011

Want to be an alcoholic? Start drinking young

DEAR STRAIGHT TALK: I still have the photo. I’m at my best friend’s house and her mom and stepdad are serving us whiskey and Coke. I am 15. It was my first alcohol. From that point on, drinking, driving, partying, that’s what weekends were for. Typical high school stuff? Not really. My parents didn’t drink at all.

Fast forward 30 years. Sick of throwing up, hiding bottles, waking up not knowing where I am, I check into treatment. Alcoholism is sneaky when you can get A’s, hold down a career, and stop for periods of time. I am writing to tell you: Drinking too young is the surest way to become an alcoholic — and it doesn’t always happen right away. — Barbara S., Reno, Nevada

DEAR BARBARA: Congratulations on your recovery. You are correct on both counts. For those who start drinking before age 21, almost one in ten become alcoholics. For those who start after 21, only three percent do. The younger you are when you start, the more your chances rise. It is a myth that in Europe, where drinking ages are younger and serving alcohol to minors isn’t taboo, that there is less alcohol abuse. Europe has the highest worldwide rates of alcoholism and binge drinking — both significantly higher than America.

The other way you are correct is that alcoholism often follows a responsible period long after the initial onset of drinking. Below are snapshots of underage drinking. To all who drank heavily at first and now seem to have it under control, please beware as you get older.

Brie 20, Santa Barbara, Calif. Ask me a question

I was 15 when I started drinking. I got the alcohol from friends. My weekends pretty much became drinking parties for a while after that. Now I work two jobs and go to college full time so my blackout days are over. I don’t have time to deal with hangovers and I worry because alcoholism runs in my family.

Jennifer 17, Sacramento, Calif. Ask me a question

A friend always talked about her parents sharing booze with her, but I couldn’t quite imagine it. Then I was somewhere else and the mom was making margaritas. She pressed me relentlessly to have one and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I finally accepted and ditched it secretly. It was so awkward! The kids in these households glorify their parents, but I have no respect for them.

Gregg 20, Los Angeles Ask me a question

My first drunk was from alcohol stolen from my dad. I was 15. As I got older, adults often offered me beer or wine at BBQs and parties. Ironically, I’ve had less success “Hey Mistering” than being offered booze by other parents.

Molly 19, Berkeley, Calif. Ask me a question

I was allowed the occasional drink at holidays and such, so alcohol wasn’t a real big deal as I got older. Most of my heavy drinking was in high school but I never did anything terribly out-of-character and even when blackout drunk, I was responsible. While I still drink occasionally, it’s not worth feeling sick the next day anymore.

Peter 24, Monterey, Calif. Ask me a question

I got drunk the first time when I was 18, partied heartily for a few months, and now I’m as responsible as they come without actually giving up booze. I’ll have a glass of wine or a beer MAYBE twice a week. My career requires me to set an example.

Justin 24, Redding, Calif. Ask me a question

I was 18 the first time I got drunk. I partied some senior year, but compared to most kids, I had little under-age experience with alcohol. My biological father is an alcoholic, so my mom was strict about never letting me drink with them, even at gatherings where other kids were allowed. Lots of serious substance abuse is shrugged off as “partying.” It’s not normal to get blackout-drunk EVER.

Editor’s Note: It’s very important for parents, relatives, and other adults to not let young people drink until they are 21. People reporting first-use of alcohol under age 15 are five times more likely to become alcoholics than are those whose first use is at age 21. Even first-use between age 18-20, while better, still ups the odds considerably for being alcoholic later. There is scientific evidence that the younger you are, the more alcohol triggers the genes that encourage alcohol dependency — even without alcoholic relatives.

The European model of serving kids alcohol in the home as a way of “normalizing the experience” has been whoppingly wrong-minded. We now have hard statistics from the European Union showing that they have the highest rates of binge drinking and alcoholism in the world. Our rates are much lower on both counts. Don’t believe me? Google it.

Alcohol is the most commonly used drug by young people in the United States — more than tobacco, pot, or other regulated drugs. Young people age 12-20 drink 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in this country and over 90 percent of that is “binged.” (A binge is five+ drinks per male, or four+ drinks per female, per occasion, a “drink” being one beer, one glass of wine, or one shot of hard liquor.)

In the United States, about 50 percent of first-use alcohol is offered freely to minors from parents, relatives, and other over-21-year-old adults. In other words, alcoholism could be substantially reduced if we “grown ups” simply stopped giving alcohol to minors.

Readers: How did you start drinking? I invite you to share your experiences on our website comment section. —Lauren

  1. By Maggie, age , from Vacaville, CA on 09/30/2011

    My dad’s an alcoholic which resulted in the breakup of my parents’ marriage.  From what my aunt has told me, their parents were alcoholics who allowed him to start drinking at home as a teenager, but she was able to resist it.  Having him leave was good riddance as far as I’m concerned because his drinking made things hell for us.  However, he then married another alcoholic and I have to go there for visitations.  My mom’s lawyer said that being an alcoholic isn’t enough to deny him visitation unless they actually abuse me and I can’t say that, but I still hate going there.  I have a 17 year old stepsister and 16 year old stepbrother and they’re allowed to drink in the home and I can see that they’re on the way to becomming alcoholics if they aren’t already.  To make matters worse, I have to share a room with them when I’m there.  Yes, with both my stepbrother and stepsister.  It’s bad enough to have to share a room with someone the opposite sex, but when they’re often drunk it’s hell to be around and they often keep me awake most of the night and think it’s funny.  I don’t worry about it when it’s just my stepsister, but when my stepbrother’s there I change in the bathroom.  However, when he’s been drinking he thinks nothing of stripping all the way right in front of me and my stepsister.  My stepsister doesn’t care and also undresses in front of him, but it bothers me very, very, much even though I do my best not to look.  From my experience allowing teenagers to drink is a very bad thing, but when the parents are alcoholics themselves, they don’t see it that way.

    Maggie

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  2. By L.C., age , from Lincoln, CA on 10/01/2011

    I’m worried that my younger sister has a drinking problem that could be putting her on this road.  She has a 19 year old boyfriend who takes her to parties where there’s lots of drinking and she sometimes comes home in very bad shape.  Our parents let her stay out late and trust her to be responsible and are not awake when she comes home.  However, we share a room, so I cannot help but wake up when she comes staggering in.  Sometimes she’s been in such bad shape that I have to help her into the bathroom and on and off the toilet, take her back to our room, undress her and put her to bed.  We’ve grown up sharing a room and the bathroom, so the toilet thing and undressing her is not that big a deal, it just concerns me when she’s in such bad shape that I have to do these things for her.  She doesn’t drive on these occassions, her boyfriend does, but I have no confidence that he’s in any shape to drive and that also really worries me.  So far I haven’t told our parents as I don’t believe in telling on her, but it’s getting to the point that I think that maybe I should.

    L.C.

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  3. By Barbara S., age , from Reno, NV on 10/04/2011

    Molly, no one is responsible in a blackout. That is exactly what it states, wiped off the slate, no memory, no conscience. Blackout is one of the scariest things that alcohol does to a person. My first blackout was at the age of 15. I have seen many more over the years. I am just 3 months clean and sober.  That first blackout will take you down roads you do not want to travel.

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