Teens and young adults are more likely to drink without regard for the consequences, making “self-medication” with drugs and alcohol even more dangerous.
It was the summer of 1957 when I pulled out the bottle of vodka that I had purloined from the place my alcoholic father had hidden it. He was a binger and when he drank he was a nightmare. So when he sobered up we all came down on him like a ton of bricks about his drinking. He would come off his three weekers ashamed and contrite, vowing to never drink again. Then I would find stashes of liquor hidden in the garage for the time when he knew he was going to drink again—and he always did. It was much later that lung cancer claimed him, after 70 years of smoking. He was 83 when he died.
One summer night my friend invited me to the drive-in movies with his 17 year old brother. They were all the rage at the time and it was a hot night in the valley, so the time was right. I pulled out my fifth of vodka and with the addition of some orange juice we made short work of it. About a half hour later the booze hit me like a freight train and I spent the rest of the night heaving until there was nothing left to heave and was still at it the whole night. It was years before I tried alcohol again. As a teenager I didn’t realize or really care about what it was going to do to me. I just wanted to drink it all down. My anger, angst and naiveté got the better of me that night. I could have died from alcohol poisoning but this was my intro to adolescence and I leaped into it with abandon. Not until years later and more than a few therapy sessions did I begin to put together this tapestry of my rebellion and pain.
The National Vital Statistics Report indicates that U.S. alcohol-induced deaths totaled 22,073 in 2006. These statistics, compiled by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, include deaths caused by alcohol poisoning, which are not broken out as a separate category. Alcohol-induced deaths included accidental alcohol poisoning, intentional alcohol poisoning and alcohol poisoning for which no intent could be ascertained. Each year around 50,000 cases of alcohol poisoning are reported, and once a week a person dies because of it. According to alcohol-information.com, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) found that teenagers who drink before they turned 15 were more likely by four times to develop an alcohol dependency than those who started drinking at age 21. It was determined that the earlier a person drinks, the more unintentionally irresponsible they may be with the alcohol.
To define this period of time, I turned to renowned specialist Dr. William Peltz, who writes:
“In the normal adolescent, one sees these deviations: Restlessness, confusion, and impatience. They show a lack of stability with fluctuating enthusiasms and intense infatuations. Laziness, forgetfulness, and inconsistency fit within the framework of adolescence. There is aggressive self-assertion with desire for independence on the one hand and ever-present dependency on the other. They desire privileges but so frequently appear to lack a sense of obligation and responsibility. There are high ideals one moment and outrageous behavior in the next. They frequently have feelings of isolation and of not being understood. They have truly colorful daydreams and fantasies, all of which belong to this developmental period.”
This definition about sums up what it means to be a teenager.
Adolescents operate from a different part of their brains than fully formed adults. The human brain does not fully mature until the age of 24. During adolescence, there is an enormous pruning back of the millions of dendrites: that whips up the brain and reorganizes brain functions. The brain also initiates sexual maturity in the body, creating a maelstrom of fluctuating hormonal levels. Enormous numbers of neuronal connections in the grey matter and corpus collosum are shut down in kids ages 7 to 17. The grey matter that’s being re-wired is the cerebral cortex, the site of cognitive and motor functions. The corpus collosum is like a thoroughfare that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain. This pruning that begins at the back of the brain, and then moves forward during adolescence and controls the prefrontal cortex, responsible for judgment and impulse control but matures last.
It is suspected that the excess of synapses means the young adolescent mind can’t easily keep track of multiple thoughts, and it can’t gain access to critical memories and emotions that allow grown-ups to make sensible decisions. However, even without adult judgment, the dendritic pruning taking place throughout adolescence results in a brain (and body) that has faster reaction times, better memory, and increased speed in learning, as compared to adults. In other words, when teens think they’re smarter than their parents, it’s because they actually are, at least in some ways. They also feel immortal, like nothing can hurt them, which causes them to be heedless. It’s no wonder that the military stocks the front lines with teens: they are not afraid of death. At the same time, teens stop identifying with their parents and shift to peers and media for role models. This heady mix of hormones and wildly careening emotions sends some teens into a tail spin of wildly out of control behavior.
Here is where alcohol poisoning and excessive drinking, smoking and drugs can come in. Because teens are so unafraid of their own mortality, they take risks that adults would not act on. Drinking binges in high school and college are not uncommon, especially with children who were heavily controlled, or emotionally wounded young people who are in pain. Family risk factors for teenagers developing drinking problems stem from lack of parental supervision or communication, family conflicts, inconsistent or severe parental discipline, and a family history of alcohol or drug abuse.
The risk factors may include difficulties regulating impulses, emotional instability, thrill-seeking behaviors, and thinking that the risk of using alcohol is low. Teens who begin drinking prior to 14 years of age and those whose mothers and fathers have emotional problems, are more likely to develop alcoholism. Teen risk factors for alcoholism differ a bit between the 14- to 16-year-old and 16- to 18-year-old age groups, in that 16- to 18-year-olds tend to be less likely to drink in excess when they have a close relationship with their parents.
In the years since my foray into drinking at age 14, I’ve come to realize that much of it had to do with my state of mind and my emotional well being. I think that my alcohol and later drug use were essentially pain medications. I got drunk to drown the negative voices, to steady our out of control feelings and to numb our internal pain. Otherwise a glass of wine with dinner would suffice. Many years later, I can see where it all came from and think more wisely about my health and my life to come. Teens have no such perspective; they can only react to the way they feel, and with their limited knowledge of themselves and the world, all they really know to do is to head out on the emotional highway and look for adventure in whatever comes their way.
Image credit: Mike “Dakinewavamon” Kline/Flickr