The Wasted Days of Youth

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TIME talked to five young adults about teen drinking. Their names have been changed to protect their identities

Jenn, 23, San Francisco
Social worker; plans to go to law school next year
Sobriety date: April 24, 1994

"Around 10 or 11, I would come home from school, and in the couple of hours before my Mom came home drink gin and cranberry juice. I managed to stay holed up in my room so that she didn't notice. At 13 I discovered social drinking, and found a whole new world. I didn't feel too fat, I didn't feel my hair wasn't right. My goal was always to be the most drunk person at the party.

By 14 I was running away from home. I would stay in downtown Portland with all the street kids, we'd go to clubs, sometimes somebody had an apartment we could stay in, sometimes we'd sleep in parks, sometimes we wouldn't sleep at all. The summer before I turned 15 I left home for good and was on the streets for most of the summer. I would panhandle, sit somewhere downtown and ask people for money. My priority was alcohol first, cigarettes and food second. Pretty much from the time I got up to the time I went to sleep I was drunk, I was loaded in some way.

My Mom was really scared. She didn't know what was going on. She didn't think I was drinking. On my 15th birthday I was picked up by the cops on runaway charges and was sent to live with my Dad. I was pretty much loaded the entire time I lived there, and I realized later that my dad thought that me loaded was me sober. He didn't know me any different. Eventually I ended up in treatment, and was sober for almost a year. Then I took one sip of beer and my life fell apart instantly. Within 24 hours of that first drink I was in tears because I had to wait three more hours to have another drink. Any question I had about being an alcoholic went out the window. And I knew a better way of life. I knew what AA offered."

Alex, 20, New York City
Freelance graphic designer
Sobriety date: March 23, 1998

"When I was 12 my boss, he was 25, asked if I wanted to go drink with him. If he'd asked me to kill the mayor I would have said okay, because he was like a God to me. I went to see my friends afterward, and I was tall enough, I was good looking enough, I was smart enough, they were laughing with me, or at least I thought so, and all the attention was on me. All my insecurities vanished.

By the time I was 15 I always kept liquor in the sock drawer and I was drinking alone. I didn't want to have to share, I didn't want to have to deal with other people. By the end of that year, I was drinking hard alcohol five or six days a week. I started to steal to pay for it, money, things to pawn. I never stole from my family. By the time I was 17, I dropped out of school, I had my own apartment. I'd wake up around noon, and drink bourbon and coffee, in that order. Then I'd go to work bussing tables, finish at midnight, and go to a bar. Closing time was 2:30 a.m., so I'd go home to drink. If I didn't have anything at home, I 'd stay at a coffee shop until it was time to catch a bus to the airport. The bars there opened at 7a.m.

I didn't really have any friends, and my mother's ability to deny was pretty strong. Then I got in a lot of trouble with the law for stealing, and was offered the option of treatment. It sounded a lot better than five to 10 years in the penitentiary. One night I went to an Oscars party and I knew that if I got caught drinking, I could go to jail. Knowing that full well I walked into the party — my friend offered me a Martini, I said, 'Yeah,' and I got loaded. That night, having learned a little bit about alcoholism at treatment, I started to see the patterns inside myself. That was the last night I drank."

Kate, 21, moved to New York City four months ago
Sales executive, planning on career in social work
Sobriety date January 20, 1999.

"The first night I drank my friends had to carry me back to our sleepover. I ended up wetting the bed. I drank again the next weekend and blacked out for the first time. In senior year I started drinking three times a week. A friend's brother got us alcohol. Friend's parents had alcohol we snuck. And I was sold alcohol a few times, even when I was 13. Sexual things happened that I wouldn't have done in my right mind; I was with friend's boyfriends; I told people I didn't like them. I started lying more.

By end of senior year I was drinking every day. High school was nothing compared to what I did in college. I just stopped caring. I would wake up at 3 in the afternoon, I would have missed all my classes, I'd be in this dark dorm room I didn't want to leave, because I was scared to hear what I'd done the night before. I didn't answer the phone. But I wrote in my journal that I was the happiest that I'd ever been, because I was partying. I was put on academic probation.

Eventually I called my sister and I said I think I have a problem. I went into treatment, I was 19 years old, and I remember crying to the counselor saying, You're telling me I'm never going to drink again? How? I'm going to get married one day, graduate from college, there's New Year's Eve, St Patrick's Day, friends' birthdays.' My counselor looked at me and said, 'You can drink any time you want. Just not today.' It's that whole day at a time thing. I had to go back to college to get my stuff. I relapsed in 24 hours. I went home, started going to AA meetings. And continued to get drunk. Then I got a service position [at AA] and all I could think about was how I had this service position, I can't mess up."

Tony, 24, Pacific North West
Graduate computer science student
Sobriety date: January 2, 1994

"I started drinking at the age of six. My family, we were on a road trip to visit relatives back east, and I just started to steal drinks from my relatives. I really can't tell you much more about my youth than that first day drinking. It was the middle of summer, it was June, it was a bright day, I can almost describe every detail. But I can't tell you anything from grade school. I drank pretty much any time that I could. I would steal wine from my parents and by the time I was 10 or 11 I was drinking weekly, every other week, daily if I could. My parents quit buying wine, but I had older sisters who visited from college and they would always bring me whatever they had left over. In high school, we either stole alcohol from the liquor store or we found people to buy it for us. Every alcoholic is resourceful.

I would end up at parties, tell my friends I loved them, and then minutes later start a fight. I was failing out of school, drinking every day, ditching classes. I stole a lot from my parents, I couldn't hold down jobs. I was big into either cutting myself or drinking a lot with aspirin, or taking a lot of poisons. I managed to hide those suicide attempts from my parents. When I'd wake up in the morning, I couldn't look at myself in the mirror.

When my parents took me to the treatment center, everything broke down. I was bawling. I started out in an [AA] meeting where the average age was in the 40s. I didn't want to relate to these people talking about losing their families, their jobs, their houses. I was 17. But when they started talking about trying to commit suicide, drinking on a daily basis, blacking out, I had to relate to those things. I still go to as many meetings as I did when I first got sober — around five a week."

Betty, 21, of New York City
Sobriety date: October 29, 2000

"My first drink was when I was 14. I went to my grandparent's house and filled the water bottle on my bike with bits of everything they had. My friend was supposed to come over but he bailed on me. My Mom was at her boyfriend's. I sat on the couch, alone, sipping, and thought I would feel something right away. I drank the whole thing and woke up in the hospital. Even after it almost killed me, I definitely wanted to have it again.

Soon I was coming home at 4 a.m., head in the toilet, without my car, but on paper I looked good so my Mom could deny it. I was in the top five percent of my class, I was the editor in chief of the school paper, the student council secretary. I burned out my friends. I woke up one morning at college, with vomit on the floor, and a call from some guy who had my bag and would only give it back if I gave him $500. That's when I got the AA number. I wrote down the address, the time of a meeting, and didn't go. I started dating a drug dealer. That was the beginning of the end, and I realized I had to face up to my addiction. I was only a few months sober when I spent my 21st birthday in Ireland. They were having St Patrick's Day celebrations, delayed because of foot and mouth disease. The first thing I did was go to a meeting."