I sat crouched in the woods behind my house as the driving rain continued to lash my thoroughly drenched body. The temperature had dropped into the 40s, and I wasn’t wearing a jacket because I hadn’t planned to spend any time outside. I was drunk. Beyond drunk, really. I was in blackout territory as the lights of my teenage memory flickered in and out.
I had been at a party with high school friends. I mixed beer with shots of vodka, youthful exuberance, encouraging friends and overwhelming ignorance. I had gotten in a fight with my best friend about something as significant as who loved Led Zeppelin more or if crunchy or smooth peanut butter was better. It was enough to send me reeling home (the party was at his house, after all) shouting slurred insults over my shoulder as I stumbled down the street toward my house. When I arrived, I was surprised to see lights on in the family room. My father was still up watching TV, and I had just barely enough connection to reality to know I couldn’t pull off a quiet and stealthy entry. I would have to wait for him to go to bed.
The only thing that protected me from the pain of the bitter-cold rain was the drunken numbness that had overtaken my body. I eventually passed out in a pile of wet leaves as my heart rate and breathing slowed to a near-hibernated state. I awoke in the pre-dawn hours almost too cold to move. I was disoriented and dehydrated, and only by the grace of God did I find my way into the back door of my warm house.
I almost died that night. It was the first time I had cheated death, but it wouldn’t be the last time I would drink so much alcohol and make such poor decisions that I literally deserved to die.
As a public high school student with two loving parents, I had been warned too many times to count about the dangers of drugs and the importance of using condoms to protect against sexually transmitted disease and teenage pregnancy. My friends and I laughed about how serious the adults were about these warnings, and we made jokes about Nancy Reagan and her, “Just say no,” campaign.
But we listened. The message was consistent, and it was consistently dire, and we couldn’t unhear it.
I smoked weed once or twice in high school, and on the rare occasion that I got to fumble through sex as a teenager, I used a condom. As much as the life and death messages we were forced to endure felt condescending and repetitive, they also got through.
But no one talked about the dangers of alcohol. Never.
I am an adult now, and I have been through hell as a result of my ignorance to the dangers of alcohol. Now my kids are in the generation at risk, the generation we are currently ignoring as their alcohol experimentation begins.
Nothing has changed. The hot issues of this decade are mental health and suicide prevention, opioids and vaping. Messages about these epidemics are as consistent as they are chilling. Some kids will ignore the warnings, and most kids will make fun of them. But make no mistake, the messages are getting through. We can’t save them all, but the majority of today’s teenagers will make good decisions and avoid the dangers they believe to be dangerous.
And yet, the alcohol abuse epidemic absolutely dwarfs the damage wreaked by suicides and attempts, drugs and vaping combined. We spend money and time trying to blow out the candle while our house burns down around us. I’m not for a minute suggesting we ignore new and emerging threats, but I am apoplectic about our societal ignorance of the much bigger threat that we allow to thrive unchecked.
There are over fifteen million people suffering from alcohol use disorder in the United States, and over three million people a year die from alcohol globally. The fact that we don’t treat alcohol abuse as the epidemic it is in the adult population is disgusting. The fact that we neglect to inform our children about the dangers of alcohol is criminal.
I wrote this speech to deliver to the students at a Denver high school that has recently experienced a brazen and scary series of alcohol abuse events. A freshman girl nearly died when her friends encouraged her to, “catch up,” after arriving late to a party. A group of seniors played beer pong proudly wearing school gear in a city park before first period early on a Friday morning.
The situation is getting worse as we ignore it and chalk abusive behavior up to kids being kids and testing boundaries. When I was in high school, we at least attempted to hide our drinking and avoid punishment. In both these instances, kids flaunted their drinking on social media and in the wide open for all to see. They aren’t afraid of the consequences of getting caught anymore than they are afraid of the consequences of overconsumption. They are ruining their lives and cheating death right in front of our faces, but we survived high school, so we, too, refuse to see the imminent danger.
I get the hypocrisy of educating teens about the dangers of alcohol. Kids are smart, and they see right through it when we try to bluff them. It is hard for us to call booze dangerous while our adult society revolves around the consumption of alcohol. But the hypocrisy goes much deeper.
It is hard for us to warn our kids about a beverage that freed our inhibitions and let us talk to the opposite sex and fit in with the cool kids when we were their age.
It is hard for us to warn our kids about the staple of our adolescent weekends and forbidden fruit we spent untold hours trying to obtain in time for the party.
It is hard for us to warn our kids about the elixir that lubricated the rough spots of our first sexual encounters and eased the stress of transitioning to adulthood.
And for many of us, it is hard to label alcohol as dangerous because it might draw too much attention to our own out-of-control drinking. Discussing the addictive nature of alcohol might just hit a little too close to home.
Regardless of the reason we refuse to take teenage drinking seriously, our paralysis comes at the expense of another generation of predestined drinkers. The very least we can do is make drinking a choice for the young people we love. But that’s going to require us to face the demon. And to talk about it.
When kids see us drink fearlessly, then feel the negative social ramifications of abstinence, they really don’t have a choice, do they? If their role models drink and their peers insist they drink, there really isn’t a decision to make.
I’m not naive enough to think we can eradicate teenage drinking. If that was my goal, I’d be wasting your time and mine. My goal is relatively modest, really, in the face of decades of looking away and pretending the epidemic doesn’t exist. I just want kids to let other kids make their own choice about if and when to drink without influence or pressure. I want teens to accept no for an answer without social ostracization. I want the leading adolescent drinkers to get greedy and stop forcing poison on the social followers. I want, “No,” to be an acceptable answer without repercussions.
And I want to talk to your kids about it, because they are my only hope. Let’s face it, my generation has screwed-up in countless inexcusable ways, and our future depends on our kids pulling our country out of the ditch. I’d like at least a few of them to be clear headed as they face the gargantuan task.
Talking to your kids about alcohol might not be easy for you for the variety of reasons listed above. Add to those that teenagers are closed-off know-it-alls who reject us as a natural stage in their maturation, and talking to kids can be terrifying.
But I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid because I have years of experience now with vulnerability, and I have been rewarded at every embarrassing and fully-exposed turn. I have the credibility of my own real-life battle with alcohol, and I am so passionate about this subject that I am even more fearless than my teenage audiences.
I hope you’ll consider reaching out to me as a resource as we try to face the reality of destructive teenage drinking. If I can speak to your school or group – teens or otherwise – I would be honored for the opportunity. You can read more about my speaking out, listen to sample speeches and view a demo video at my Outspoken page on this Sober and Unashamed website.
If you, like me, were a victim of teenage alcohol information negligence, and developed into an adult who struggles to control your drinking, please checkout my SHOUT Sobriety program to help people in early recovery. The program is absolutely free because I don’t think you should have to pay for your freedom, and it is supported by people who believe in the benefits of recovering out loud. For more information, to enroll or to make a donation, please click the button below.