The Hidden Epidemic of Very Young Alcoholics
By Heather Millar
The stats disguise a startling truth: Kids are starting to drink at the age of 11, 10, even 9. This is how it's happening - and how three young drinkers finally stopped.
Mary Brennan was only 10 years old when she downed her first vodka screwdriver. Her dad, who runs a dental-equipment company, was at work that afternoon, and her mother hadn't lived with the family since Mary was 5. After school, Mary went home with a friend who lived nearby in Chicago's northwest suburbs. The girl's older brother, an eighth-grader, was drinking in his room with some buddies. Someone had sneaked a bottle of vodka out of his parents' liquor cabinet, and the boys were mixing it with orange juice. Mary, an athletic, gregarious tomboy who constantly sought approval from her own older brothers, hung around the fringes with her friend. She was both scared and thrilled when the friend's brother offered her a glass. "I felt like, Wow, now I'm one of the older kids," recalls Mary, now 18.
By age 12, Mary was drinking most weekends, experimenting to see how much she could hold, sometimes blacking out. By 14, she was drinking every day with friends, getting the booze from the oldest of her three brothers or from kids whose parents looked the other way. Her father, busy making a living and trying to keep the household running, didn't notice. "I got to be an expert at acting sober in front of my father," Mary says now. "And I made sure I didn't let him smell the alcohol on my breath." By 15, she was taking vodka to school in Gatorade bottles. "I couldn't go to class without being drunk," Mary says. "I have no idea how I did any schoolwork, but I got decent grades. I was always amazed that the teachers didn't know I was drunk."
The fall of her sophomore year, Mary went to a party, drank an entire bottle of vodka, and smoked a lot of pot. Then she blacked out. When she regained consciousness two hours later, she felt horribly ill and pleaded with the other kids — none of whom she knew well — to phone for help. But nobody would call an ambulance because they were afraid of getting arrested. "I had never felt so sick," Mary says. "Everything was spinning. I was lying on the floor, throwing up. I was freezing; then I was hot. I would think I was okay, then try to get up and realize that I couldn't. It was terrifying. I was convinced I was going to die."
Finally, one of the kids at the party drove Mary home. She slept off what she later learned was alcohol poisoning — a potentially fatal suppression of the central nervous system (which regulates breathing and heart rate, among other things) caused by guzzling toxic amounts of liquor in a short time. The very next day, Mary was back to drinking.