The Hidden Epidemic of Very Young Alcoholics
Other Risk Factors continued...
Chad was 11 when his parents announced they were divorcing. After that, he
says, his drinking and drug use accelerated. "I tried it all: crystal meth,
LSD, cocaine, ecstasy. And I never stopped drinking." In fact, he graduated
to binge drinking — consuming more than five drinks in a sitting. According to
a 2005 national survey at the University of Michigan, 10.5 percent of all
eighth-graders and 28 percent of high school seniors had engaged in
binge-drinking in the previous two-week period. "When I was bingeing, I
felt cool and popular," Chad says.
When he was 14, Chad discovered hotel parties: An older kid, at least 18,
would rent a room. "We'd all show up, get high, and drink a lot," says
Chad. "No parents were there, so we could trash the hotel room. I would
always tell my parents I was going to some smart kid's house, a kid who was
doing well in school." Chad's parents didn't ask many questions, something
his mother, Reneé Dignan, now admits was a big mistake. "I didn't want to
believe there was a problem," she says.
Things got worse. Always an athlete, Chad began to get high on cocaine, pot,
and alcohol before football and ice hockey games. He played football drunk,
hurt his knee, and required surgery. While on acid, he set fire to his school.
For many kids, as with Chad, early drinking leads to early abuse of other
drugs. More than 66 percent of kids who are heavy drinkers also use illicit
drugs, compared with 5.5 percent of nondrinkers, according to a CASA
Why Treatment Is Tough
After her frightening bout with alcohol poisoning, Mary Brennan told her
father she thought she needed help. But he was unable to grasp the seriousness
of her problem. "I think he was in denial," says Mary. "He said,
'You're only 15. There's no way that it's already out of hand. It can't be that
bad.'" He sent her to an outpatient treatment center in their suburban
town. "It was hard to take the program seriously," Mary recalls.
"The people who ran it were amazing, but they were only with us a few hours
a day. After a while, I realized that half the kids in there were lying about
their drinking, about wanting to quit. I started drinking again too." For
two years after her unsuccessful trip to rehab, Mary led a double life. To her
dad and her counselors, she was "in recovery." To her friends, she was
a party animal who still drank every day. Brooke and Chad also bounced out of
their first outpatient rehab programs and continued drinking.
Nine out of 10 teens who get treatment for alcohol abuse will relapse at
least once, according to Judi Hanson, program director of Sobriety High West
Academy in Edina, MN, a charter school for teens with substance-abuse problems.
Emerging research suggests that part of the reason may be changes in brain
development caused by early alcohol abuse: Very young drinkers may prime
themselves to seek out alcohol even if it makes them sick, according to a 2006
Jaime Diaz-Granados, M.D., chairman of the psychology and neuroscience
department at Baylor University, exposed adolescent mice to alcohol. Then, when
the mice grew up, he and his team offered them alcohol again. "We found
that if we first exposed animals to alcohol as adolescents, they would seek it
out as adults, even though it then made them sick," he says. A different
group of mice got its first illness-inducing exposure to alcohol in adulthood.
When these mice were offered alcohol a second time, they refused it. "This
relates to children," Dr. Diaz-Granados explains. "Early drinking can
alter normal brain development, leaving the adult more vulnerable to drinking