What Does an Alcoholic Look Like?
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with a lovely woman by the name of Brenna. As she sat in the black leather chair, her legs casually swung causing a small ripple through her long grey skirt. She wore a genuine smile and her brown eyes were peaceful. What you wouldn’t know by looking at her is that she is a 19-year-old recovering alcoholic. When the term “alcoholic” crosses your mind, you might picture a person on the street, sleeping in a gutter or sitting at a bar. However, alcoholics come from all walks of life and can even include people you know.
Certain families may be more likely to deal with alcoholism due to genetics. Whenever I used to hear people talking about genetics, I thought, “Oh, genetics, like how I look like my mom. I have brown hair because she has brown hair.” That is, one example of genetics, but here’s one more: Addictive behavior like alcoholism can also be passed down from parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. A 2008 study at the University of Colorado Denver, showed that having an addiction to alcohol is caused by genes in 40-60% of people. (Collingwood, J 2010) What that means is that if you have a family member who suffered from alcoholism, you have 40-60% chance of also carrying that genetic trait.
Alcoholism is no joke, and it can destroy a person and all that surrounds them, which brings us back to Brenna. Growing up, she was raised by her mother. Her father wasn’t around because he was an alcoholic who also abused drugs. Her mother loved her very much but didn’t always know how to be a parent, as she was very young. Rules were never set in a clear way so Brenna never really knew her boundaries.
As a child, Brenna struggled with bullies and other kids at school. She didn’t feel very good about herself and thought that because she saw her family drinking alcohol it would help her feel better. It seemed like an easy enough idea, so she started to drink alcohol. This was a decision she would later regret. As she continued to drink alcohol, she didn’t feel better. She felt worse. She found herself getting more and more depressed. Brenna’s behavior continued for a few years until she was 15 years old. It wasn’t until a speaker from a program of notMYkid, called “amplif(i),” shared his story of recovery from substance abuse, that she made the choice to turn her life around. “His story is what saved my life,” Brenna said with a smile forming across her lips.
When this young man spoke, Brenna connected with him almost instantly and knew she needed to get help. She started to see a counselor and slowly started to feel stronger. When Brenna was offered alcohol, she was able to say “no”. She has been sober –without drugs or alcohol- for two years and is a college student with a bright future ahead of her.
Brenna is lucky. Her resilience is something that does and will always inspire me. Although she is clean and sober, because her choices around alcohol, she caused brain damage that may never heal. The human brain doesn’t finish developing until somewhere between the ages of 21 and 25. (Giedd, J.N. 1999) Prior to that time, alcohol use can cause damage to various parts of the brain like where memories are formed and stored.
What happened to Brenna can happen to anyone. Pressure from classmates and friends is hard to ignore. When people in your home are making poor decision, it’s hard to be stronger than your environment, but I promise it is worth it. It’s a good idea to ask about your family’s history concerning addiction. This can help make your decisions easier.
As you’re reading this you may be rolling your eyes and thinking, “How am I supposed to be stronger than my environment?” I can tell you that it’s not an easy thing to do but it is possible, and I’m going to tell you how.
Let’s say you’ve just gotten out of school and you and a group of friends are talking about what you could do that afternoon. One of your friends says, “Hey I have an idea. Let’s go to the park and have a couple of beers.” First of all, we know from what I’ve already told you, that having a beer with your friends is not a good idea. Unfortunately it’s not easy to say “no” to your friends but it can be done in a way that will work.
Here are some ideas.
Always ask questions:
-Where will we be?
-What are we doing?
Name the problem:
-We’re going to be drinking
What might happen:
-We could get arrested
-We could do something stupid we could regret
-We could affect our brain development
-We could get caught by our parents
Suggest another activity:
-Let’s go play video games
-How about we go to the mall
-Want to catch a movie instead
-We could go swimming
-Let’s go play basketball (or another sport)
With these steps, you can put together a sentence that may sound something like this: “So, we’re going to be drinking, but I don’t know if that’s a good idea.” If your friend asks why, you could say, “Well, for one thing, it’s illegal and we could get arrested, not to mention how upset my parents would be. Why don’t we do something else like play video games, or catch a move or something?” If something along those lines does not work, as hard as it is, it may be time to just walk away. If your friends are really your friends, they will understand.
I challenge all of you to know your facts and I challenge you to be stronger than your environment. If you are, life will be more enjoyable because life with a clear mind will allow you to form memories that you can keep.