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Wasted lives: the truth about teen girls and drinking: girls are proving they're equal to boys in oh-so-many ways. But does that have to include how much they drink? Sadly, girls are now drinking as much--or more--than boys. While "partying" can mean just hangin' with your crew, it often means drinking. Here are some sobering stats--and stories--about teens and alcohol.

When Rochelle L. was 13, she'd never felt so much pressure on her--pressure to keep a straight-A average, pressure to look cool, pressure to fit in. "I wasn't doing well socially and didn't have many friends. But I was really pressured academically, because my parents were so into school."

Sometimes, it was overwhelming. So one afternoon, when Rochelle watched her older sister and a friend having a blast getting bombed on vodka, she felt she'd discovered how to rid stress and finally have some fun. From that day on, Rochelle drank every weekend--even by herself. After numerous visits to rehab and seven visits to the hospital for alcohol poisoning, she is now, at age 16, a recovering alcoholic.

Rochelle is far from alone. In fact, for the first time in history, teen girls drink more than boys. Almost 40 percent of ninth-grade girls have had a drink in the past month vs. only 34 percent of boys. And a whopping 45 percent of high-school girls drink alcohol. Even more frightening is the fact that girls are binge drinking (drinking till they drop) more than boys--21 percent of girls vs. 18.8 percent of boys.

And they're doing it without realizing the dangers. More than 40 percent of teens who drink before age 15 will become alcohol-dependent at some point in their lives. Add to that the super-high risk of unprotected sex, brain damage and drunk driving, and you wonder: Why are girls doing this?

WHY GIRLS DRINK

There's no one reason teen girls drink, but the most common is to be accepted by peers. "When they are 11 or 12, girls feel they can do anything. But once they enter junior high, most girls feel they don't fit in anymore--they're too tall, too small, too skinny, too fat. Their self-esteem plummets, more so than boys. Girls are so in tune with whether they're fitting in that it's painful when they don't," says Janice Styer, therapist at the Caron Foundation, an alcohol treatment clinic in Wernersville, Pa.

Fitting in was the main reason Julie T., now 19, started drinking. "At 14, I was drinking with friends on the weekends. I found, with alcohol, I could communicate better and feel at ease with other kids. I made tons of friends since everyone thought I was this cool 'party girl.'"

But Julie went from drinking every weekend until she passed out to ditching school every, day so she could drink at home all afternoon. As a result, she went from being a gifted student to failing every class in 11th grade.

"Surprisingly, that didn't stop me from drinking. I just felt drinking made me more myself, so I thought that if I just had a little more to drink I'd feel even better. Meanwhile, whenever I got drunk, I really wasn't acting like me at all--I was acting like an idiot," says Julie. Julie is currently in a halfway house after going through rehab three times.

So aside from wanting to fit in, what are the main reasons girls are choosing to drink like there's no tomorrow?

* They want equality. Girls really want to be considered as prayerful as boys. "Girls have always felt like the weaker sex so now they want to show guys that they aren't--even if it's by drinking them under the table!" Explains Styer.

* They're stressed out. When the going gets rough, some people run away instead of facing up. Teen girls have a ton of pressure on them--socially, academically and even physically--so they often turn to alcohol to "feel good" and "have fun."

* They want to be accepted. If other kids are drinking, they'll do it just to be part of the group. "Teens often drink to fit in, even though there are lots of other ways to be accepted that are not as destructive as this," says Dr. Elaine Leader, executive director of Teen Line, a 24/7 help hotline for teens.

* They're bored. "Their parents are working harder and are often divorced, so kids have a lot of time alone at home. But since they're used to constant stimulation nowadays, alcohol is another way to fill up that time," says Styer.

* Their parents do it. "Teens think, 'It couldn't be that bad if they're doing it," says Dr. Leader. "What concerns me most are kids from families with addictive behavior, and there you have a genetic predisposition to very quickly become an alcoholic."

* They're rebelling. The teen years are usually the time when kids really want to break loose from their parents and make it known that they can be independent. Teen girls might drink just to show they're no longer under their parents' control--even when they know it's not good for them.

RISKY BUSINESS

Believe it or not, teen girls are far more likely to drink than to smoke cigarettes or marijuana (only 11 percent of teens have smoked pot by ninth grade)--and not just because it's easier to get. "I think girls drink more than smoke marijuana because alcohol opens you up more and gets you out of your insecurities. Pot just makes you feel paranoid," says Julie.

Dr. Leader says kids seem to think alcohol is no biggie compared to other drugs. "It's legal--although, not to them. And, to make matters worse, they see rock stars and actors who come through their drinking problems and remain big stars, so they figure it must not be that dangerous."

But it is. Just how dangerous? Here are the main reasons, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, drinking is a major risk--especially to teens:

* It's more likely to kill than all illegal drugs combined.

* The likelihood off unprotected sex is extremely high. That increases the chances of getting pregnant or getting a sexually transmitted disease, including AIDS.

* Alcohol greatly increases the chance of suicide when it is used by an already stressed-out or depressed teen.

* Drinking kills brain cells permanently, so it can lead to memory loss or even severe brain damage.

Statistics are one thing, but real experience can be a wakeup call. Julie's story confirms just how risky drinking can be. "When I was drinking, I slept with tons of guys I didn't even know. And I was never that type or girl! So I was constantly freaked out that I'd get AIDS or get pregnant. One day, I woke up in a different state with a complete stranger. I was so grossed out. I know better than to sleep with a stranger or have unprotected sex. But logic flies out the window when I'm drunk."

Rochelle has her own horror stories about binge drinking. "When I was 15, I ditched school with my friend, and we went to this rock star's house in a nearby beach town. I ended up blacking out--for six days. I barely remember anything I did, except that my friend and I almost got killed while she was driving with a bottle of Smirnoff between her legs! And I also know that I had sex with at least one guy at the house.

"At one point, I called my dad for help, but I forgot to tell him where I was so it took days for someone to find me. When my parents finally got me, they immediately sent me to a treatment center for 47 days. Now, I go to Visions Adolescent Treatment Center in Malibu, Calif., for weekly meetings, and they totally saved my life. I've been sober for 120 days now."

But the consequences of drinking can be even worse--if that's possible--as they were for Julie when she hit bottom at 16. "I blacked out at a stranger's house and, two days later, I woke up to my mom's voice. She took me home, where I tore apart the house looking for alcohol. But she'd thrown away everything, including the mouthwash! When I couldn't find anything to drink, I totally freaked out, and I ran upstairs to my room and slit my wrists. While the blood was pouring out of me, I cried out for my mom because I really didn't want to die. I just desperately needed help. My mom immediately took me to the emergency room for stitches and gave me two choices: I had to go to rehab or to a mental institution. I chose rehab."

KICK THE PARTY-HARDY TRAP

To Rochelle and Julie, kicking the habit seemed a near impossibility. But they did it. And the best start, explains Dr. Leader, is to "talk to anyone you trust--a parent, a sibling, a minister, a coach. Or call Teen Line [see "How to say 'no' without looking like a dork", for resources]. If the situation is serious, you may have to go to a rehab for chemical dependency. But there are also free and totally anonymous programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous, and you can attend their meetings anytime without having to tell anyone."

Julie is determined to remain sober after 31 days at the Caron Foundation. "I think rehab didn't work for me in the past because, afterward, I isolated myself. What I should have done was go to AA meetings for young people. There are tons of teens trying to get sober, so you can build a great support group to stay on track. But you can't hang around your old friends at all, because you'll fall back into old behaviors."

Why is Julie so certain she can do it this time? "I know I will die if I don't. I've taken so many risks--being hospitalized, sleeping around, blacking out who-knows-where, using drugs--so I know it will catch up with me. I can't do that anymore. It's just not an option."

Rochelle came to a similar conclusion: "If I continued drinking, I'd end up killing myself. I have to remain sober." She agrees AA is the way to go. "You don't have to tell your parents about the meetings. But you know what? If they're supportive, they'll support you in getting the help you need. I didn't realize that before, but my parents and I are closer than ever.

"Girls have a total misconception about drinking. They think it looks like fun, and everyone in the movies looks happy when they're drinking. But when you see drinkers a few years down the road, it's repulsive--they can't even stand up straight! Alcohol does relieve stress momentarily. But it doesn't solve the problems underneath--it masks them. Eventually, you're going to have to face up to those problems and deal with them."

But how do Rochelle and Julie feel about losing the great social lives they had when they were partying? "Actually, I had a social group that was entirely made up of alcoholics and drug addicts. Who wants that?" says Julie.

"You know, not one of my 'cool' social group has called me since I've been home from rehab. That's so amazing to me. I guess they weren't my 'friends' after all," says Rochelle.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Sure, your teen years are for having fun and partying with friends--once you've finished the homework and chores, of course. But who says "partying" is drinking? It's really about spending time with friends, laughing, swapping stories and being your totally crazy, beautiful self. Alcohol not included.

HOW TO SAY 'NO' WITHOUT LOOKING LIKE A DORK

The surest way to avoid drinking is to stay away from situations where you know people will be partying. But, sometimes, despite your best intentions, alcohol shows up where you least expect it. Here's how to deal....

If someone pressures you to drink, keep repeating, "No, thanks" over and over. Usually, they'll get so bored, they'll stop asking.

If they do keep pounding away, cut off the conversation by saying something like, "Hey, look who's here!" while pointing across the room, and then just walk away.

Often, people will put on the heat by trying to get you to answer questions just to get you to cave in, like, "What are you afraid of?" or "What's the matter--Mommy won't let you drink?" Just laugh and ignore them. If you defend yourself--which you don't need to do when you believe what you're doing is right--you'll get nowhere! Hey, they've been drinking!

Feel like making a snappy comeback? Here are some you can use....

* "No, thanks. Beer clashes with my perfume."

* "Sorry, I'm down to my last seven brain cells."

* "Mmmmmm ... beer. Looks like lighter fluid, tastes like pee!"

* "I already used up my daily carb allowance."

* "I don't know. The color of vomit just doesn't really go with this sweater."

* "No, thanks. My speech is already slurred."

* "Wait. Are you one of those people who goes around spending time at parties trying to get non-drinkers like me to drink?"

* "No, thanks. I'm already weird."

* "No, but if you stand really close, I think I could get a buzz off your breath."

IF YOU OR A FRIEND NEEDS HELP ...

If you or a friend thinks alcohol is becoming a problem, there are some great places to go for support....

TALK to someone you really trust, like a parent, sibling, school counselor, teacher, coach, or your minister, rabbi or reverend.

CALL Teen Line collect at 1-310-855-HOPE, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Pacific Time for completely confidential support and advice from a trained teen! If you're in California, call 1-800-TLC-TEEN.

CHECK your local Yellow Pages, or call Teen Line to help you find AA meetings for teens in your area.

CONTACT your local chapter of Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD) for tons of info on drinking.

SEEK treatment at a center like the Caron Foundation (1-800-678-2332) or Visions Adolescent Treatment Center (1-866-889-3665).

"I WAS A BINGE DRINKER"

by "Dominique," 19 as told to Sandy Fertman Ryan

I was in eighth grade and totally stressed because my parents had just divorced. My older sister took me to parties, and I'd drink with the older kids.

I drank until I got sick, passed out or ended up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning. I was a total binge drinker from the start. I don't think I've ever had just two beers! By 15, I drank every weekend.

I'd funnel five beers in a row just to get high faster. I'd tell guys, "I can drink you under the table!" It was an ego thing. Drinking made me feel like I could talk to anyone and do anything. And it was fun being part of a group--even though they were all drinkers!

I lost my virginity to my boyfriend of two months, and I totally regret it. It's something you should cherish forever--and I can't even remember it. I was sexually uninhibited when I was drunk. I had unprotected sex with people I wouldn't even have kissed if I were sober. It was disgusting. I'd wake up with someone with this horrible feeling that something gross had happened. But that didn't stop me. I dealt with my shame by drinking more. It was the only way to keep from thinking about what I'd done.

I only drank on weekends, but you don't have to drink daily to be an alcoholic. My life was totally unmanageable. I couldn't even stand up at work because I was always sick. Often, I couldn't even get up for classes, so I barely graduated. I wasn't even allowed to walk the stage at my graduation because I'd been so drunk at prom. My mom knew I had a problem, but she couldn't stop me.

Things fell apart this past Fourth of July when my friend and I were drinking with a bunch of guys at her house. After blacking out, my friend lost her virginity to a stranger! She was 19 and had been saving herself for the right guy, so when she realized what she had done, she became hysterical, got in her car and drove off--drunk! Later, she drove back to her house, where I was naked on the couch with some boy. Her dad Showed up, and I was totally humiliated. I felt so Ashamed. I was finally ready to get help.

The next day, with the help of my mom, I entered rehab. I've been here nine days now. The other girls here are amazing--and I don't feel like the only screw-up in the world. I'm getting a chance to know myself. and I'm determined to remain sober. I don't want a life I can't remember.
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Title Annotation:Special Report
Author:Ryan, Sandy Fertman
Publication:Girls' Life
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2004
Words:2733
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