The New Youth of Alcoholics Anonymous
Wednesday, November 30th, 2011
Additional reporting by Emily Katz and Kimberly Lightbody
On a chilly Thursday evening a group of young people stood smoking outside a church on West 22nd Street. They were taking a break from the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting “Never Had a Legal Drink.” Inside the church, after grabbing a cup of coffee and passing on the Oreos, the group found their seats and listened to a story by a young woman about her struggles with addiction. For a moment, the atmosphere felt almost too enjoyable. This was, after all, an AA meeting.
“I have two years today,” said a man.
“I’ll have 90 days on Saturday,” another girl said just a few seats away. She couldn’t have been older than 17. The fact is, more young people are entering AA.
A 2010 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services survey found that 15.3 percent among 16- or 17-year-olds, 33.3 percent among persons aged 18 to 20, and 45.5 percent among youths 21 to 25 had been binge drinking within the last month, a statistic some professionals are commenting on.
Dr. Michael S. Grove, a clinical social worker and therapist who deals specifically with young people, “absolutely” sees a rise in alcohol abuse.
“That was certainly an increase from what we had previously thought the numbers were,” added Ashley Anderson, a licensed social worker and the recovery coach supervisor at Tribeca Twelve, an alcohol and drug-free dorm that will be opening soon in Manhattan, about a 2009 National Survey on drug use and health that found that about one-fifth of young adults, aged 18-25, were classified as needing treatment.
“I decided to attend AA meetings because I was miserable,” Megan R., 16, said. “I was so full of self-hatred. If I didn't come into AA at the age I did, I wouldn't be here. It wouldn't have been much longer before I killed myself.”
She is a little over a year and a half sober. Her decision to enter AA came after she reached a mere 90 pounds on her five-foot seven-inch body and was hanging out in the projects with high school drop-outs, she later explained.
“AA gave me hope,” she said. “They understood me. These people, who lived the same miserable existence I did, now could laugh and smile. I knew they were completely content with their lives and with themselves, and I wanted that.”
Megan isn’t the only person who took a similar path with drugs or alcohol, and decided to enter the rooms of AA at a young age.
Jared, 28, vice president of a Fortune 500 company, found himself running drugs from Amsterdam to his school nearly every weekend. “At the end of that stint I got in some fights with some drug dealers, there were some guns involved,” he explained. “[I had] some really low points and at that time I came back to the states and entered rehab at the age of 19.” Jared has been sober in AA for eight years.
According to Pediatrics, a journal that focuses on youth medicine, the teenage years are a predictable time to develop drinking problems. Between the ages of 16 and 20 youth are experiencing “dramatic physical, emotional and social changes.” These hazardous drinking patterns only escalate between the ages of 18 and 20, which Pediatrics says is the age range when teens are at the greatest risk for developing an alcohol use disorder.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says that early alcohol consumption could have long-lasting consequences. According to the institute, youth who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependency than those who have their first drink at 20 years of age or older. However, this information doesn’t prove whether it’s clear that drinking at an early age causes alcoholism or if drinking at an early age indicates an already existing problem.
For instance, according to the NIAAA, alcoholism has been linked to personality characteristics such as strong tendencies to act impulsively and to seek out new experiences and sensations. There is also evidence that alcoholism is genetic and that environmental factors may be involved in a person’s alcoholism.
“[For them] it is something to try, something to emulate.” said Dr. Grove on why youth are vulnerable to the addiction of alcohol. The adolescent brain is developing and trying to mimic adults by smoking cigarettes or by drinking, he explained. Some youth are involved with alcohol simply because of the way the adolescent brain develops and AA provides a support system that youth want.
“The value of AA is the social support, pressure and connection you get from other people, that is stuff adolescents crave,” Dr. Grove later added. For these reasons he sees AA as a good recovery option for youth.
In AA recovery, sponsors are at the forefront of the battle with alcoholism.
“I remember explaining to a young guy that if you rub a towel on your body after a shower, it helps you dry faster,” said Andrzej W., 33, who came into AA at 25. “It's kind of stunning the things we can miss if we're in stressed-out environments.”
Most young people recovering in the AA program acknowledge their addiction and happily embrace the support AA has provided them.
“I had more fun and have done more wild things in sobriety than I ever did drinking and none of them comprised who I wanted to be,” said Jennifer H., 32 who came into AA at the age of 19 and has been sober for 12 years.
“I'm still growing up in AA, and I'm the luckiest person in the world,” added Megan R.
However, there are some who believe AA isn’t the right place for everyone. Youth can end up in AA for the wrong reasons — and not all people who drink heavily are alcoholics.
“There are a lot of people that end up in AA that probably shouldn’t be there, especially young people,” said Nathan P., 45, who came into AA at the age of 16 after agreeing to go to a treatment center. “It’s a good place to go to and recover from alcoholism, but not for all your other problems.” Later he mentioned that some people who drink and get into trouble while doing so don't always qualify as alcoholics. There are even the people who end up in treatment centers because the alternative is far worse.
Jared explained that often people are given two choices for things such as DUI’s: jail or drug and alcohol rehabilitation. Most people choose to enter a rehabilitation center, where they often end up in AA meetings.
“Sometimes [young people] seek it through the court system — sometimes that’s a motivation for them to seek treatment, if they get a DUI or something and they realize, ‘OK, I need help,’” said Anderson.
Still, Jared maintains that AA isn't a a hang out spot for teenagers who drink. “There’s a pretty good chance that if you’re coming into AA at this age that you are an alcoholic,” he added.
Of the people who are entering AA at an early age, most claim that the program has saved their lives. And living, as they have found out, is something worth being sober for.
“A young person needs to have a youth to be happy,” said Andrzej. “You know, if you want an amazing shortcut to get the entire story from a young alcoholic ask these three questions: What was your first drunk? Your last drunk? And what was it like learning to dance sober? You'd be surprised how much is packed in that last question.”
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