This article was published in dr. rosiello's sedona times psychology column in 2009.
Perhaps the best example of a functional alcoholic is the teenager who gets drunk on a regular basis without his or her parents’ awareness.
Drinking parties with lots of alcohol and no parental supervision are the norm for adolescents who are social, or who are popular, or who are on the fringe in high school. There’s another drinking activity that adolescents engage in and that’s raiding their parents liquor cabinet or the case of beer in the corner of the kitchen. It’s considered a fairly cool activity to drink your parent’s alcohol and not get caught. Adolescent narratives on sneaking alcohol go a long way with other teens when they’re swapping sloppy drunk stories with their friends.
There is another type of drinking story related by teens where they tell of getting drunk with their folks. By ‘with’ I mean they drink secretly during an adult party after spiriting off the leftover alcohol. Sometimes the adolescent gets bombed at such a family party and because they’re in a similar state as the adults, no one notices, or even worse, no one cares. The next day, when everyone is hung over, so is the adolescent and this begins the early education to becoming a functioning alcoholic adult. Get drunk one day and make sure you function the next day so that no one can tell how much you drank the night before, including yourself. It’s a lesson in denial taught by the adults; it’s an opportunity to begin the process of blocking out alcoholic behavior. It’s also a way for the adolescent to punish themselves, as well as their parents, for being a child that the parent doesn’t emotionally ‘see.’ If your parent doesn’t seem to care that you’re doing something a little dangerous to your physical and mental health, then, why should the adolescent care about his or her own health? If a child feels invisible to their parents, the resulting emotions within the child are a sense of loss and emotional abandonment. These are the seeds of depression and they’re watered and fed with alcohol.
If you were to sit in on an AA meeting here in town, one of the stories that you’d hear most often are those of adolescent drinking by the adults attending the meetings. Most alcoholics begin drinking around the age of 12. Why at this age? It’s the time when the child’s hormones begin to get thrown up into the air and feel chaotically manic and/or depressed. Depression in an adolescent is typical, however, it’s the level of depression that becomes a problem. If the child feels emotionally isolated from his or her parents because the parents are preoccupied with work or other family members, or maybe the parents are caught up with their own substance abuse, then the adolescent calms or stimulates his own feelings of aloneness, loss, i.e., depression, with alcohol.
One of my patients who lives some distance from here, recently told me a story about his son. He gave me permission to write about this incident. My patient had thrown a graduation party for his son, last month. His thinking was that he’d have his son and his son’s friends at his house because he could make sure nothing would get out of hand and he knew these kids wanted to drink to celebrate their release from high school. He rationalized he’d drive the kids home from the party rather than have his son’s friends drive home drunk. You can sort of see what this patient had in mind, ‘Well, these kids are going to drink no matter what and in this way, I can watch them.’ But, there’s a real problem with this: My patient was unconsciously communicating that it was ok to drink under age and that breaking the law was fine if a parent condoned it, and that he would enable the teenagers to get drunk without being responsible for their behavior. My patient was arrested after his neighbors complained about the noise from the party and the police came to his home to investigate. This is a pretty good example of a parent enabling his son and his friends to drink, as well as teaching minors to break the law.
If there is a stocked liquor cabinet in the house, a child gets the message that they can raid it. If a child sees a parent drinking, they get the message that it’s ok to follow the parent’s behavior. I’ve heard some people say that when they’re having a party, they let the kids have a glass of beer or wine, just to ‘teach the teenager how to drink in moderation.’ In theory, that sounds pretty good and certainly, the French and the Italians allow their children to have wine or beer from an early age. But, in Europe alcohol is coupled with sitting down to a meal, and the notion that alcohol enhances the taste of food. The wine and the food are in the service of uniting family ties and encouraging the opportunity to communicate between family and friends. Of course there are variations of this notion in Europe, but for the most part the traditional family relationships serve to place tighter boundaries on excess.
I practiced psychotherapy in New York City for 30 years and now that I have a practice in Sedona, I am alerted to a difference in how adolescents drink in the large cities vs. how they drink in rural areas. From what I’ve heard from patients, there’s a lot more drinking and alcoholism in rural areas than in the cities, perhaps because city adolescents have more distractions and wider and varied social opportunities. Adolescents in rural parts of the country don't have the same wide range of activities, or may not have a ride to an activity without parental involvement, which sometimes just isn't possible. A bored adolescent may seek out alcohol to numb their isolation.
But, here’s the real problem: If a child begins drinking at 12 and they drink consistently, let’s say until they’re in their 20s when they decide to get sober, or go into recovery – then, you’ve got an individual who’s missed out on a decade of their life and a decade of emotional developments. If the child drinks until their 30s or 40s, then you’ve got someone who has missed out on even more of their life’s developments. When someone has bypassed decades of clear thinking and feeling, it means we’ve got an individual who looks like an adult on the outside, but isn’t on the inside. This person is an adult adolescent, in a sense, and they need help to emotionally develop.
In the same vein, adolescents may look like they can handle themselves and make decisions for themselves, but the ability to make a decision only comes from age, our brains have to mature to the point where we have the biological ability to make sophisticated decisions. Adolescents are only part way there to making healthy decisions that effect their behaviors. They're in the process of learning, and of course, they learn from the people around them. So, watch your kids when they’re around people drinking, and take a look at your liquor cabinet every so often. Your kids might rag on you when you make them account for their behaviors and you won’t feel too cool in their eyes, but it's more important for you to help a child avoid alcohol addiction and the absentee life that goes with it.