It’s 9:30 on a raw Long Island Saturday morning. The teenagers assembled in the basement of the hospital, some of them rheumy-eyed and wooden from the previous night’s bout with alcohol and other drugs, cluster around a television set chained to the wall and watch an animated purple rabbit fall into a vat of beer, then emerge red-nosed and flashing a huge grin. The rabbits’ sodden antics generate little response from the listless youths. “Ever notice how cartoon creatures never get hangovers?” says one of the more lively of the lot.
The kids light cigarettes and stare at the screen, trying not to let the word “hangover” resonate too loudly in their throbbing heads. Anna P., a counselor in the hospital’s alcoholism treatment and education center, walks into the room and snaps off the TV, a sign that it’s time for the kids to assume their positions in the red plastic chairs that line the perimeter of the room. At Anna’s side is Terry, 20, a former inpatient at the alcoholism center who was released six months ago.
“I hear you had a problem last night,” Anna says.
Terry nods. Four Quaaludes chased by half a quart of vodka. Her eyes are red and watery, her cheeks puffed and shiny — outward signs of the internal synaptic misfirings and general blitz of her organic system.
“You want to talk about it?”
Terry nods again and looks at Anna with hollow eyes. “I’m here, ain’t I? You think I’m here because I like this bullshit?”
Anna watches Terry cross the room shakily. She understands Terry’s abrasive yet self-pitying attitude. Anna herself once fought against sobriety, during the first two months of her stay at the hospital four years ago. Anna, now in her twenties, had built up six years of tolerance to alcohol, and even after her body was detoxified, her mind didn’t want to let go. Anna was placed in the hospital after suffering the last of her frequent blackouts. She was found kicking down the door to a laundromat at five in the morning to reach a pay phone inside. Her parents always told her they were just happy she wasn’t using “drugs.”
Anna’s voice quells the low hum in the room. “Will somebody recite the rules of the clinic?” she asks.
Jack, a tall fifteen-year-old with frizzy red hair and horn-rimmed glasses, raises his hand. “No intentional violence,” he says, smirking. “No cross-conversations or interruptions when somebody is talking. And everything is confidential.”
“Right,” Anna says. “Anything said here is not to be taken out of this room. [Accordingly, the names and descriptions of the people in this article have been changed.] Now, why don’t we start by saying how we got here and how we feel today. We’ll start with Ellie.”
Ellie, 15, clad in sneakers, blue jeans and a hooded sweat shirt, squirms in her chair. “I came here because my mother made me.”
“Why did she make you come?”
“Well, because my father and brother are alcoholics…. ” Ellie blushes, squirms again and tosses her long brown hair off her forehead. “And because I was going a little crazy.”
“What do you mean?” Anna asks.
“Well, I was about ready to kill myself. But I didn’t try really hard or anything. I’d make it look like I was a klutz and fall down the stairs and hit my head or something, but all I’d get is a bruise.” She offers an unconvincing laugh.
“Why did you do that?”
“I don’t know. I just get depressed.”
“What do you do when you get depressed?”
“I just told you. That and get drunk.”
Alan, a short, stooped thirteen-year-old, clutches a folder containing a handwritten manuscript, the first draft of a fantasy novel he has worked on since he quit drinking a year ago. “Today I feel pretty shitty,” he says, slumping in his chair. “I spent most of the week in court. It’s like I got people pulling at me from all sides. My mother says come back and live with her and drop the child-abuse case. My father shows up drunk in court and wants me to live with him. He says things will be better now that he’s stopped drinking. That’s a lie, of course. Then the foster parents want me to live with them. There’s just too much going on.”
Alan starts to sob softly and sinks further in his chair. He tells the group about his father, a wealthy businessman who owns a chain of restaurants in Connecticut and has been an active alcoholic for thirty years; about his mother, who would beat him, kick him out of the house, then report him as a runaway; and about his baby-sitter, who would alternately participate in the beatings and try to seduce him.
“Sometimes when I listen to myself talk at these meetings,” he says, “it’s hard for me to believe all this happened. And I don’t just say that out of self-pity or anything.”
Alan’s image is that of a shattered old man. He is small, frail and waiflike, with long skinny arms and a distended pelvis. His baggy flannel pants are belted tightly around his stomach, the outsized waist bunched at the fly. Save for his Beatles haircut and the soft gray down that quivers on his upper lip, there is nothing about his appearance or demeanor that connects him to adolescence.
When he was five years old, Alan would ride with his father to a remote beach hideaway, or they would just pull over in a supermarket parking lot, and drink — his father from the bottle and Alan from the bottle cap. Over the next seven years, while his parents stumbled through separations and reconciliations, Alan would raid the liquor cabinet in search of the “chemical” high that had become a normal state of mind. On Saturdays, he would attend the ritual kaddish at his synagogue and guzzle all of the sweet, syrupy wine left behind by the adults. When he’d get home, his father would pour him giant glasses of beer and make him drink until he passed out.
“By the time I was eleven, I guess I was really addicted to it,” Alan says. “I remember one time I had some Scotch and cream soda and got really sick. So I didn’t have any cream soda after that. It never occurred to me that it was the booze. When I was at my mother’s house, I could drink all I wanted because I was alone most of the time. There was really nothing wrong with that as far as I was concerned. And when I was at my father’s house, he always had Valium around. He’d say, ‘Here, take this, it will calm you down.’ So I started taking it on my own.”
Alan’s race through an abused childhood, accelerated by a growing dependency on alcohol, has left him with a perpetual squint, shoulders frozen forward against an errant hand-slap, a swollen prostate, urinary infection and double hernia — maladies that would be considered premature in men three times his age. “The doctor was giving me all these powerful medicines,” he says, “but finally he said, ‘The best thing I can tell you is to go into therapy. It’s like an ulcer with you.’ “
“Do you consider this therapy?” Anna asks.
“Yeah, well, I’m still confused,” Alan says. “But I’m starting to realize a lot more. I can see now that my life has been in a big rush, both physically and mentally. And I can see that, although I first started drinking just to be accepted by my father, I kept building up excuses about why I was drinking. After a while I couldn’t get to sleep unless I had a drink, and when I was going to temple, I always felt if I had something to drink maybe I could express my feelings better. But my family, if you can call it a family … I don’t know what to do about that. I don’t know what will happen if I live with my mother. And if I live with my father, he’ll probably just try to push booze down my throat again. According to him, that’s his precious thing. To share it with me must be some kind of honor. I guess.”