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.”
Alan is a walking case history of the myriad theories about why and how a person becomes an alcoholic. A medical doctor would say that because his father is an alcoholic. Alan has a genetic predisposition toward alcoholism and was in fact well along toward inheriting his father’s disease before he quit drinking. A sociologist would say that Alan’s childhood environment, in which his attitudes about the use of alcohol were formed, was the source of his self-abuse. A child psychologist would say that the physical and mental torture Alan suffered at the hands of his parents and baby sitter encouraged him to turn to alcohol for escape.
Pile theory upon theory and you end up with Alan’s physical ailments. Pick a theory and you have any of the other twenty teenagers who attend the free Saturday-morning clinic, either by order of the juvenile courts or on the urging of their schools, churches or families. Some attend the clinic because they have alcoholic parents and are worried about “catching” the disease. Their reasons for drinking are as diverse as those of the millions of other American teenagers who get into trouble because of excessive alcohol consumption, as well as the 10 million adult Americans whose lives are debilitated because of their addiction.
Few of these kids are true alcoholics. Most have not been drinking long enough to work through the three- to twenty-year addictive cycle and develop the morbid symptoms of the disease: loss of control of drinking, liver disease, blackouts and physical dependence. Even the term “problem drinker” — a euphemism for a middle-stage alcoholic — is reluctantly applied to young abusers. Teenage problem drinking is acute rather than chronic. Most young people drink on binges, as infrequently as once or twice a month. But others cross the invisible threshold: what starts out as a universal rite of passage progresses into a psychological dependency, to the point where alcohol is used for so-called adult purposes: to relax, counter social isolation and deal with a general lack of meaning in life. And the chemical distortion of young minds, already grappling with the traumas of emerging sexuality and identity, often results in problems with parents and teachers or possibly vandalism, homicide and suicide. The greatest toll is measured in human lives: every day, twenty to twenty-five persons between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four die on American highways in alcohol-related traffic accidents.
Teenage drinking is hardly a new phenomenon, nor has the number of teenagers who drink increased substantially over the past decade. What is new is the quantities that some teenagers are consuming while using other drugs. A decade ago, 10 percent of teenagers between the ages of fourteen and seventeen were considered acute problem drinkers. Today, that figure has doubled, bringing the total to 3.3 million, according to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
By some definitions, the first stage of alcoholism is reached when drinking begins to profoundly affect how the youth functions in society. Early drinking patterns are often predictive of problems with alcohol later in life. An HEW report, prepared by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), attributes the increased abuse to a new generation of women who drink and to a general trend in American society toward the heavier use of alcohol. Others blame its availability and social acceptance, citing the lowering of the drinking age in half of the states in the early Seventies, when it seemed inappropriate to draft eighteen-year-olds yet deny them a drop.
Alan,” Anna says, “look around and pick out those who remind you of the people who are upsetting you now.”
Alan had just finished talking about the foster homes he has been bounced between during the past few months while his parents fight over his custody. He rises hesitantly and shuffles, hands in his pockets and eyes on the floor, toward the middle of the ring of chairs.
“I don’t know,” he says, looking at no one. “These people are like the only friends I have. But, well, for my father, I guess it would be Don. He comes on kinda strong.”
Don, a 150-pound former high-school lacrosse player with buckteeth and tinted glasses, rises and strides to the center of the room, obviously enjoying the honor. Next week, a few days after his eighteenth birthday, Don will report to army boot camp. There is nothing, he says, that can keep him in the sleepy town in which he grew up. His father, whom he was once close to, is an alcoholic.
“Patty, I guess you know Don pretty well, so you could be my mother.”
Patty, Don’s fifteen-year-old cousin, is chain-smoking Marlboros, the back of her head pressed against the concrete wall. She is upset with Don, not only because she feels he is abandoning his family during a troubled time, but because he beat the ever-living hell out of his younger brother the night before. Don was drunk.
Patty joins Alan and her cousin in the middle of the room. Alan selects Ellie as his foster mother and Mark, a skinny fourteen-year-old, as his foster father. Mark has been in the program since last May, when his parents found out he had been truant for six weeks. His mother was undergoing detoxification and his father worked, so Mark had decided to take a vacation from school. Mostly he drank and played with the guns he owns. Mark is a late bloomer, embarrassed by it and desperately trying to conceal his high-pitched voice. He speaks with a nervous catch, as though he is awaiting the imminent hormonal assault that will cause his voice to plummet bassward.
“I guess Terry could be the social worker.”
Terry, wearing overalls and a cap, makes a move to rise, goes limp, then strains to get on her feet. This is her first appearance at the clinic in a month. Her session with Quaaludes and vodka the night before took place at the race track, where she works as a groom. Terry has been on her own since the age of fifteen, when she ran away from home and joined an itinerant race-track crowd in California. A year ago she spent four months in the hospital for addiction and attended the Saturday clinics until her disappearance last month. Her cap, pulled low over her forehead, is a symbol of her current lifestyle, according to her counselors. When she’s sober, she never wears it.
“I guess, Lenny … you’ve been in trouble enough. You can be the judge.”
A tall, sinewy eighteen-year-old with thick, curly hair, Lenny is something of a legend in the program — a tough-drinking, rebellious streetfighter held up by the hospital’s counselors as a wrong kid gone right. He has attended the clinic since his release from the hospital last August, in accordance with his probation.
“Yeah, I’ll be the judge,” Lenny says with a Bronx accent. “Matter of fact, I’m going to enjoy this.”
“Then call your court to order,” Anna prods.
“Yeah, sure,” he says, shifting his weight from foot to foot. “So what’s going on here?”
“This kid’s been fucked up by his mother,” yells father-Don. Then, more viciously: “Look at him, how he stands there, how fucked up he is. He should come live with me.”
“It’s his father’s drinking that did it,” says mother-Patty. “He’s the one to blame. The kid’s not safe with his father.”
“Then how come he’s got a child-abuse case against you?” says Don, smirking.
Anna, hovering outside the group, whispers in Ellie’s ear and she steps into the fray. “I’m sure Alan would prefer to live with us while this is being decided,” foster mother-Ellie says. “Judge, you should give him to us.”
“Well, I don’t know.” Judge Lenny folds his arms.
“Yeah,” adds Mark, the foster father. “We could make a nice home for him.”
Jim, a counselor in training, crouches behind Alan. “None of you could give a shit about me,” he yells over Alan’s shoulder. “You’re all just doing a great big number on my head.”
“It’s his mother that’s fucking his head,” yells Don.
“It’s his father.”
“It’s all of you,” yells Jim, speaking up for Alan. “None of you could care what I think.”
Anna walks behind Patty and whispers in her ear. Patty grabs Alan’s arm. “He’s my son and he should live with me,” she cries, yanking Alan across the floor.
“He wants to live with me,” says Don, almost dislocating Alan’s other arm.
“No, with me,” cries Mark as he grabs Alan, then pushes him toward Ellie. Ellie echoes Mark and pushes him to Don and Don to Patty. Patty throws him over to Lenny, who passes him on to Terry. “Why don’t you just let him decide?” Terry says wearily.
“Yeah, that’s it,” Alan says somberly, dampening the good fun the others had while tossing him around. “I just get treated like a piece of meat. I gotta stand up for myself, do what’s right for me. I can’t let these people’s problems screw up my life.”
Lenny sits down, spurning the ritual group hug, and lights a cigarette. “These people really ain’t my kind, you know what I mean?” he tells a counselor. “Like, if I didn’t have to be here I wouldn’t hang out with these people at all.”
Most of the people Lenny used to hang out with are in jail. They didn’t have Lenny’s luck in eluding the law or parents who were willing, as his were, to pay the clinic the thousands of dollars required to exorcise a polydrug habit. Lenny was better at “the chase” than his friends. “Next to sex, there’s nothing better than ditching a cop when you’re fucked up,” he says. “That and fightin’. Keeps the adrenalin up.”
Lenny started stealing liquor from his father when he was nine. He’d take it to a park, share it with friends, get wasted. By the time he was twelve, he was carrying a flask of vodka to school, getting in fights with teachers and dealing pot in the corridors to pay for his booze. When he was fourteen, Lenny was kicked out of his fifth school for threatening a teacher with a knife.
One day, during the month-long wait for a spot in one of the overcrowded state reform schools, he was lolling around his old schoolyard and his buddies decided to roll a kid — a “jock” or “faggot,” as nondrinkers are called in high-school parlance — who had complained to the principal about the drunken hoods outside the school. Lenny was arrested after nearly beating the boy to death. At his court appearance a week later, he fought with his father and later was sentenced to eighteen months in a school for delinquents in upstate New York. It was there that he began his most excessive bout with alcohol and other drugs.
“Every night we used to go off the grounds to a liquor store across the street,” he says proudly. “We’d get somebody to buy us a bottle. We even had it fixed to score just about any kind of dope there, too. We’d bring back joints, acid, speed. We could steal Krylon, that spray-paint stuff, from the wood shop and spray it into bags and sniff it. You’d trip your brains out, particularly if you were drunk.
“I had fun at that place. It was really the joint. I could go to school whenever I felt like it, drink whenever I felt like it. We used to party with the counselors all the time. They were just guys off the street and they tried to be hip to us, make jokes about drugs to let us know they were cool. Before I left, me and some other guys got loaded and broke into this new infirmary they were building and knocked down all the walls. They had to send some of the girls home because they were all getting pregnant. That’s what reform school is like — a big party.”
Lenny was sent back to his Bronx haunts, pending placement in another school. He was home a week when he was arrested for breaking and entering: “That was ridiculous. We used to rob stores and stuff, but I never got caught. This time I was just going over to collect some money a guy owed me. He didn’t answer his door but I figured he was home, so I crawled through a window. It turned out he wasn’t home, so I left. But some guy saw me crawling in the window and I got arrested.”
Lenny was sent to another state school for a year, then to a rehabilitation center, but the program specialized in alcoholism treatment and couldn’t handle his polydrug problem. The Long Island hospital was his next stop. He spent six months there.
“The first two months there I drank. It was the same as in the reform school — a liquor store right across the street. So I could hop the fence at night, get a bottle and drink in the woods. I kept a bottle in my room so I could get to sleep at night. The best part was walking around high all the time figuring you were faking everybody out. Then one night I was drinking on the roof and fell off. I don’t remember a thing about that night. I just remember waking up in detox and having to go through all that again. Finally, I said, ‘This is stupid. I’m going to be in the hospital or in jail all my life.’ So I just quit.”
Lenny was released from the hospital last August, now works in a gas station and lives near the hospital in a furnished apartment. He has thought of trying to get the equivalent of a high-school diploma, but can’t muster the concentration to look at a book.
“I get bored real fast,” he says. “I open a book and I automatically feel like I should be out doing something. It’s still real hard for me to calm down. I go out to a couple clubs that don’t allow booze, and it’s all right. But mostly I concentrate on girls. I know if I get high, I’ll never get back. I feel like I don’t have enough … well, not guts, but willpower, maybe. I figure if I get high I’ll stay high until I die.
“And I don’t feel like dying.”
Alcoholism can afflict anyone who drinks — but certain population groups show a greater incidence of the disease. The largest rate of alcohol abuse is found in urban areas, particularly in the northeast and on the Pacific Coast. Among ethnic groups, American Indians have the highest proportion of alcohol-related problems. Youthful problem drinking appears greater among upper-income groups than lower, and the majority of teenage abusers are either the children of alcoholics, come from a broken home or have suffered physical or sexual abuse during childhood.
Statistics on alcohol abuse:
Last year, the average American drank 22.4 gallons of beer, 1.85 gallons of wine and two gallons of hard liquor. Eighty percent of the country’s nearly 100 million drinkers have less than two drinks a day. The other twenty percent drink nearly three-quarters of all alcoholic beverages sold. •
The manufacturing of beverage alcohol is a $36 billion-a-year industry. Excise taxes on retail sales constitute the third largest source of federal revenue. Taxes to all levels of government totaled $10.1 billion in 1977. •
Alcohol abuse cost the United States nearly $43 billion in 1975, including $19.6 billion in lost production and $12.7 billion in health and medical costs. One out of every five dollars spent in hospitals goes toward alcohol-related problems. •
Liver cirrhosis ranks as the sixth most common cause of death in the United States, with up to ninety-five percent of the cases estimated to be alcohol-related. •
Alcohol is implicated in a third of all suicides, half of all homicides, half of all rapes, three-quarters of all robberies and half of all fatal car crashes, or eleven percent of the deaths in 1975.
“If that many deaths were related to other drugs, everybody would be terribly excited,” says Loran Archer, acting director of NIAAA. “With those kinds of results, and with the addiction rate at a minimum of ten percent, you would have a very difficult time getting alcohol on the market if it were introduced today.”
Alan, Flushed and dizzy from the jostling, sits down in his red plastic chair. The room grows quiet; the only sound is the stifled sobbing coming from the corner of the room. A counselor in training walks over to the freckled, green-eyed girl with thick dark hair who has sat with her coat on throughout the meeting. The counselor takes Jeanne’s hand, offers soothing words; the girl withdraws her hand.
“It’s just that I know what it’s like to go through all that crap,” Jeanne says. “It’s tough to be on your own when you’re that old, to have your parents say, ‘Get lost. There’s nothing we can do with you.’ “
Jeanne is a robust, usually gregarious seventeen-year-old, and it’s her first session at the clinic. Eight months ago she was released from a school for troubled girls and was labeled as incorrigible and a troublemaker. She now works at a McDonald’s and lives in a one-room apartment in the Long Island town in which she grew up. She agreed to attend the clinic as a favor to a friend, who told Jeanne that her drinking problem was becoming serious.
“But I don’t think I’m an alcoholic,” she says, wiping her eyes. “My problem is that I love to drink. It affects my life, because I spend all my money and also because I have hassles with a lot of other people, but it’s not the drinking. It’s their feelings about me drinking that makes the hassles.”
Barely suppressed laughter rises from the group. Mark snickers. “That’s classic,” he says. “I’ve heard that a hundred times before. My father would tell my mother it was her fault he was drinking. Like, if she didn’t get upset by his drinking then there wouldn’t be any problem.”
“Yeah,” says Don, “denial and lies. That’s what alcoholism is about.”
“Fuck you,” Jeanne says, her eyes blazing. “What do you know about lies? I sit here for an hour and watch you spin some guy around the room as if it’s going to solve all the lies and problems in his life. I listen to you bitch and moan about your parents never saying, ‘I love you.’ You want to know what a lie is? It’s my mother saying, ‘Jeanne, I’m sending you to the state school because I love you.’ Or it’s, ‘Jeanne, I can’t come take you home because I love you.’ “
“Why did your mother send you away?” Anna asks calmly.
“I don’t know. We just never got along.”
“When did you start drinking?” Jeanne sighs, crosses her legs and rests her head against the wall.
“When I was about twelve,” she says. “My mother went away to Europe for the summer. She took my little brothers with her and my father worked during the day so I could do whatever I wanted. My father was kind of a wimp; I could get over on him a lot and he always gave me lots of money. So for that whole summer I just hung out on this street around the block or had parties at my house. We’d get stoned and drunk all day. And when my mother came back, I wasn’t just going to give it up because she was around.”
Jeanne grew up in one of the middle-class housing developments that clot Long Island — self-contained enclaves in which every house looks like the one next to it, save for the color of the shutters and the location of the garage, and every street is a cul-de-sac. Her parents were divorced shortly after her mother’s pilgrimage to Europe, about the same time Jeanne started hanging out in the bars along the harbor, where “everybody’s parents were always partying and you could always find a place to stay.” Jeanne started mingling with a motorcycle gang, and at the age of thirteen ran away to live with one of its members.
“The guy used me like crazy,” she says. “He thought I was eighteen. I used to try real hard to make myself look older then, with eye shadow, short hair and all. We’d just lay around and get fucked up all day long. Then my mother found out where I was. She tried to have the guy arrested, but he split.”
Jeanne went before a juvenile court, was placed on probation and for the next year attended school sporadically. “Most of the time I’d just hang out outside of school and wait for the guys to have off second period. I used to get up early just to get there, take the early bus to school and the late bus home. I figured out that if I didn’t show up at classes the first day of school I’d never be missed. But I never cut art class.”
Jeanne ran away again, but a guy she was traveling with was arrested for shoplifting and Jeanne wound up in a county children’s shelter. A week later a place was found for her in a reform school, the same one Lenny was sent to.
“That place was really crazy. They did all these psychological workups on me, with ink blots and like that. They even used to take my blood pressure when I was asleep. There were drugs everywhere, girls getting pregnant. This one lesbian wanted me to go out with her, but I’m not into that, so she jumped me one night in the shower. The next day she set my room on fire, burned all my clothes and stuff. So I borrowed a shirt and hitched home. My mother threw a fit, of course. The last person she wanted to see was me. I got sent to the shelter again and they tried to convince me to go back, thinking all these horror stories were in my head, that these things could not go on in one of their schools. I said there was no way they’d get me to go back there, but my mother said there was no way I was going to live with her either, so they sent me to this other school.
“When I read about that place, I thought it sounded all right. Before I got there I thought it was going to be like this little Walt Disneyland and we were all going to drive around in little cars and go to the little supermarket with all the kids. It was supposed to be run by the so-called citizens, but it was really run by the staff with the citizens as puppets. It was a head game; they had a little citizens government, so that if you saw your friends doing something wrong and didn’t say something, you were screwed with them. And these are your friends who are like sentencing you to three weeks in jail because your lawyer was also your friend and just lost your case for you, and the prosecutor might be your roommate. It was pretty nutty.
“I did real well there for eighteen months, had a lot of respect and stuff. I wasn’t drinking. I didn’t take any dope, lost a lot of weight and felt real good about myself. Then my time was up; I was supposed to go home and appear in court, but they wanted an extension. While I was hassling that out, a friend sent me a tab of acid, put it behind the stamp. I gave it to another girl there and she ratted. So they decided I’d have to stay another six months. Finally, I just said, ‘I’m not following your silly rules anymore.’ They’d keep putting me in their little jail there. You’re not actually behind bars, you just lose all your privileges and have to walk in a line and wear knee socks and all that garbage. But I wouldn’t cooperate with that, either. Finally they locked me up in a room for about five days and wouldn’t give me anything — no clothes or anything. There was no doorknob on my side of the room, just a mattress on the floor. They used to look at me through this big window and I would refuse to flip out. I was flipping out, quite honestly, but I’d sing and fantasize about stuff. Finally they got really annoyed when I ripped the zipper off my pants and drew on the walls, just for something to do. They called my mom and told her I was incorrigible and they couldn’t do anything with me. My mom said, ‘Well, I’m going to Puerto Rico. You’ll just have to lock her up and keep her there until I get back.’ “
Jeanne was eventually sent home, went to court, and was told by the judge that she would no longer be treated as a juvenile. Shortly thereafter, her mother disowned her and she now lives on her father’s child-support payments and the little she makes at her job.
“That’s all I ever wanted,” Jeanne says. “I just like to be left alone. I don’t want anybody telling me what to do, not even guys I date. They say, ‘Come on, Jeanne, let’s live together,’ but I know there will just be hassles because I stay out till five in the morning at the bar. This one bar is like my home. It’s where I keep my medicine.”
Jeanne lets out a long breath and lights a cigarette. Anna breaks the silence. “Do you feel like you missed out on anything?” she asks.
“Sure,” Jeanne says. “I missed out on a lot. I’m still missing out. I missed out because, although it’s my own doing that I’m in this position, I’m still seventeen years old, even though nobody knows it. My friends’ biggest problem is that they have to go to school. They don’t have to worry about taxes, gas and electric or getting a job or a car.”
“Do you ever see your father?” Anna asks.
“Yeah, I just saw him last week. The latest thing is that my mother is sending my brothers to live with my cousins in Phoenix. My brothers are the only people I care about. So my father says he’s going to leave the state, because he doesn’t want to pay any more alimony. He says there’s nothing left here for him anymore.
“I guess I’m the nothing that’s left behind.”
With the establishment of the NIAAA in 1970 has come a spate of research on drinking role-models and their effects on young people. Because the average eighteen-year-old has spent 15,000 hours in front of a television set — 4,000 more than he has in the classroom — television and other media are often blamed as alcohol’s greatest promoters. Alcohol is touted as the drug of choice in radio and television commercials and on sitcoms and cartoons, in which drunken behavior is considered funny.
In many high schools, alcohol education is provided in the health curriculum, but more is taught about the repeal of prohibition than about alcohol’s potentially addictive and destructive properties. “Any money that’s spent on prevention goes for assembly programs in which an alcoholic gets up and does his drunkalogue for the kids,” says an alcoholism counselor in Dallas. “They all feel sorry for him, but they don’t believe anything like that is going to happen to them.”
To counter drinking role-models, NIAAA is planning to triple the amount of money it spends on education for young people. Several states are increasing local funding for pilot education programs, and even the liquor industry is attempting to help solve the problem. Public-service messages developed by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States received nearly $4 million worth of broadcast time during National Football League games in 1978. The United States Brewer’s Association has budgeted $2.6 million for alcohol education for youths in an attempt to curtail movements to ban advertising of its products in the broadcast media.
Jeanne,” Anna asks, “what do you think you could do that would improve your situation?”
Jeanne draws hard on her cigarette and exhales a cloud of blue smoke. “I don’t know,” she says. “My mother says she’ll see me again if I go through a detoxification program. She thinks drinking is screwing up my life. I guess everybody here has heard that before.”
Mark, his right leg twitching madly, interjects, “Well, not all of us are here because we have drinking problems.”
“Yeah,” adds Don, “a lot of us are here because of our families.”
“Yes,” Anna says, “but we’re all familiar with the problem. There isn’t anybody here who hasn’t had a problem either with their own drinking or their family’s, is there?”
Carol, a tall, slender seventeen-year-old with a round face, liquid brown eyes and short, flaxen hair, raises her hand tentatively. Next to her sits Jill, her best friend, who is tapping Carol’s thigh, encouraging her to tell the group about her boyfriend and how his drinking is affecting her.
“This is my first time,” Carol says shyly. “Jill got me to come. I don’t have any trouble with my own drinking or anything like that, and my parents just drink socially. But this guy I’ve been going out with for three years, Rob, he’s just been drinking more and more.”
Jill glances at her friend. “It’s like I’m about three months ahead of Carol,” she says. “Our boyfriends are best friends, too, and I had to break up with mine a few months ago after going through the same thing.”
“What happens to your boyfriend when he drinks?” Anna asks.
“I hate him when he drinks,” Carol says, less nervous now. “He either gets real childish or real aggressive. He always drinks with his friends, and I just get pushed aside. He has to have this big macho image in front of them. And last night I told him I was going to this meeting, or maybe to an Alateen meeting, and he got real mad. He kept saying that he didn’t have a problem.”
“The weirdest part,” Jill adds, “is that you start going out with this one person and you end up with this other person. When we first started going out, we didn’t do that much drinking, but then we both started to go downhill and I straightened out and he didn’t.”
At the bottom of the hill for Jill was thirty-four ounces of vodka, which she drank in forty-five minutes in the woods that surround her high school. She remembers getting tangled in a thorn bush, then nothing until she woke up from a three-day coma in a hospital. She had attended three Alateen meetings before her accident to try to cope with her mother’s alcoholism (“My whole family on my mother’s side is alcoholic”) and has missed few meetings since. “My mother stopped drinking last year. It was right after my accident, and at about the same time it started getting bad with my boyfriend, so I just stayed.
“When I’d talk to my boyfriend about his drinking,” she continues, “he’d just sit there with this serious face and let me go through the whole thing, everything I learned at Alateen about the psychology and why you need it. Then at the end he’d just laugh. So I found myself going back to my former habit just to keep up with him, to keep him. But it’s not worth it. You look at your family and the way your friends are drinking and you’re thinking, you know, I could end up like that.”
“Are you dating anybody now?” Anna asks.
“Yeah,” Jill says glumly, “but he’s a big drinker, too. You know, they say people from alcoholic families are attracted to alcoholic people. It seems everybody I date ends up having a problem.”
“Maybe you’re looking for a father figure,” says Peter, a high-school junior with dark, curly hair.
“That’s not so farfetched,” Carol says to her friend. “You used to say you never had a relationship with your father.”
“Well,” says Jill, “it’s been better since he stopped. When I was younger, I didn’t really know what was going on. All I knew is that I could never bring kids over to the house because they might see my father strung out.”
I got this empty feeling; you know, when you’re kind of lying dead.” Peter leans forward again. “That’s the worst,” he says. “My father used to be an investment counselor, worked his ass off. But if you got home on like a Wednesday afternoon and the car was in the driveway, you knew something was up.”
“How did you feel about your father when he drank?” Anna asks.
“When I was young I didn’t know any different,” Peter says. “That was my father and that’s what he did. But then I got older and I developed this strong hatred and resentment toward him. It was his big thing to take me and my brother to a football game or something, and he’d always confront me in front of other people when he was really drunk. I didn’t even want to look at him because he couldn’t even function. My main feeling is that I was always scared stiff of him.”
“What were you afraid of?” Carol asks.
“I don’t know. I was always a perfectionist. I could never tell my father if I did something wrong. I’d just lie my way out of it. He’d fly off the handle or at least I was positive he would. I still can’t stomach doing something wrong. I can never say no to anybody. Maybe that comes out of my experiences at home.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like a couple of years ago,” Peter says, “when my father was drinking really heavily, he and my mother would have these huge arguments. And I’d always try to break them up. But the only thing that would happen is that they’d start arguing about me. So I thought I was the one to blame about the family not getting along.”
“I know what that’s like,” Jill says. “After my mother stopped drinking, my father kept up and he’d sit me down and tell me all his problems. He’d tell me marriage stinks and your mother this and your mother that. Then I’d go sit with my mother and she’d tell me all the problems about the marriage. It was like picking sides.
“When I first started drinking was when my parents started sobering up. But I look back on it all and I can see my mother and I were very close and always talking about my father’s problems. We were always saying, ‘Oh, he’s out drinking tonight and what a bastard,’ and it brought my mother and me very close. Then when my father sobered up it was like a big shock because now all of a sudden I was left out in left field somewhere and my mother and father were always together and talking and happy and everything was fine and they were going to their meetings together. I look back on it all and I think probably the only reason I was drinking was to get my mother’s attention. I got their attention all right. That’s when I had my accident.”
“I know what you mean,” Peter says. “I did the same thing. Except I thought I was being real smart. I always told my mother I was not going to drink, but getting stoned is different. That was my thing. I really knew how much I was into getting high and how much it had a hold on me when I tried to stop. Last summer I was down at the shore and I got this empty feeling, you know, when you’re kind of lying dead. I was fifteen and I was asking myself who I was. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. All I could think about was when I was going to get high.”
Carl, a short, redheaded boy with broad shoulders, looks at Peter. “Getting stoned, getting drunk, it’s all the same,” he says.
“It is and it isn’t,” Peter says. “When I tried to stop, it wasn’t the physical part that was so hard, it was the mental trip. I used to just stare at video games and pinball machines, thinking it was the most fascinating thing ever. After a while it really scared me. I couldn’t even read a book. Drinking has never been my main thing, but I think it’s possible that I have the disease inside of me, because I know I have an addictive personality.”
“I worry about that, too,” Carl says. “I figure either me or my little brother is going to catch the disease.”
“How do you deal with that?” Anna asks.
“I just try to control myself,” Carl says. “Like, last summer I was drinking every day down at the railroad tracks. Then I started going to Alateen and to this group and realized you can’t tell how you’re being affected by it. So I cut down. I get along really well with my mother when she’s sober, but when she’s drunk she’s an animal. When you know that about somebody real close to you, it makes you think about how you could end up sick like that, too.”
“For me,” Jill says, “I’ve just been really confused. I only drink once or twice a week now, but sometimes I can’t control it. There are so many factors involved. I’ve even gone to Alcoholics Anonymous a few times just to try to identify if I have a problem. At AA they say if you think you have a problem but don’t know, just quit for ninety days, then decide. I tried to do it, but I could only last for a week, then I’d drink on the weekend. The crowd I hang out with parties a lot and if I didn’t do it I’d lose all those friends.”
“It makes you think about what kind of friends you have, doesn’t it?” Peter says.
Before we leave,” Anna says, “let’s go around the room again. We’ve talked a lot about getting high today. Is there anything you can think of — anything you could do or somebody you could be — that would make you feel better than getting high? Let’s start with Alan.”
Alan fingers his crumpled manuscript, then looks at Anna. “I used to think I could be happy if my family would just straighten out,” he says. “That was the whole reason I was drinking, anyway. But that’s never going to happen. So I guess if somebody published my book, that’d be a lot better than getting drunk.”
“How about you, Don?”
The former high-school lacrosse player folds his arms. “I had a chance to be all-state last year,” he says. “That was all I ever wanted to be. But I tore up my knee. I don’t know. I’m just happy to be shipping out, to get the hell away from my family.” He glances quickly at his cousin. “Or from my old man, at least.”
“I don’t know,” she says, glowering. “Don just pisses me off. I don’t know.”
“How about you, Lenny?”
“Sex is better than getting high,” he says, smirking. “Except it don’t last as long. If I could get, like, two beautiful girls on a yacht and had $10,000 in my pocket, that’d be all right.”
“There’s this one college I really want to get into,” he says. “They told me I would have heard by now.”
“I don’t know,” she says, pulling her jacket tight around her waist. “I just really like getting drunk. I can’t think of anything better than that.”
Terry, dozing, opens her bloodshot eyes. “What?” she asks.
“What’s better than getting high?”
“Ain’t nothing better than getting high.”