I met Blake* while my husband and I were interviewing contractors for some home repairs. As we considered who to hire, I asked Blake about the drug policy of his family’s business. It caught him off guard. I clarified the reason for my question. From my previous work as a addictions counselor, I know there is a lot of drug use in the construction industry, and I do not want someone impaired working on our home. Blake responded that they do not perform random screens as a standard practice, but he knows well what addiction looks like. He had confronted an employee on suspicion of drug use in the past, and fired him despite their friendship when a drug screen confirmed substance use.
The next time I saw Blake, he apologized for being caught off guard and shared that he himself is in recovery from an addiction to alcohol. His 9-year sober anniversary had recently passed. He enjoys talking to folks about recovery, so if I ever knew anyone who could benefit from a conversation, he asked that I let him know. Given the stigma associated with addiction, many folks are not as open to sharing their story. This was a gracious offer I wanted to accept. The idea for an article came later. After his family’s business completed the work on our home, I sat down to learn more about their experience.
As I listened to Blake’s story, so much of it was familiar. While personally his story, many factors echoed those I have heard from the hundreds of people I have worked with who have had a substance use disorder. The resounding theme was missed opportunities — for prevention, early intervention, and pro-active safeguards for the family business. While grateful for his recovery, I also felt sad to learn that their experiences with addiction had not motivated them to take greater measures to protect against relapse – both personally and professionally. I share this with you in hopes that if you can relate to missed opportunities in Blake’s and his family’s story, perhaps you will take advantage of similar opportunities in your own life or in the life of someone you love. To highlight how Blake’s experiences line up with what we know about the consequences of early alcohol use, I have made reference to research findings.
Like so many who later develop an addiction, Blake’s first buzz was at a single-digit age. He was 7 years old when he snuck and drank about half of a babysitter’s wine cooler. He noticed it made him feel different – “better than normal life.”
The average age at which an American boy has his first drink is 11; for a girl, the age is 13.1
While this was Blake’s first conscious decision to try alcohol, his first experiences with alcohol came even earlier in life, as his father would put beer in his bottle to help him sleep.
Drinking at a young age significantly increases the risk of alcohol problems later in life. 1
Although not an alcoholic according to Blake, Blake’s father himself was raised by an alcoholic, Blake’s grandfather, who later died of alcohol-related causes.
A teen with a sibling or parent who has an alcohol addiction is four times more likely to develop a problem with alcohol than someone without this family history. 1
Also like the stories of so many others, Blake’s first drunk occurred in early adolescence. At 11 years old, he “passed out hard” after repeatedly sneaking beer while refilling guests’ cups at his uncle’s keg party. Blake says his drinking started with this “defining moment” through which he learned “drinking is fun.” When asked how his dad and other adults responded to his getting drunk, Blake said that no one took it seriously. They simply laughed at his intoxicated state.
Talking to kids early and openly about the risks of drinking may reduce their chances of abusing substances. 1
In high school, Blake’s use became regular. Drinking alcohol was the “cool” thing to do. But while his friends were just beginning to experiment with beer, Blake was “ahead of the curve.”
Adults whose first drink was at age 14 or younger are more than seven times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder than those who waited until the legal drinking age to drink. 2
Liking that alcohol made him feel different and made having fun and socializing easier, Blake’s use increased during high school.
Teenagers who believe alcohol makes it easier to socialize tend to drink more than those who do not. 1
His use was sourced, in part, by the family liquor cabinet and included occasional use during the school day. When again asked how adults responded to his use, Blake said his dad viewed it as normal. Knowing his father would not give him a hard time, Blake chose to crash at his dad’s house when he was drunk, as opposed to his mom’s.
The risk of alcohol-related problems is greater when alcohol is readily available at home. 1
Despite a family history of addiction, Blake says that in high school, he did not have a clue about addiction. It was not on his radar. His first awareness of anything along the lines of addiction came in high school, when he identified in himself an “addictive personality.” “If I liked doing something, I was going to do a lot of it.”
Teens may be more vulnerable to addiction because the pleasure center of the brain matures sooner than areas of the brain that allow for impulse control and executive decision making. 1
At certain points, this self-awareness benefited him. When his doctor offered Ritalin to help him in school, Blake was conscious not to take it on a regular basis, because when he did, he took it in “mass amounts.”
At 18 years old, Blake caused a car accident that nearly killed him and two other people.
In all three of the leading causes of death for those aged 15 – 24 years (automobile crashes, homicides and suicides), alcohol is a primary factor.3
Despite being intoxicated at the time, he was not charged with DUI. Instead, he was charged with a lesser offense of careless driving and possession of alcohol by a minor.
In 2009, roughly 1/3 of drivers ages 21 to 24 who died in a car crash, had a blood alcohol level that exceeded the legal limit. 1
After the accident, Blake was required to complete an intensive outpatient alcohol and drug program. Finally, adults stepped in to ensure he experienced consequences as a result of his substance use, and Blake received education that helped him critically evaluate his relationship with alcohol. In response to the accident and the education, he quit using substances for a time. He admits, however, he may have thought even harder about his use if the consequence had been stiffer, such as a DUI charge.
Part one of this article has covered Blake’s experience with substances as an adolescent. In part two, we will visit Blake’s experiences with substances in early adulthood and begin to discuss their impact on his family’s business.
* While Blake was very generous to share his story for public use, to protect his privacy, his name has been changed.
- “Teenage Drinking,” HelpGuide.org, accessed 1/22/16
- 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings
- The Toll of Underage Drinking: Drunk driving, alcohol dependence, risky sexual behavior, and health consequences; Johns Hopkins Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, accessed 1/22/16