Last year I was lucky enough to interview Richard Capriola on our You Learn You Turn podcast to touch on a wide range of issues dealing with adolescent Substance Use Disorders (SUDs). I do not look back at my life with regret but with a keen interest in discovering strategies that may help people course correct way before hitting “rock bottom.” His book The Addicted Child: A Parent’s Guide to Adolescent Substance Abuse is a must-have resource for any parent.
Would Things Have Been Different?
Would I have struggled with a Substance Use Disorder if I had the knowledge listed below? If I had the straight up facts on SUD, rather than no talk at all, if I had excelled in something that built my self-esteem, or if someone had just taken the time to have a conversation with me about what was going on? We will never know for sure, but my gut tells me things may have been different.
I began experimenting with alcohol around age 15. It was a rough go at first, and I spent many nights feeling sick because in an effort to get drunk, I chugged beer and shot liquor. I was told by my sister and other older teens that the point was to get drunk, so I never pretended to drink for any other reason. Finally, I got the hang of it and could usually get drunk without feeling sick. I viewed this as an achievement.
I believe I cared just enough about getting in trouble with my parents to keep me from drinking on a regular basis. So, like most of my friends, we would save up and binge drink on the weekends. However, when my parents pulled out of the dorm parking lot at University of Alabama, it was game on! I often say I wouldn’t change anything about my story because living a sober life has blessed me with clarity and a purpose which I know is a direct result from my struggle. However, I have three children (two young adults and one teen). I would love to save them from years of strife if possible, so I am constantly telling them how easy it is to slip into addiction without even realizing it. I will continue to write about going upstream as well as helping those that are drowning. But there are some key things I wish I had known back when I was just beginning my dance with mood altering substances.
1. Genetics play a role
I have alcoholism on both my mother’s and father’s side of the family. I remember well watching my grandmother, “Pama,” smoke her long Salem Menthols and carrying her jug of Rhine wine around. My family all laughed and rolled their eyes, but we never talked about it. No one said, “Hey, if you binge drink every week, you could end up like that.” I was clueless that I was actually setting myself up from the start. There was so much shame and stigma that we put alcoholics in a category as “those people.”
According the NIDA: “Family studies that include identical twins, fraternal twins, adoptees, and siblings suggest that as much as half of a person’s risk of becoming addicted to nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs depends on his or her genetic makeup.”
I tell my children every chance I get that they are playing Russian Roulette with alcohol. While I don’t expect any of them to be teetotalers, I make them uber aware of how they are already predisposed. I firmly believe education about addiction, including the genetics component, would have been helpful had I known about it earlier.
2. Have something that you can do well other than funnel a beer. Find a hobby, get outside, learn a sport, play music.
I know that sounds like a given but for some it’s not. When I drank, I had immediate confidence, I fit in, I was likable. It was the social lubricant I needed and immediately made me feel a part of: Accepted and relaxed.
I wonder if I had something other than alcohol to give me that self-esteem, would I have been more loyal to my hobby than drinking?
I wish my parents had forced me to play a sport, stick with piano, run outside – anything that I could call my own and be proud of. I tried a lot of things but never stuck with any of it. I wish I felt good about myself in another area besides my social life which involved drinking. My lack of self-confidence played a huge role in my need to take the edge off. Maybe if I had another activity or something that made me feel good about myself, I would have spent less time trying to fit in.
I try to hammer this into my kids by telling them to find one thing they enjoy – to call their own – and go to that when they are stressed or need an outlet. It could be playing a musical instrument, exercise, art, or just taking walks while listening to music. Engaging in activities that increase my sense of well-being is the key to my sobriety now. I only learned that once I quit drinking, so my nature and my nurture seemed to be set up against me from the start.
That old saying “nature or nurture” might be better phrased “nature and nurture” because research shows that a person’s health is the result of dynamic interactions between genes and the environment. For example, both genetics and lifestyle factors—such as diet, physical activity, and stress—affect high blood pressure risk. NIDA research has led to discoveries about how a person’s surroundings affect drug use in particular. For example: “A community that provides healthy after-school activities has been shown to reduce vulnerability to drug addiction, and data show that access to exercise can discourage drug-seeking behavior, an effect that is more pronounced in males than in females.”
3. Asking for guidance does not mean you have to quit drinking, go to rehab, feel ashamed, keep it a secret or think it’s too late to change.
Literally, the only ending I knew for someone who needed help was Meg Ryan in When a Man Loves a Woman. It’s a terribly depressing movie and certainly not the way it has to be. Educate yourself, learn about the disease, have some guard rails set for times when you feel you have lost control. If you are struggling, think you are drinking too much, or just don’t feel quite right, you can ask someone you trust for help or guidance. Maybe talk to a therapist trained in addiction or someone you know that has quit drinking. Just don’t wait. You know what it feels like to drink too much and feel regret. Follow that regret, follow your gut, ask for help. I wish my parents or someone who loved me had the skills and knowledge to get me talking or let me feel safe enough to share what was going on.
Where I’m At Now
Would this advice have saved me 15 + years of heartache? Who knows. I really don’t care. I am ok with how my life turned out. But if these tips help one or two people avoid years of misery, it is worth me rewinding the clock and investigating strategies that might have helped me course correct.
Our Youturn Health platform is a wealth of information from education to lessons on how to change behaviors and much more. I wish we had this as a resource 15 years ago, but our struggles are the reason we created the platform.
Elizabeth McKissick is the Director of Communications at Youturn Health. Elizabeth has been in recovery for substance use disorder for more than 15 years and is a strong advocate for sharing her story in the hopes of helping others struggling with dependency and misuse.