I remember clearly the first time my relationship with alcohol was brought into question. It was my senior year in high school, and a group of us had been going to the lake on the weekends. For me, going to the lake meant sun, fun and of course, a cooler full of beer. After many weekends in a row packing up and heading to the lake, one of my friends asked if we should take a break from the beer. She asked if we really needed to have a cooler of beer every. single. time.
My first reaction was to laugh and say that was ridiculous! I mean we were teenagers. This was completely normal behavior for eighteen-year-olds. But somewhere, deep down, I had a momentary pause, and I wondered if she might be onto something. Part of me knew, even at age eighteen, that we were perhaps overdoing it. I rationalized my way out of the uneasy feeling by telling myself we were young and had the rest of our lives to be boring.
When I was in high school, my grandmother died from alcoholism. No one really told me that was her cause of death, but she drank and smoked heavily for years, and her poor body just gave out. It wasn’t until much later that I learned addiction has a genetic component. No one mentioned that. My eighteen-year-old perspective was that she was old (only seventy-three) and surely, when it was time, I could “reel it back in ” and drink normally. I would never be like her. After all, I had a lifetime ahead of me, and I could change my ways later. Or so I thought.
Young Adults and Substance Abuse
With the mentality of the young and foolish, I went to college thinking I had forever to be “serious and mature” (i.e., responsible). So, I barreled headfirst into a frenzied fall of Greek life, football games, and horrible hangovers. I found the “fun” people (the ones that drank a lot), and we had a grand old time. Until, again, someone gave me a reason to look at my drinking.
I had been semi-dating this guy, who I had a huge crush on, when he suddenly quit calling. This was the 80s, so I would literally sit in the dorm room waiting for the phone to ring. Finally, I gathered the courage to call and ask him what went wrong. He said, and I will never forget the embarrassment I felt, that I drank too much and he didn’t enjoy my company anymore. The awful sting of guilt and shame became a regular theme in my life. I wondered if there was something wrong with me.
I wish so badly that others had come forward and shared their concerns with me. Instead I found out later that people were talking behind my back, but no one said anything to ME. I will always wonder if I had the education, would I have made an effort to try new ways of doing things. Perhaps if a peer had approached me with love and concern, it could have helped me forge a new path. Would it have made a difference? In my heart I believe it would have saved me years of struggle. I really do. That is why I will not stop talking and trying to share the information that would have helped me back then.
It’s Never Too Early
Please listen: it is NEVER TOO EARLY to assess your relationship with alcohol. Trust your gut that maybe there is another way of doing things. A nudge in the right direction, some practical advice, and the right approach may have planted a seed that could help me later down the road.
I envision the world talking about substance use disorder (SUD) prevention the same way we discuss Cancer prevention. For example, If you don’t want to get sick, these are the things to look for and avoid. If you begin to notice symptoms, take action! Don’t wait until stage 4 (rock bottom or death).
I hear all the time in 12-step programs that we are born this way. I don’t think that’s true for everyone. I wish someone had explained to me that if I binge drink, and I have a lot of addiction and mental health issues in my family that I was playing Russian Roulette. I am a smart girl, and at least I would have been armed with knowledge and could have possibly made better choices.
Talking About Substance Misuse with Your Family
I get it! Substance misuse is a tricky subject to bring up. I even find it hard to bring up, and it is my life’s passion! I can only imagine how difficult it must be for the average joe to bring it up with someone they are worried about. But I tend to think of information as a gift.
I send my adult children stats, stories, and information about substance use disorder and the myriad of co-occurring mental health issues on a regular basis. I have no idea if they read them all, but I will never stop sending or talking to them about it. I tell them what to look for, how to talk to a friend, and what they need to notice about their own drinking.
Will this save them from having a substance use disorder? Only time will tell, but at least they are educated, and if they do notice they are having a problem, they may possibly ask for help or change their trajectory before things get too bad. That is my hope, and I do believe prevention works if done correctly. Peer-to-peer support also works well as people are more likely to identify and listen to someone who has shared experiences.
Why People Don’t Talk About Substance Misuse
These are some of the understandable but misguided reasons I often hear for why people don’t talk to their family/friends about substance abuse:
- My kid knows how to drink safely.
- I did not.
- My kid or friend would never take a pill. They are too smart, too athletic, too (fill in the blank)
- I never thought I would take pills either, but I did. Using drugs or alcohol in excess clouds your judgement and can introduce opportunities to take stronger, more dangerous substances.
- It’s just a phase. They will grow out of it.
- That’s what I thought. That’s what my parents thought. It only got worse. Sharing your concerns about someone’s substance use use may help them adjust before it progresses into substance use disorder.
- Kids will be kids. We did this and so should they.
- It is not the same anymore. Today’s drugs are are laced with Fentanyl and Xylazine, and taking a pill one time could mean death. (See more on this in the Resources section below)
- I can’t say anything to my friend. I am doing the same thing.
- Don’t compare. It is different for every person. Follow your gut.
- If I say something, I will lose my friend/child/parent.
- If you don’t, you may lose them forever. If they do have an SUD, they may not act like it, but they will be grateful for the offer to help.
- My loved one will think I am judging them and will shut me out.
- Deep down they know this is said out of love. Once they are better, they will thank you.
Resources for Talking About Substance Abuse Prevention
I wish someone would have really dug in and found out the truth about the life I was living. I did not know how to ask for help but so desperately needed it. Being proactive and bringing it up might be the opening your loved one is waiting for. If you are uncomfortable, find a peer to approach them. Just don’t give up!
Keep trying. Keep talking. You never know who might hear, listen and change the way they are living. We have to go upstream. We can’t wait for rock bottom. For many, that is too late.
Youturn Health offers education, therapeutic digital help, and peer coaching based on lived experience. Our platform was created for the very purpose of meeting people where they are.
Other resources include:
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): https://www.samhsa.gov; 800-662-4357: Learn more about substance abuse prevention and mental health support, find treatment, and get stats that illustrate the severity of substance abuse and mental health issues.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): https://nida.nih.gov/; 301-443-6245. Read scientific research on substance use and addiction.
More on the link between Fentanyl and Xylazine and party drugs/pills from NIDA: Research has shown xylazine is often added to illicit opioids, including fentanyl, and people report using xylazine-containing fentanyl to lengthen its euphoric effects. Most overdose deaths linked to both xylazine and fentanyl also involved additional substances, including cocaine, heroin, benzodiazepines, alcohol, gabapentin, methadone, and prescription opioids.
For more information on substance misuse, please visit our Substance Misuse Resources page.
Elizabeth McKissick is the Director of Communications at Youturn Health. Elizabeth has been in recovery for substance use disorder for 16 years and is a strong advocate for sharing her story in the hopes of helping others struggling with dependency and misuse.