When a doctor first told me to face the reality that I was an alcoholic, I offered my weakest rebuttal: “I’m 23,” I said, as though my age could magically change me from the person I knew I was: an alcoholic to the core. The doctor was nonplussed. She looked at her clipboard and then back at me. “Well, your liver panel results are what we’d expect to see from a middle-aged alcoholic. So…” She didn’t need to say any more. We both knew what she was saying: I was indeed an alcoholic and I needed to get sober, like, yesterday.
The fact is, there’s no age limit — young or old — for addiction. If anything, addiction skews to the very young. In Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy, David Sheff notes that, “The median age of initial drug use is fourteen, and 90 percent of those who become addicted begin using before the age of eighteen.” During their teen years, adolescents’ brains are hardwired for risk-taking behavior. Combine that with the increased use of harder drugs like methamphetamines or the prescription pain medicine OxyContin and kids are becoming addicted at younger ages than ever, Sheff writes.
Fortunately, young people are also getting sober. Author Catherine Ryan Hyde was so inspired by seeing young people in 12 step meetings that she based her novel The Year of My Miraculous Reappearance on a 14-year-old girl who gets sober. “I’ve shared the [12 step recovery] rooms with many brave teens over the years,” says Hyde. “I was close to 34 before I got clean and sober. I was 13 or 14 when I began drinking and using. What if my run had been two years instead of 20?”
While it’s easy to see how someone looking back might wish they had gotten sober in their teens, young adults struggling with addiction may not find getting help an easy decision to make. Pressure from friends, the normalization of adolescent addictive behaviors by family and a fear of standing out as different can prevent addicts from seeking help at any age, but these issues are especially pronounced in adolescence.
Lily,* a 25-year-old with six years of sobriety, began experimenting with drugs and alcohol when she was 14 and didn’t see anything unusual about it. “My friends partied too, and [at first] it seemed like the normal teenage experience,” she remembers. Gradually, though, there was a shift. “I promised myself I would stop. I tried switching from alcohol to drugs to have ‘more control,’” says Lily. Unlike her friends, though, once she started drinking or using, she couldn’t stop, regardless of the life-threatening consequences.
The myth that one can be “too young” to be an addict can be held, too, by parents of young adults, even as they try to get their child help. Says Lily, “My parents saw where drugs and alcohol took me and they wanted to get help. But once I had been sober a while, my mom had a hard time viewing me as an alcoholic.” Perhaps it’s the permanence of the term “alcoholic” or “addict” that’s so difficult for parents to accept. “She didn’t want me to use the way I had been before, but she didn’t understand that I couldn’t drink again, or why I would keep going to meetings after I got sober,” Lily says.
Adding to the perception that young people can’t be addicts is the reality that, unless you’re going to a specifically designated Young People’s Meeting, most of the people in the rooms are going to be adults. “When someone is brand-new [to recovery and 12 step groups] and is looking for a reason to believe they don’t belong, it would be easy to seize on age,” Hyde says. “Once we open up and start sharing, I think our similarities overcome our differences.”
So what should a young person struggling with addiction or trying to figure out of s/he is an alcoholic or addict know?
- You are the only person who can truly decide that you are, or aren’t, an addict. If everyone you hang out with drinks the same way you do, and your parents say it’s just a phase, but something feels wrong to you, it’s worth exploring that feeling.
- Seeking help, whether it’s through therapy, a 12 step program or a different path, isn’t an admission of alcoholism. Beginning a process of self-discovery is important for everyone to do, regardless of whether we’re addicted to a substance or a behavior.
- If you are an addict, your life isn’t over. In fact, it’s the beginning of a really wonderful new life: “I’ve spent my entire 20s so far sober,” Lily explains. “I turned 21 in sobriety, studied abroad, graduated college … I have accomplished things I never could have if I was still using.”
- Twelve-step meetings are wonderful, potentially life-saving and imperfect. Not everything everyone says to you is going to apply to you. Sometimes, people will say dumb things that don’t apply to anyone. Try not to let the few frustrating incidents influence your perception of the meeting as a whole. If you dislike a meeting, look around for others to try. There are Young People’s meetings, women-only and men-only meetings and meetings for gay and lesbian addicts, among others. Also, 12 step meetings are definitely not the only option. Programs like LifeRing are also available to help support your sobriety.
- Finally, and most important: You are not alone. There are others who have gone through this before you and want to help you through it. This is true no matter what path you take to get sober.
The myth that someone can be too young to be an alcoholic or addict has always been just that: a myth. Still, it’s less true now than it has ever been. It’s a misconception that must be corrected; the sooner we realize that teenagers and young adults definitely can be addicts, the sooner these young people can also be treated.